From gender identity to migration: cinema committed to social debate

Written by Gaizka Izagirre 30 May 2024
From gender identity to migration: cinema committed to social debate
´Varados´ (2019, Helena Taberna)

The seventh art has the power and ability to convey stories and realities from around the world. Abbas Kiarostami´s film ´Ta´m e guilass´ (1997), the story of a man who wants to commit suicide, was understood by an international audience despite its focus on a very specific area of Tehran. We need look no further than the film ´20,000 Species of Bees´: although set in a specific area, the central theme is so powerful it resonates globally - a local story with the capacity to generate debate on a global level. Basque cinema has many of its own characteristics, but there has been a trend in recent years. Numerous titles have emerged addressing social commitments including motherhood, sexual identity, abortion, feminism, the reality of the LGTBIQ+ community, sexual abuse, migration, poverty and disability. These films are set in a specific context but deal with universal themes. In the Basque Country, films committed to social debate are gaining greater prominence.

‘El método Arrieta’ (2013, Jorge Gil Munárriz)

The central theme of this documentary is the transformative power of communication on a particular reality. The film introduces us to Lourdes and Mentxu Arrieta, two sisters with functional diversity that prevents them from communicating. The two create their own special language, the Arrieta method. They use the movement of their irises to draw the letters of the alphabet, enabling them to communicate with each other and connect with the outside world. Emotions and feelings are the backbone of this documentary, but director Jorge Gil Munárriz steers clear of easy sentimentality, focusing instead on the day-to-day life of the two sisters. He also incorporates the photographic archives of Lourdes and Mentxu to enrich the narrative. The story of the Arrieta sisters, besides resonating internationally, has also helped others facing similar circumstances. The sisters have delivered several talks on the subject at both primary and secondary schools.

‘Mi pequeño gran samurai’ (2019, Arantza Ibarra)

Ekai Lersundi, a 16-year-old transgender boy born in Ondarroa, committed suicide in 2018 while struggling with the bureaucracy surrounding hormone replacement therapy. The event was widely reported in the Basque Country. A year later, Arantza Ibarra completed this short documentary film about the young man. The documentary features the testimonies of Ekai´s parents, Elaxar Lersundi and Ana Martínez, as well as representatives of the Naizen association (an association of families of transsexual minors) and various local residents.

Lersundi´s death brought up several cases of young transgender people in the same situation. Elaxar Lersundi wrote an emotional farewell letter to his son, which was widely circulated. One woman read the letter, and it shook her to the core. She felt the need to take a closer look at the reality of young transgender people and their families. One day she turned up at the office of Naizen and spent years delving into the subject. That woman was Estibaliz Urresola, director of the film ´20,000 Species of Bees´.

‘Varados’ (2019, Helena Taberna)

Helena Taberna has been making socially engaged films since 1994. Her work has addressed issues such as historical memory, gender violence and the consequences of violence. The documentary ´Varados´ (Stranded) sheds light on the plight of long-term refugees. The filmmaker explores reception centres, refugee camps, and occupied buildings in Greece, giving voice to people awaiting the necessary documentation to resume their lives. This work is an initiative of Zaporeak (in co-production with Lamia), a Basque non-profit association that offers nutritious food to refugees arriving in Europe. Greek refugee camps are currently preparing meals in order to better the living conditions of the most vulnerable individuals trapped in this situation.

Hijos de dios’ (2020, Ekain Irigoien)

This documentary portrays the reality of homelessness, a subject not frequently addressed in the realm of documentaries or cinema at large. Ekain Irigoien chronicles the stories of two friends living on the streets of Madrid, capturing their day-to-day experiences over a span of five years. Through this intimate lens, the documentary reveals a reality hidden from plain sight. The bond between the two transforms this piece into a poignant tribute to life, death, and dignity. Irigoien employs a meticulous visual language typically found in fiction yet achieves a remarkable level of intimacy and closeness. Working without a script, like the characters themselves, he sought authenticity, allowing the facts to unfold organically. Art has always served as a powerful tool for awakening consciences, as is vividly exemplified in this film.

‘Hijos de dios’ (2020, Ekain Irigoien)

´Lullaby´ (Cinco Lobitos) (2022, Alauda Ruiz de Azúa)

Alauda Ruiz de Azúa´s film is one of those pieces that deeply moves the audience. Focusing on the characters, she crafts a profound emotional journey that explores themes of motherhood, care and the absence of family communication. Her film is honest, natural, realistic and moving. Laia Costa skillfully portrays Amaia, a new mother grappling with the challenges of her newfound role. But she is also a daughter. Therefore, the relationship she has with her own mother is vital. Ruiz de Azúa´s realistic storytelling and the opportunity to journey with such relatable characters captivate us from the very beginning. The audience remains engaged with the protagonist and her family throughout the film. ´Cinco Lobitos´ won the Golden Biznaga for Best Spanish Film at the Malaga Film Festival, as well as three Goya awards.

‘Suro’ (2022, Mikel Gurrea)

This film tells the story of a couple, Helena and Ivan (Vicky Luengo and Pol López), who leave behind the comfortable but stressful life in the city to start a new project in a house in the middle of a cork oak grove. However, the characters have different perspectives on what it means to live in the countryside, and this will allow them to reflect on their future as a couple. ´Suro´ revolves around a couple who begin a new adventure together, but as the story progresses, their emotions, concerns and points of view emerge. The film addresses the lack of communication within the couple, as well as immigration, cultural clashes, and the challenges of different ways of life. It presents a rather pessimistic portrait of a world rife with selfishness, racism, and classism. San Sebastian filmmaker Mikel Gurrea combines all these issues to perfection. Vicky Luengo and Pol López deliver outstanding performances, infusing their characters with moral dilemmas that deeply resonate with the audience.

´In the Company of Women´ (Las buenas compañías) (2023, Sílvia Munt)

A drama based on real events, the film was directed by Catalan actress and director Sílvia Munt. However, the story originated from a short documentary created by students of Basque director Jorge Gil Munárriz, who also co-wrote the screenplay. The film is based on the story of the "Basauri 11", eleven working-class women from Basauri who endured a criminal trial spanning from 1976 to 1985. They fought to champion feminist principles and the right to abortion. This case gave impetus to the Spanish abortion law passed in 1985. While the story itself is compelling, considerable effort was dedicated to crafting the setting and selecting locations. For instance, meticulous attention was paid to details such as the characteristic green hue of interior walls in 1970s homes, as well as capturing the grey skies typical of that era. The acting is extraordinary, featuring a cast that includes the renowned actress Itziar Ituñ. The film won the Young Jury Award for Best Feature Film in the official selection at the Malaga Film Festival and the Audience Award at the San Sebastian Human Rights Film Festival.

‘Bidasoa 2018-2023’ (2023, Fermin Muguruza)

Fermin Muguruza presented this documentary at the San Sebastian Film Festival. His previous work, ´Black is Beltza´, is considered a cry against racism, while ´Bidasoa 2018-2023´ denounces the racist controls that France established at border crossings with Spain to prevent the entry of immigrants in transit to other European countries. The Bidasoa River runs through the Basque Country, with its lower reaches serving as a natural and administrative border between France and Spain. The film recounts the harrowing journey undertaken by migrants to Europe, paying tribute to those who lost their lives in the Basque Country while attempting to cross the Bidasoa or en route to reach French territory. It also condemns the violently enforced borders and racist controls. It is complemented by interviews and testimonies, which bring together people of colour and activists. To intertwine these narratives, Muguruza employs the metaphor of the river and introduces a woman called Amets. She who navigates the story on a bicycle as she rides along the river. The names and surnames of the deceased migrants, their image, the date of their death and their migratory trajectory also appear. Brushstrokes reminiscent of the animation style seen in the film ´Black Is Beltza´ are utilized to enhance the storytelling. A piece advocating that the Bidasoa should serve as a bridge, emphasizing that rivers ought to unite people rather than claim lives.

Speaking of this film, it is worth mentioning the Spoken Cinema series organised by the Tabakalera International Centre for Contemporary Culture in San Sebastian. Once a month, directors are invited to talk about their projects. Fermin Muguruza explains the working process in the film ´Bidasoa 2018-2023´. Whatch here (Basque with Spanish subtitles).

‘Nina’ (2024, Andrea Jaurrieta)

We mustn´t leave out the terrible subject of sexual abuse. Andrea Jaurrieta´s film stands out as one of the most remarkable films of 2024, having notably secured the Critics´ Prize at the Malaga Film Festival. Its primary protagonist, akin to a film noir heroine, is portrayed by Patricia López Arnáiz, in the role of Nina. She returns to the village where she grew up to take revenge on the person who ruined her life. Mixing two timelines, past and present, Jaurrieta speaks boldly about sexual abuse, trauma and the abuse of power. In doing so, she employs elaborate and subtle narrative and cinematic structures to craft a modern feminist western that nonetheless pays homage to the conventions of classic cinema. Despite its use of classical elements, the film avoids clichés, with its most crucial moments flourishing in dialogue-free sequences. This story had to be told through images rather than words, as what remains unspoken holds significance, and Jaurrieta has achieved this successfully. The significance of landscapes and settings in classic westerns is undeniable, and in this film, it is no different. The breathtaking sites of the Urdaibai estuary, nestled around Bermeo and Mundaka, impart a distinct visual and narrative identity to the story, reminiscent of the atmospheric thrillers found in Nordic countries or England.

Gaizka Izagirre is a film critic and director of the magazine Gaztezulo. He is a contributor to various media outlets (ETB, Gaztea, Gara, Berria, Euskadi Irratia...) and is a member of the Asociación de Informadores Cinematográficos de España, in charge of the Feroz Awards.


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