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Five Basque films where queer meets rural

Written by Gaizka Izagirre 04 Apr 2024
‘La muerte de Mikel’ (1984, Imanol Uribe)
‘La muerte de Mikel’ (1984, Imanol Uribe)
‘Ander’ (2009, Roberto Castón)
‘Ander’ (2009, Roberto Castón)
‘80 egunean’ (2010, José Mari Goenaga, Jon Garaño)
‘80 egunean’ (2010, José Mari Goenaga, Jon Garaño)
‘A escondidas’ ( 2014, Mikel Rueda)
‘A escondidas’ ( 2014, Mikel Rueda)
‘20.000 especies de abejas’ (2023, Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren)
‘20.000 especies de abejas’ (2023, Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren)

The way in which homosexuality has been portrayed in film has changed enormously over the years; for example, stereotypical portrayals from the 1980s have evolved into much more realistic characters and narratives. The New Queer Cinema movement, which emerged in the United States as part of independent cinema, did not take off until the early 1990s. And to overcome the artistic and personal limitations experienced for many years and to develop more authentic scripts, numerous titles have emerged featuring protagonists set in rural areas. The theme of rural representation has been present since the inception of cinema — just look at some of the early motion pictures made in the United States. However, realistic LGTBI+ films set in rural environments have only emerged in the last few decades, for example,  ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (Ang Lee, 2005), ‘God´s Own Country’ (Francis Lee, 2017) and ‘L´Inconnu du lac’ (Alain Guiraundie, 2013). Many filmmakers believe that setting the stories of the LGTBI+ community in these environments adds value. After all, the source of the oppression that so many of these people have endured for years stems from their origins in small villages.

Let´s come back to Euskal Herria. The LGTBI+ community has been oppressed for years: The movement organised its first demonstration in the Basque Country on 25 November 1977, drawing some 4,000 people. Since then, the various acronyms of the collective have gradually reclaimed their rights. Beyond real life situations, the world of cinema has also begun to reflect their stories. In order to highlight these stories, promote a passion for film, and raise awareness through culture, film and the performing arts, a significant thematic festival was established in 2004: Zinegoak, the International LGTBI+ Film and Performing Arts Festival of Bilbao. The event has now become a benchmark for other international LGTBI+ festivals. Every year, over 100 shows are brought to the stage or screen, most of which have won awards at international festivals. Given the significant influence of the rural environment and village customs in Euskal Herria, it was inevitable that the convergence of rural life and queer themes would emerge in Basque cinema. Fortunately, this fusion has materialised, resulting in not just any films, but rather high-quality titles with an important place in Basque cinema.

Here are five films that combine queer and rural:

La muerte de Mikel’ (1984, Imanol Uribe)

On 1 March 1984, Imanol Uribe released this landmark film, which, together with ´El proceso de Burgos´ (1979) and ´La fuga de Segovia´ (1981), forms a trilogy on the Basque Country. Based on a true story, ‘La Muerte de Mikel’ had major repercussions for the Spanish political transition. Mikel (Imanol Arias) is a young pharmacist, homosexual and a militant of the Basque separatist left. One day he’s found dead. The story is told backwards as a flashback from that very day. Set in the port of Lekeitio and the El Palanca district of Bilbao, the film transports us back to the 1980s, a time marked by intolerance and significant social conflict. Uribe intertwines a narrative that blends political crisis with sexual identity, all set against the backdrop of a secluded village, a town that is quite isolated and hard to reach by road. Uribe fused all these elements together to create a film that has now become a classic.

‘Ander’ (2009, Roberto Castón)

It seemed impossible to find films that dealt with gay themes set in a rural Basque farmhouse, but in 2009, this outstanding film earned the reputation as the Basque ´Brokeback Mountain´. The film gained acclaim in cities such as Berlin and Punta del Este, Uruguay, among others, and received standing ovations. The love affair between a Basque farmer and a Peruvian immigrant who begins working at the farmhouse won the hearts of thousands of viewers around the world. While originating from an idea by Berdindu (a public service for information and support on matters related to sexual and gender diversity), the project is far from propagandistic in nature. In fact, quite the opposite. It is a beautiful, naturalistic film, devoid of music, a detail that draws attention. A curious and unjust fact: the film was released in the Basque Country, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Italy and Taiwan, but never reached Spanish cinemas due to a lack of distributors.

‘80 egunean’ (2010, José Mari Goenaga, Jon Garaño)

The filmmakers who would go on to make ´Loreak´, ´Handia´, ´La Trinchera Infinita´ and the successful series ´Cristóbal Balenciaga´ (Jon Garaño, Jose Mari Goenaga and Aitor Arregi), completed this jewel in 2010. The film was selected for several festivals and garnered over 30 awards, including the San Sebastian Film Festival’s Sebastiane Award, which honours the film that best reflects the reality and values of homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals, Best Debut Film at the Nantes Spanish Film Festival, and the Audience Award and the Jury Award at the Amsterdam LGTB+ Film Festival. ‘80 egunean’ tells the story of 70-year-old Axun, who goes to the hospital to look after her daughter´s ex-husband. There she’s surprised to see that the woman visiting his roommate is Maite, a close friend from her teenage years. They soon discover that the chemistry they had when they were young is still intact. They enjoy their time together until Axun learns that Maite is a lesbian. Axun will have to confront her feelings: should she listen to her heart or to reason? The location chosen to develop this conflict of characters is Donostia. The city´s beautiful landscapes, such as La Concha beach and the delightful Santa Clara Island, enrich and nourish the story. Axun is kind, with a traditional upbringing and limited formal education. Her aim is to look after her husband, who lives in the farmhouse. Maite is a modern, well-educated, stubborn and feisty woman from a small town. The film adeptly captures the notable contrast between different social realities, and bravely tackles the homosexual relationship between two 70-year-old women with moderation, expressed through gestures, glances, and subtle delicacy. The film is full of everyday circumstances that draw us closer to its characters.

‘A escondidas’ (2014, Mikel Rueda)

This is the second feature film by Bilbao-born Mikel Rueda. Although the story doesn´t unfold in a small town, the depth of its narrative and the exploration of the two main characters´ pasts make its inclusion in this list only logical. The stories of the characters intersect within a city, yet they remain connected to their childhood experiences throughout. Ibrahim, a 16-year-old Moroccan boy, is alone and disoriented on a road on the outskirts of a big city. He knows that in two days he’ll be expelled from the country, so he decides to flee. Meanwhile, the other protagonist, Rafa, age 14, feels out of place for several reasons. When they meet, things start to change. This is a story that delves far beyond what initially meets the eye. It is one of those narratives that resonates deeply within us. Behind every drama lies a story, and this one unfolds between two people.

‘20.000 especies de abejas’ (2023, Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren)

This wonderful film, which hardly needs an introduction, was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival and clinched Sofía Otero a Silver Bear for Best Leading Performance. Thanks to this film, the Basque language, Euskara, was heard for the first time at the Berlinale. On top of winning awards at festivals around the world, it also scored 15 nominations at Spain´s Goya Awards. ´20,000 Species of Bees´ stars eight-year-old Lucía. Everyone around her calls her Aitor, but she doesn´t want that name, or even to be called Coco, but rather Lucía. Her mother, Ane (Patricia López Arnaiz), facing both professional and personal crises, chooses to spend a few days with her three children at their grandmother´s house in Ipar Euskal Herria, the French Basque region. Her aunt Lourdes, a beekeeper, also lives there in a small farmhouse in the mountains. The idea of linking the script and the characters with bees is brilliant. To begin with, it aligns seamlessly with the main message of the film. The beehives and their social dynamics serve as a poignant metaphor: just as there are 20,000 different types of bees, there are also countless ways of being a person, of being a woman. It also shows the many layers of the characters, how they are connected and how precisely they are crafted. Lourdes (Ane Gabarain) is a beekeeper; Ane is a sculptor who uses the wax from the beehives to make sculptures. Lucía´s gender dysphoria, stemming from her body image and fear of nudity, is apparent from the outset. Alongside this dilemma, Ane works long hours in her father´s wax workshop, manipulating the limbs, trunks and faces that melt in the heat of the fire, moulding the bodies to her liking. This analogy between Lucia´s perception of her body and the malleability of wax is remarkable. Lucia longs to alter her physical appearance as effortlessly and naturally as one shapes wax. The rural setting, especially Aunt Lourdes´s farmhouse, is of great importance in the story. It contributes to the development of the characters´ dramatic arc and is essential for conveying the realism demanded by the narrative.

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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