Thursday, 26 June 2014

Wounded...but not dead yet: La pantalla herida and the state of Spanish cinema


    I've been researching Spanish cinema for more than a decade and in that time it has almost continuously been described (within Spain, at least) as being in 'crisis'. That's sometimes a relative term - the obsession with box office statistics and Spanish cinema's fluctuating share of their home market is often written about in negative terms (e.g. 'down 5% on last year') without giving context to put the figures in perspective. For example, there were so-called slumps in 1996, 2000, 2002 but all three followed years that had generated substantial increases in takings (Ansola González 2003: 49), something that was repeated between 2006 (a bumper year for Spanish cinema) and 2007 (in which only El orfanato made a serious dent in the Spanish box office). But since around 2009 events have taken on a darker hue and in the last couple of years a 'perfect storm' of not-so-perfect conditions (consumer habits have changed but a series of controversial measures by successive governments have also had a crippling effect) have combined to knock the Spanish film industry off its feet with little sign of a coordinated or sustained fightback.
    It's a positive sign that I've recently seen two Spanish documentaries that look specifically at the changes that Spanish cinema is undergoing - BARATOmetrajes 2.0 (which I wrote about here) and La pantalla herida / The Wounded Screen (Luís María Ferrández, 2014). Taken together they give the impression that something constructive might transpire because people are starting to listen as well as talk (those working in the industry, at least - in the past week, the Spanish government has shown itself happy to blend the vindictive with the economically stupid: reaction herehere, and here). Luís María Ferrández organised a series of discussions - in the spirit of the 1955 Conversations of Salamanca - with sets of people from different sections of the film industry (a full list of participants is below) and filmed the resulting conversations about finance, production, distribution, and exhibition.
    All of the participants agree that Spanish cinema is in dire straits, and that this state of being has been allowed to continue for too long - either by being ignored or simply not being dealt with effectively - but beyond that initial point of agreement, the film expands into diverse discussions as to the causes of the malaise and what possible solutions might be. This diversity is where it gets really interesting because while there is a general sense of frustration or exasperation (in relation to certain issues, not least 'subvenciones', people are fed up with having to explain themselves and / or justify their livelihoods) - and at times a sad air of defeat - there is also anger and the sparks of people being willing to fight. So, where to begin?
    Education is mentioned several times in the context of cinema not being valued - one illustration given is that Spanish politicians are photographed at football matches and tennis games in the pursuit of votes, but you won't see them at the opera or cinema - and that to change that attitude some kind of audiovisual appreciation needs to filter into the school curriculum. 'Culture' is the operative word here; culture is more than entertainment, it is part of our identities, enriching lives, and it is also the manner in which a country exists in the outside world (through the images it generates). In the Spanish context, it's partly about countering the attitude of rejecting one's own culture - Spain does not have the reputation of respecting its own artists - and the proportion of the Spanish public who won't view a Spanish film simply because it is Spanish. The stereotype is that "Spanish cinema is the Civil War seen from the point of view of the Republicans" (statistics on how few Civil War films are made in Spain are repeated several times in the course of the film with great testiness). Politics rears its head at this point - is Spanish cinema too politicised? 
    There are proponents of the 'shut up and sing' attitude towards politically-inclined actors in the mix but I've never seen why artists should hide their political opinions - especially if they have the opportunity to give voice to sections of the community that are not being listened to (if the Spanish government feels publicly humiliated by the vocal criticism of its domestic and / or foreign policies that often occurs at the Goya Awards, they can rest assured that the right-wing press goes after the people in question with vehement intent the following day). Imanol Uribe shares the anecdote of a taxi driver who told him that by making their politics clear, those in Spanish cinema automatically set themselves up to be rejected by 50% of the population. I don't think it's that straightforward - I don't think the rejection of your home culture is (party) political - because although those Spanish films that are big box office hits (I'm thinking of the Torrente films or the likes of El orfanato, or most recently Ocho apellidos vascos) tend to be 'genre films' (for want of a better phrase - all films belong to one genre or other) with little in the way of overt politics, if the public were making their filmgoing choices on party-political lines then surely those few Spanish filmmakers at the other end of the political spectrum would have a better showing at the box office (on the basis that the Left are spoilt for choice, which would presumably split their audience, but the Right have little to choose from)? Did I miss Holmes & Watson: Madrid Days (2012) setting the Spanish box office alight?
    What does come across is a sense of frustration that - as an industry - they are not very good at countering misrepresentations that circulate in the press or society more generally. The discussions get most heated with the topic of subventions because it is here that there seems to be the greatest discrepancy between representation and reality. As many of them point out - a) it's a line of credit that has to be repaid, not simply a handout, b) numerous other industries, such as car manufacture and (bizarrely) the Catholic Church, receive far bigger subsidies than cinema, c) the money is reinvested in the local economy and generates jobs, d) all countries support their cinema (this goes back to the point of culture being more than entertainment). In the current economic climate, particularly in austerity-ridden Spain, public money being invested in cinema is not popular - but is that partly because of how it is represented (feckless Lefties running amok on taxpayers' money)? As producer Sandra Hermida urges, should they not be taking out full page ads in national newspapers proclaiming their achievements, the number of jobs created, and money invested locally? They generally need to be more proactive in countering misinformation. 
    Although the press is criticised for not supporting Spanish cinema, to the detriment of sustaining a connection with the Spanish public, I don't know that Spain is that different to other European countries (with the possible exception of France - which is held up a paragon of cinematic virtue more than once). Maybe my view is skewed because I mainly read the specialist press and perhaps the wider Spanish press give it little attention. But, for instance, how often does Empire put a British film on its cover? Sight & Sound probably has British covers (and coverage) more frequently (or focuses on British filmmakers, if not British films) but the mainstream likes of Empire and Total Film rarely put homegrown talent on the front cover and they're unlikely to get a multipage spread inside either. In contrast, in 2013 Fotogramas had 5 Spanish covers (which is unprecedented in the 9 years I've had a subscription), Cinemanía had 2 (which is 2 more than 2012), and at the more erudite end of the market Caimán Cuadernos de Cine had Spanish films on their cover 3 times and extensive coverage of what they're championing as 'el otro cine español' - so the specialist press in Spain is reacting to the free-fall being experienced by the Spanish film industry and attempting to actively promote the films it produces. Admittedly I don't know what their circulation figures are like, but it just seems a little simplistic to say that the Spanish press don't do enough to support Spanish cinema (although I would argue that in terms of the general press, and their attitudes towards the film industry, this probably is an area where politics come into play - as a group, and as individuals, 'los del cine' are attacked with regularity in the right-wing press).
    It's obviously difficult to change the structure of an industry, but most of the participants think that change is necessary - especially in terms of how money is distributed - and that even the most romantic ideal of the cinema needs to have an industry supporting it. Ángeles González Sinde and Agustín Díaz Yanes propose that the committees that distribute the money need to have people with experience of filmmaking and a better eye for talent, pointing out that the first films by Álex de la Iglesia and Alejandro Amenábar were produced by established directors (Pedro Almodóvar and José Luis Cuerda respectively) who recognised nascent talent and took steps to nurture it. The French system, wherein a percentage of the price of all cinema tickets feeds back into the French film industry, is held up as a possible model, and the price of tickets is generally seen as something that needs to be looked at more closely. On the one hand, tickets prices are seen as expensive (although as Rubén Ochandiano points out, people will spend more money buying a gin and tonic in a bar), but on the other nothing in life is free (piracy is also touched upon, with director Miguel Santesmases pointing to research that concluded that those who pirate the most are also those who are most willing to buy when given the opportunity - so accessibility is also an issue (BARATOmetrajes looks at that issue in a bit more detail)). Multiple contributors argue that the subventions should be aimed at the ticket prices rather than production costs, to encourage people back into cinemas, with producer Luis Manso suggesting that tickets prices for Spanish films could be cheaper than for US productions - not because their films aren't as good, but as a way of encouraging the Spanish public to see them (he also notes that it is impossible for Spanish productions to compete with Hollywood in terms of promotion or the number of copies of a film distributed). 
    One of the questions Luís María Ferrández asks is whether people can continue to make a living making cinema in Spain. The arts are a field with a strong vocational aspect and producer Pilar Robla counsels that each individual has to have a conversation with themselves about what working conditions they will accept, but the consensus seems to be that fewer and fewer people can 'live' on making films - and certainly there is not enough work to support the number of graduates coming out of various kinds of film schools. 'Cine low cost' is discussed in this context, as although the democratisation of technology has enabled filmmakers to make films without help from 'normal' sources, the participants here say that it's not a set-up that will allow them to continue making films and nobody earns (or is properly protected) on those productions (again, BARATOmetrajes contains some different points of view on this aspect). Producer/director Luís Miñarro argues that although crowdfunding can achieve specific things, it is not the basis of an industry. Likewise, talk of cooperatives - although useful in difficult circumstances - also highlights that you can't make a living long-term in those situations.
    If all of this sounds slightly depressing - and as I've already said, there is an air of sadness to the film - the vocational element of artistic endeavour is where hope remains. Too many people can't imagine a life without culture, without cinema: while people still have passion for film, cinema will survive. What this documentary suggests though is that cinema will have to utilise its capacity for innovation and creativity in order to adapt to the changing circumstances it finds itself in, and that there need to be more conversations and more communication within (and outside) the Spanish film industry if it is going to get back on its feet.
    Despite this turning into something of an essay, I've barely summarised what's discussed in La pantalla herida and I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in contemporary Spanish film. It's available to rent on Vimeo (here) - there are no English subtitles, but if you have any Spanish at all, have a go (I'm by no means fluent but I found most of it easy to follow - it helps if you have an awareness of the issues under discussion).



The participants: José Luis Acosta (president of SGAE, writer and director), Belén Bernuy (producer), Marisa Castelo (intellectual property lawyer), Fernando Cayo (actor), Raúl Cerezo (president of the Academy of Spanish Short Films), Jesús Ciordia (actors' agent), Eduardo Chapero Jackson (director), Agustín Díaz Yanes (writer and director), Karra Elejalde (actor), Javier Elorrieta (producer and director), Valentín Fernández Tobau (writer and president of abcguionistas), Gustavo Ferrada (producer), Gil Parrondo (art director), Enrique González Macho (president of the Academy of Cinema), Ángeles González Sinde (ex-Minister of Culture, ex-president of the Academy of Cinema, director and writer), Fernando Guillén Cuervo (actor, producer, and director), Sandra Hermida (producer), Antonio Hernández (director), Carlos Jiménez (director of the Museo del Cine in Madrid), Julia Juániz (editor), Juan Ramón Gómez Fabra (president of the distributors of Spain), Enrique López Lavigne (producer), Joaquín Manchado (camera operator and DoP), Luis Manso (producer), Fele Martínez (actor), Luis Miñarro (producer and director), Pepe Nieto (composer), Rubén Ochandiano (actor), Lourdes de Orduña (costume), Pedro Pérez (ex-president of FAPAE - federación de productores audiovisuales), Félix Piñuela (director of Versión española, TVE), Paco Ramos (producer), Diego Rodríguez (president of the platform of festivals of the community of Madrid), Pilar Robla (producer and president of APPA (Asociación profesionales producción audiovisual)), Gerardo Sánchez (director of Días de cine, TVE), Miguel Santesmases (director), Susana de la Sierra (Director General of the ICAA (Ministry of Culture)), Hugo Silva (actor), Imanol Uribe (director), Manolo Velasco (camera operator and DoP), Nacho Vigalondo (director), Luis Zahera (actor).

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