On the Wrong Side

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Review of 'Lobo', director Miguel Courtois

Dennis Donaldson, British agent in the Irish Republican movement, died at the hands of an unknown assassin. His death highlighted the strange loneliness of long-term spies who spend years or decades undermining the cause which they claim they are prepared to die for. It is a situation which has been well examined in film and literature when the action takes place at the international level, and the struggle is between states.

But there has been little attention paid to the spies who penetrate organisations like Sinn Fein or ETA, the Basque nationalist organisation. Perhaps it is because the consequences would be felt too close to home, or maybe because these type of spies don't make for particularly appealing heroes.

Lobo (Wolf) is a new Spanish film which goes some way towards filling this gap. And the fact that it is based on a true case lends force to this original take on the Basque separatist struggle.

The film is inspired by the story of Mikel Lejarza who was, like many Basques in the early 1970s, extremely sympathetic to ETA. ETA was at the time waging an effective struggle against the Franco dictatorship, having recently blown up the high-ranking minister, Carrero Blanco.

In the film Lejarza is a man extremely short of money with a young family to support and a failing construction business to worry about. When he is implicated in ETA activity, Franco's secret service decide to turn this to their advantage. By a combination of threats and financial inducements, he is persuaded to become a police informer bearing the codename of Lobo.

He went on to become the most successful spy in the history of the Spanish state's own "war on terror", leading to the arrest of one quarter of the organisation's members and preventing a mass jail break-out. He was rewarded for this betrayal by being betrayed in turn by the Spanish state when a bureaucratic war broke out between different sections of the security apparatus.

If the filmmaker's aim was to produce an enjoyable and gripping thriller about ETA, he has achieved this. The film is well paced and acted and the story is a genuine thriller. All the characters are believable, if rather one-dimensional.

The downside is that unfortunately there is no real exploration of what might motivate someone to join an organisation like ETA, let alone betray it. The nearest you get is a sense that Lobo felt some sort of a professional obligation to "finish the job" he'd started. He accuses the ETA leadership of being a bunch of fanatics in one heated argument and that's it.

The film is explicitly non-ideological and deliberately even-handed. This is a problem for anyone wanting to understand the Basque conflict, because although the Francoist state is shown to be corrupt and brutal, ETA is seen as being merely the flip side of the same coin-equally debased and venal. This is an organisation that settles internal disagreements with the same violence as it pursues its wider goals.

Lobo hints at the complexities of the situation. It raises many questions almost by accident, but sadly doesn't come near to answering them. For the director this is actually a strength. He feels that the refusal to take sides marks the film out from any others made about ETA. This means that it never goes beyond the liberal platitudes of "two tribes" type of analysis of national struggles.

Having said that, it is a good low budget thriller, with the right amount of suspense, shoot-outs, bombings and car chases. There's even a bit of slightly kinky sex thrown in. Just don't go looking for anything informative.