Cinema and the Spanish Civil War

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Luke Stobart is looking forward to the BFI Southbank film season on the Spanish Civil War

In 1936 the world was submerged in deep economic crisis and mass unemployment, and fascism was already triumphant in Germany and Italy. The Spanish Civil War, which exploded that year in response to a right wing coup by General Franco, offered a chance to turn back the tide. Not only did armed working masses defeat the coup in most Spanish cities but in the regions of Catalonia and Aragon they took over the factories and land from the ruling class. Consequently the war, as the title of the BFI film season declares, stirred the world.

One result was that tens of thousands of working class people came from 53 countries to fight Franco. Most of them joined the (Communist-led) International Brigades. Their bravery and sacrifice saw most of them injured, while a third would never return home.

However, this incredible example of solidarity was not matched by any support for the democratically elected Republican government from the other "democracies", which stood by as Hitler and Mussolini gave Franco a decisive military advantage.

The only remaining weapon for the Republic was the revolutionary fervour of the workers and their militias, which - led by the anarchist Buenaventura Durruti - scored significant military victories at the start of the war. But after the massive anarchist CNT union refused to take power in the revolutionary zone, leaving power in the hands of hostile forces, Stalinist-led armies successfully crushed popular control in town and country, and thousands of revolutionaries were arrested. Once bourgeois normality was returned, fascist victory was unstoppable, and in 1939 there began a long and terrible era of dictatorship.

Decades later a new workers' movement would pull that regime apart. But the movement's political leadership joined with a section of the apparatus to reach a "historic compromise" (of limited democratic reform in exchange for the preservation of Francoist institutions). One component of this agreement was the "pact of forgetting" (or silencing) Spain's history of conflict.

Fortunately many people inside and outside Spain have chosen not to forget, including a great many writers, artists and filmmakers, some of whose wide-ranging work is shown in this festival.

Many Spanish productions are included that will undoubtedly be new to British audiences, such as Libertarias, a fictional film about anarchist women fighting war, sexism and counter-revolution. Another is Martin Patino's brave documentary Songs for After a War - produced and censored under Franco - which used popular songs to subvert subtly the messages of Francoist propaganda (a trick that may not work with a non-Spanish audience).

It should be highlighted that many of the films, including the latter, deal more with the experience of dictatorship than the war itself, and others use the Civil War as a mere backdrop to stories. One reason for this is that, despite the BFI claiming that after the dictatorship "Spain began to explore the Civil War and its legacy in earnest", there have been arguably few good films about the crucial conflict.

Too often films, such as Luis Garcia Berlanga's comedy La Vaquilla (a kind of Carry On up the Republic!), offer the mainstream cliché that the war was no more than a sorry "fratricidal" conflict between Spaniards, or present a simplified or romantic view of the Republic (such as in the otherwise recommendable film Butterfly's Tongue). They can thus offer only a limited or distorted understanding of events. This general weakness is surely related to the historical "silence" described above and also to the political traditions that have dominated the left in recent years (social democracy and the Communist Party).

The shining exception to these films is Ken Loach's Land and Freedom. This classic film charts the experiences of David, a young unemployed Communist who goes to Spain and fights in a revolutionary POUM militia. After a classic scene in which he joins his fellow "milicianos" and local villagers in a plenary on collectivising local land, David is wounded (as a result of the inadequate weapons provided to the radical militias by the Popular Front government). He returns to Barcelona where he witnesses how his own Communist movement has declared war on the revolution. Through these scenes and others, Loach highlights the main dynamics at play in 1936 and 1937, making it a must for anyone who wishes to understand the Civil War.

It is notable that the better Spanish films in the festival are the most recent, and that this advance echoes the growing activity in Spain for recognition and at least some justice for Franco's victims (which has recently seen the opening up of mass graves). It would seem that in real life and art the struggle to regain historic memory is gaining ground, and this is of no minor importance for those fighting crisis and fascism today.


Cinema and the Spanish Civil War: Seventy Years of Film Forensics on a Conflict that Stirred the World is at the BFI Southbank, London, until 30 June.