Searching for the Heart of Memory

By Nancy Harrison

albert-sole.jpgAlbert Solé

Spanish Journalist and documentary filmmaker Albert Solé’s early life was one of exile and subterfuge as he and his parents – major figures in the Spanish resistance – moved around Europe in order to evade Franco’s forces. His father, Jordi Solé Tura, was head of an anti-Franco pirate radio station – La Pirenaica – broadcasting from locations as various as Budapest, Paris and Bucharest. Upon his return to Spain Tura was a key figure in the new constitution, and remained a powerful force in Spanish politics, serving for many years as Cultural Minister.

As a result of his father’s failing health – the onset of Alzheimer’s began seriously eroding his memory – Solé decided to try to capture some of his father’s fading memories. Digging deeper into the family history, he also began to discover much more about his own roots. Brought up believing he was born in Budapest (as stated on his birth certificate), Solé later discovered that that fact, as with much of the reality of his childhood, had been part of the subterfuge. He had, in fact, been born in Bucharest. Learning this, he realized his ‘memories’ of his childhood were actually constructions, and not necessarily ‘real’. As a result, his film Bucharest, Memory Lost (Bucharest, la Memoria Perdida) (2008) became instead an examination of the concept of memory – of where the physical centre of memory lies (as he accompanies his father while he undergoes MRI brain scans), of the potency of “official” historical and political memory, the emotional force of cultural memory, and the strength of personal memory.

Nancy Harrison: The exploration of memory in the film is very thought provoking -- you explore the history of your family: personal memory, but also collective memory in the form of Spanish history. And then within collective memory, you have further gradations – for example political history which has an ‘official’ version, and then actual history – the ‘lived’ history – which do you think is the strongest force within your film?

Albert Solé: Well, I don’t really understand personal stories alone without some sort of historical background, and particularly in the case of my film. But I would say that in most life histories, you cannot understand them without the background. In my case, in the beginning, the purpose was to shoot a film about the story of my family, as simple as that. It was the film that started as a need I had, I felt I had to recover all of my father’s memories as I worried that they were about to get lost. But I believe in this combination – I knew that every single decision in my familial story was linked to History with a capital H. I didn’t have an exact idea of the combination about what part of one and the other that I wanted to put in my film. As I was working along on the film, I was working in an intuitive way, but I saw that I wouldn’t be able to keep expanding the story if I didn’t have the background. The film, and my own story, was like a work in progress – that I finally understood when I reached the end of the film. I normally work with this improvisational method, and I build it little by little.

NH: The film examines different forms of memory. There is memory as a mechanical -- biological – function: your brain. Then there is psychological memory: your identity, your place in a larger memory of culture or nationality. And then there is emotional memory – those tiny things that stand out in our memories. For example in the film you said that you supported various footballers as a small child…

AS: Because they were Hungarian – and so was I!

bucharest-memory-lost-albert-sole.jpgBucharest, Memory Lost, 2008

NH: But that stuck in your mind. And your mother’s recollection about when she first met your father she was amazed that he was wearing white socks. These are small, purely emotional memories that have no logical grounding in any larger story. How did you find managing the tension between memory as a mechanical function – for example your father’s neurological scans and the actual physical erosion of his memory – and the emotional memories. Is memory more here (the head) or here (the heart)?

AS: You describe it perfectly – there is a contraction about memory. It is hard to say what is stronger. For my mother, I believe it is in small emotional details; for my father memory used to be focussed on very big ideas and events. For him, his personal story was constructed around political facts, about the structure of the state and democracy – for my mother the very important thing was the white socks. There are big contradictions in the film, and I have not really been able to have an answer to them. For instance for me the main contradiction is as you say the whole films intends to be a metaphor about the real meaning of memory, and yet at the end, after spending all the film trying to recover memories, at the end (my mother) says ‘to survive I don’t want to have memories. I don’t want to remember…’ And for me this was surprising. All this work, just to be stopped by someone who said OK, that’s the limit of remembering for me. And for me this contradiction was very useful to illustrate to understand the strange world which is memory – this strange labyrinth, where some small details are kept, yet some big experiences are lost. So, how does it work? How does the memory work? I don’t know, it’s a mystery. But I do absolutely believe that we as a generation have the mission to pass on the memory from our generation to the other. But we also have to respect the pain of the people who are not willing to have these memories. The other conclusion is that of course everybody has got their own way of understanding of how memory works. During all the processes of the movie I kept on working towards an exact definition of memory. We scanned the internet, and found ideas – you know ‘…memory is a big country…’, and it was full of bullshit. At the end, a journalist who wrote an article about the film found the exact sentence for me – something like: ‘memory is what we remember’. As simple and as subjective as this. It is a personal idea.

: And I expect that the doctors feel that the seat of the memory is within your brain, and a psychologist would think it was in your consciousness….Taking the point of view of memory as collective, political memory, a noticeable aspect of your childhood was the secrecy during your father’s exile, the clandestine activities – the word clandestine figures quite often in your film. There does seem to be much less secrecy now – compared against your father’s generation. Much of it is down to technology – with global telecommunications, the internet, CNN and 24 hour news broadcasts now contrasted to the ‘pirate radio’ of your father’s time. Official versions of information – in the form of propaganda – still exist in some places, but not nearly as strong a force as during that period. The film details the smuggled notes and manufactured identities – do you think that the accessibility of information now is changing the way that political memory is created, as it cannot be so easily controlled and massaged into ‘official’ versions.

: I think so – can you imagine how it would have been to have the internet at that time? Life would have been completely changed. But right now I am working on another film – also concerning memory, for Television Espanola – where I am recovering many Franco speeches. In one of them he was saying – it was the mid 50’s, when television was starting to spread – he was advising the people not to rely on television, because television was very dangerous. And this is the exact same thing that the Chinese or the Iranian authorities are trying to do with the internet – trying to forbid people to have access, by claiming the dangers of information. So the attitude remains the same – despite the difference in technology, the fight was the same: between those who have the information, who were trying to suppress the information, and the others who are trying by any means to get to the information.

bucharest-memory-lost-albert-sole-2.jpgBucharest, Memory Lost, 2008

NH: Despite the political aspects, the film is very personal – it’s really ‘your story’ However as a journalist and a documentary maker, you are a recorder of events: an observer. As a contrast your father was a participant in events: a catalyst – someone who made events happen. Do you think that your ‘unintentional’ early participation in events in your childhood has been something that has shaped you into an observer role?

AS: Of course. I really was an unexpected participant in many of these major events. I remember when I was 10, my father took me to a big meeting in Italy, where the Euro Communism conference was held. Where all the main leaders were attending – Georges Marchais, Santiago Carrillo – the heads of the Communist party at the time. And I was the only kid there. For me it was so boring, but here they were debating very big issues – real history was happening then. And then suddenly in the middle of a speech everything stopped and someone said “look, there is a kid on the window ledge – he may fall down” and suddenly I realised that all the most powerful eyes in Europe were looking at me – and I was only a small person, but I was able to stop history at that moment. So yes, early on I unintentionally participated in many historic events, and grew up knowing many influential people. And this gave me a lot of difficulty in my work as a journalist, because it was felt that I might not be able to have the appropriate distance to facts. You are so much involved in everything political, you feel life much more from the viewpoint of a politician and less from the point of an independent observer. And I think that this has been the reason why I have moved away from journalism, and towards other forms of communication such as filmmaking. 

albert-sole-2.jpgAlbert Solé and his father Jordi Solé Tura

NH: How old were you when you realised how important your father was?

AS: Very young. When I was eight, one day my teacher at school said something to me that was puzzling. I had taken a note from my father – I had been late, or ill or something like that – and she said "This is your father? That’s incredible!" And so I realised that my father was different. And when I was a teenager I found it a very heavy thing to carry of course – my father was the ‘Father of the Constitution’, and I think it probably took me about 30 years to finally have my head out of the water, and to find myself out of the shadow of him. And also my mother – she was also very important. She was a business person and strong politically also. And being an only child with such a strong background, I think it takes time to find yourself. And I think this film has been a big help. For years I felt kind of guilty that I was carrying such a heavy load of collective memory. Now I know how I fit into all of this.

Bucharest, Memory Lost (Bucharest, la memòria perdida) (2008) will be screening as part of the 5th London Spanish Film Festival 2009, running from 18th September to 3rd October and again as part of ”Memory: A Season of European Documentaries” from November 15th to 21st in London.