Julio Medem’s Basque Balls

By Rob Stone

squirrel-julio-medem-1.jpgThe Red Squirrel, 1993

The celebrated director’s powerful new documentary speaks to his own sense of roots

For those who attended the first screening outside Spain of Julio Medem’s Basque Ball: Skin Against the Stone during the 2003 London Film Festival, it was impossible to avoid seeing its director as someone in exile from Spain. This went for Medem himself: “I bring a film that’s classified as Spanish by the Culture Ministry and now I find I’m disinherited or they’re ashamed of me! Have they kicked me out of Spanish cinema?”

Earlier that week the Spanish Embassy in London had withdrawn its subsidy from the Festival and described Medem as persona non grata for having made and brought out of Spain this documentary described, in language redolent of the Francoist fifties, as ‘suspicious’ by Spain’s Minister for Culture. However, public interest on the day meant that an extra screening was announced and sold out within minutes, while a group of Spanish artists, musicians and film-makers have since had a whip-round and sent a cheque to the Spanish Ambassador with a note attached reminding him that the subsidy comes from public funds and such interference is abhorrent.

basque-balls-julio-medem-2.jpgBasque Ball, 2003

Can this be the same Julio Medem whose playful, erotic, poetic films have earned him a reputation as one of modern cinema’s foremost metaphysicians? Having followed his career intently and being presently engaged in the writing of a book on his work (with the subject’s generous collaboration), it was something of an emotional reunion to meet up with him in London. After a month of defending himself and his documentary against its detractors in Spain, most notably Pilar del Castillo, the Spanish Minister for Culture, who publicly denounced the film without having seen it, Medem appeared tired, but resolute, from appearing at the centre of heated debates in the Spanish media on censorship, terrorism, artistic responsibility and government interference. All this for a film-maker previously known for his playful, emotional takes on subjectivity in films that revel in symmetry, chance and romance, and who was missing both sleep and his month-old baby daughter, born the same day as the documentary’s premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

“Everything that’s happened outside the film is explained inside it,” he reflected, “but it’s impossible to deal with all this, absolutely impossible. Every night I suffer from insomnia, and every night I have to remind myself that I have stupendous things in my life to be able to put up with all that’s happening. Not just family and my daughter, but the fact that all this controversy has made the film such a financial success in Spain.” Asked to reflect on the events which have resulted in his present condition, Medem, who trained as a psychologist at the University of the Basque Country before graduating in general medicine, digs deep into his childhood, “I think there’s been something inside me since I was very young. Because I was living between the Basque Country and Madrid I was very aware of how each saw the other. I felt a foreigner in both parts and there are curious sentiments attached to living in either place.”

vacas-julio-medem.jpgVacas, 1992

This conflict within a divided self is a recurring theme in the five fiction films that Medem has made since breaking away from his authoritarian father at the age of twenty-one and returning to the Basque Country, where he studied, married and, during three years of unemployment, began writing and making short films. Many of his stories turned on lies, while his growing obsessions with myth and fabulism developed alongside his experience of Basque nationalism. At this time, following Spain’s transition to democracy after the death of General Franco in 1975 and the end of his dictatorship, most Basque films were historical epics designed to propagate a dramatic notion of Basque nationhood. Medem worked as assistant director and editor on a film about the Carlist wars of the nineteenth century before subverting these same myths and histories in Vacas (Cows, 1992). In this, his first feature film, Medem’s thematic and visual obsessions appeared already fully formed: subjectivities and the romantic-violent dance between those who love and those who hate, whose attraction and repulsion keep the characteristically cyclical narrative spinning.

The Red Squirrel (1993) repeated the struggle between conflicting subjectivities rendered through point-of-view shots and natural metaphors, while Tierra (Earth, 1996) developed the theme with a tall tale about a man who splits from his conscience, which then follows him around. This split subjectivity is appropriated by the camera and then further divided between two women who are rendered as polar opposites, a concept which led Medem to Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1988), in which the competing subjectivities are played out on a global scale, spun out by competing lies, fantasies, and interpretations. Medem’s films have therefore always had this obsession with conflicting points of view, which are either validated by symmetry or undermined by contradiction.

lovers-of-the-arctic-circle-julio-medem.jpgLovers of the Arctic Circle, 1998

Sex and Lucia (2001) is Medem’s last fiction film to date, the story of an author who transforms his experiences into words and the reader, Lucía, who transforms those words into her own experience. A complex, playful, and daring work, it includes an element of pastiche about his previous films and marks a conclusion of sorts to the first part of Medem’s career. Its solipsism struck some as creative exhaustion, though they clearly missed the hole at the end of the film which allowed the fictional characters to fall through to the middle and try all over again. For there they remain, going round and round in circles, since Medem turned away from fantasy and brought his particular perspective on competing subjectivities to bear on the most authentic and polemical subject to hand: the Basque Country.

Although born in the Basque resort of San Sebastian in 1958, Medem grew up in Madrid and this self-financed documentary is his deliberate re-engagement with the history, culture and politics of his birthplace. Basque Ball is also a prelude and complementary feature to his most ambitious film to date, Aitor, an opera of aizkolaris, the Basque woodsmen familiar from Vacas (1991), which he is writing in collaboration with composer Alberto Iglesias and which he begins filming in May.

julio-medem.jpgJulio Medem

In a hesitant introduction to the Festival audience, who would later respond with a standing ovation echoing that which the film received in San Sebastian, Medem explained how Basque Ball navigates, like a bird flying through a gorge, between both sides in the debate over the cultural, political and legal status and identity of the Basque Country. The camera assumes this perspective as it alights on a myriad of speakers from (almost) all sides of the conflict for interviews, which Medem has spliced together to create a dialogue where previously none has been possible, although both extremes in this debate – the Basque terrorist group ETA and Spain’s ruling political party, the Partido Popular – refused to participate and, as the film’s introduction makes clear, were sorely missed. “I wish they could have been part of it”, he sighs, “I really do.”

Basque documentaries have traditionally expounded their views on Basque difference with a visual and aural aesthetic of juxtaposition and discordance. Their jarring angles and rapid editing testified to Basque difference from the Spanish norm and even represented in visual terms the aggressive, staccato sounds of their once forbidden language.

tierra-julio-medem.jpgTierra, 1996

But Basque Ball is not about separating but matching. By Medem’s sleight of hand, speakers who would never appear in the same room now respond to each other’s rhetoric and finish each other’s sentences. “The premise was pure objectivity”, claims Medem, “to not manipulate, to allow the faces and voices to appear. But the moment you start editing, you have to make a choice. And in the more visual passages I assume a subjectivity in order to move the film along.” Nevertheless, the documentary has no commentary and Medem’s political posture is still vague – “I’m left-wing, but not nationalist” – while this intricate montage (the product of thousands of hours spent alone at home with his computer and several hard drives) has been denounced in the right-wing press for daring to create a symmetry (Medem’s characteristic obsession) out of the two sides in the Basque conflict. Much of the controversy, for example, has focused on Medem’s juxtaposition of the testimonies of the widow of a policeman killed by ETA and that of the wife of an imprisoned terrorist. Medem’s notion of victimhood is compassionate and objective, but deliberately challenging. Expanded versions of Basque Ball will be seen in Spain as three fifty-minute episodes on pay-tv channel Canal Plus and in a DVD pack of five hours duration which will incorporate many of the interviews necessarily set aside for the reasonable running time of the commercial cinema print, which has been invited to numerous international film festivals.

sex-and-lucia-julio-medem.jpgSex and Lucia, 2001

The irony of the film’s financial success, following so much controversy, is especially important, as Medem explains, “I financed this film myself, despite what the right-wing press in Spain is saying about sums that I’m supposed to have received, money that they say has gone straight into my pocket, when the film hasn’t received a single subsidy from anywhere. I’ve paid for it all. The film is cheap, that’s how I could make it on my own. It was the only way and those who say different are lying. And now this minister says she always knew the documentary was suspicious…”

He trails off in a manner that suggests he’s just too tired to despair, but then rallies with a defence that seems to have been honed to a hard edge. “Now I’m in this situation, I say what I think. The attitude of the Spanish government towards the Basque theme is very dangerous. The film’s about conflict, what I call a moral conflict. The film is polyphonic, it’s a choral film, a plural film with many different voices, and that’s what they call suspicious. They have a single thought, a single perspective on this subject and in the case of the Basque Country in Spain it’s clear: if there’s anything different, any difference, however slight, that makes you their enemy. The film has made things obvious - the Fascist aspect, the totalitarian aspect. I knew something like this might happen, but I don’t regret a thing.”

This is a different Medem from the shy, distracted presence of previous film festivals. “There’s a before and after”, he agrees. “In my work and inside me too. I’ve got to look after myself now. I’ve got to rest and reflect. I was waiting for this moment, to see how I coped with it all. Now I know if I’m from anywhere, if in my heart I’m from somewhere, it’s from the Basque Country.”

Rob Stone is Director of Film Studies at the University of Wales, Swansea, author of Spanish Cinema (Longman) and a forthcoming book on Julio Medem.