The West Stone

By By Pepe Baena and Margaret Dickinson

Work in progress: The Whetstone, a documentary about the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War

On the Southbank in the rain a group of people carrying flags assembles. Someone is filming them. Why? They gather in front of a tormented bronze figure dwarfed by the London Eye. It is a memorial to the International Brigades, those who volunteered to fight in Spain in 1936. These people are doing what memorials ask us to do - remember. Some are the children and grandchildren of volunteers. For them it is family history. And the others? What does it matter to anyone else what happened in Spain 70 years ago?

That is a question that we, the filmmakers, Margaret and Pepe, keep asking ourselves. We know it matters to us but the reasons are not instantly obvious and are different for each of us.


It started because someone I’d never met - a friend of a friend - asked me if I’d like to film a walk over the Pyrenees commemorating the arrival of the International Brigades in Spain 70 years ago. It would be unpaid, of course, and at my own expense. ‘Definitely not ’ was my first reaction.

Over the next days I found myself recalling, unwillingly, what a formidable presence the Spanish Civil War was in the world I grew up in. No one from my family had gone to Spain yet it occupies a place in my consciousness like a dream or a memory which won’t quite fade. This may be because I heard about it in my childhood from parents who had been committed supporters of Aid for Spain; or because, when I became involved in politics as a young adult, Spain and neighbouring Portugal remained notorious right wing dictatorships. Portugal was also Europe’s last serious colonial power and here there is a personal link. I was active in solidarity with the anti-colonial struggle in ‘Portuguese’ Africa and made a film with the Mozambique Liberation Front. Some of the people in Britain who helped and encouraged this work had been deeply involved with Spain thirty years before. So, a vague sense of community and indebtedness began to change my mind about the filming. More important, I hope, was the discovery that my present-day concerns kept evoking Spain. Along with two million others I’d marched against the Iraq invasion and was bitter that the Government could so outrageously ignore the wishes of its citizens which also probably coincided with International law. It was difficult not to see a parallel with 1936 when the British Government’s denial of support to the Spanish Republic was also of doubtful legality and also ran counter to a massive popular movement of solidarity. That comparison cannot be taken too far since Iraq in 2003 was an oppressive and violent state while the Spanish Republic in 1936 was a fragile but hopeful democracy. But there are other parallels. The generals’ coup in Spain was sparked off by an election result which strengthened the Left and was also a factor in the British Government’s tacit preference for the insurgents. The issues at stake there have certainly continued to trouble the world. Iran and Palestine are only the most recent examples of electorates being punished for their choice by powerful national or foreign interests. And how often are national elections skewed by the tacit threat from other countries that ‘if you vote for the "wrong" side you will be starved and/or bombed’?

Once I decided to do the shoot my next thought was to include memories and thoughts of the Spaniards with whom the present ceremonies were being arranged. This meant finding a Spanish speaker to come too. I knew Pepe slightly through Vertigo magazine and proposed the collaboration to him. His enthusiastic response clinched it. We started to plan.


When Margaret approached me I was helping a Spanish collective with UK screenings for a film about the figure of Franco as seen by the generation that grew up after his death. The International Brigades, as a subject, appealed to me but I was working for a Ph.D. and hunting for a job. At first I felt I was too busy to commit to any more unpaid work but when I realised the shoot would be over Easter it seemed possible. I proposed co-directing to avoid hierarchy related problems, and provide a level starting point from where to work out our differences in knowledge, experiences and approach. Margaret had assumed she’d produce and I’d direct but preferred my suggestion.

This documentary will bring me closer to part of the history of the country where I was born. I have memories of Franco’s funeral and I lived through the transition to democracy. Franco appears like a dream in my memory, perhaps because politics are never discussed openly in my family, even though I have an uncle who was a socialist mayor and a grandfather who fought on Franco’s side. Underneath that façade of neutrality, politics run vigorously. My theoretically conscious political awakening developed at university where I was reading Fanon, Gramsci, Benjamin and Adorno and watching Marker, Watkins, Debord and the situationists, Solanas, Alea, Alvarez, Guzman and Sembene. Yet, what about recent Spanish history? What did I know, for example, about the International Brigades before we started working on this film? Not much - and this was partly what drew me to the project. I need to understand what happened there, the Civil War, the dictatorship, and afterwards, the Pact of Silence. I need to understand my roots politically and historically so I can understand myself, or perhaps so I can rationalise myself. There would be discoveries but also a chance to work on themes I was already engaged with such as war, democracy, exiles, borders, international aid, ideology, nationalism. The subject brings in some characters I’d not heard of before, some about whom I knew something, like the Republican politicians, and one, at least - Walter Benjamin - who was already an important influence. Near where we filmed, Benjamin took his life while trying to escape from the Nazis after the outbreak of World War II. Although not involved in the Spanish Civil War, he is linked with our story by place, time, and above all through his thought.

Making this film involves a personal journey which I hope to share with the audience. I would particularly like the film to interest young people and provoke them to consider their own relationship to the history.

Wider concerns

The war in Spain had a lasting influence on political attitudes and lived on in the popular consciousness because, at its simplest, it was perceived both as part of a historic struggle between reaction and progress and as a precursor of the coming World War.

The major powers signed a Non- Intervention Agreement which was blatantly ignored so that the conflict was rapidly internationalised. The Nationalists, as the insurgents called themselves, were supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy while the Republican Government was supported by the Communist Soviet Union. In France, Britain and most Western democracies popular movements urged support for the Republic or at least action to stop the flow of arms to the insurgents. While the British Government rigidly clung to non-intervention, individuals signed up to fight for the Republic.

This was the first time in Europe that the bombing of civilians was an important part of strategy. Newsreels sent shock waves round the world and the horrors, evoked in Picasso’s masterwork Guernica, prefigure not only World War Two but post-war conflicts in which ‘collateral damage’ would be a routine feature. Defeat brought other miseries as the Republicans faced death or internment. The aftermath was long. Spanish concentration camps were not closed until 1962. The repressive state was only liberalised after Franco’s death in 1975. It was not until 2003 that the government moved to restore the pensions of the Republican fighters.

The film

We had to think quickly what our film would eventually be like and what we wanted from the Easter shoot.

An early decision was that we would focus on the International Brigades. Our starting point would be the past as seen by individuals who feel marked by it, but that we would look beyond reminiscences to ask what relevance, if any, the story has today.

As often happens, many of our careful plans for shooting had to be dropped. For instance, we’d imagined the walk to be covered by elegant long shots from the valley sides, only to discover the route of the walk went all the way through thick woodlands. We’d imagined profound conversations with the walkers but the packed series of formal events left hardly any space. We are picking up on this now in calmer settings. The shooting in Spain before and after the event was a little more relaxed and some things worked better than expected. An emotional moment was filming in the Barcelona office of the CNT (One of the unions which had been an important force in the Republic) where we met mainly South American workers on strike and trying to organise themselves inside Spain’s fastest growing supermarket chain.

The Easter shoot was just a start. The next steps will depend on whether we can raise funding to allow for more shooting, use of archive material and a complex edit. While working on this we cut together a rough record of the walk for the organisers, the International Brigades Memorial Trust, to show at their London commemoration on July 15th . It seemed to go down well but bears little resemblance to the film we imagine. So, it’s back to the forbidding task of writing proposals and applications.

We see our documentary as a poem, rhythmically paced, interpreting a story while leaving room for reflection and sensual enjoyment. There will be a narration representing the thoughts and conversation of two characters who are never completely identified. They could be read as the two filmmakers puzzling and arguing over their story but they are not literally Pepe and Margaret. Narration will at different moments complement, challenge or reinforce the visuals. The whole will be infused with an atmosphere of uncertainty and suppressed menace.

The sense of the present will be strengthened by the urgency of the past which we’ll portray for itself, with its quality of difference and not as the present wearing fancy dress. We mean to convey how the Spanish Civil War was a catalyst for change at the time, an effect evoked, for example, in Louis MacNeice’s lines about leaving Spain before the war:

‘…………..not realising
That Spain would soon denote
Our grief, our aspirations:
Not knowing that our blunt
Ideals would find their whetstone, that our spirit
Would find its frontier on the Spanish front
Its body in a rag tag army.’

MacNeice might have been thinking primarily of his fellow intellectuals but the sentiment was experienced across the social spectrum. A former Brigadier, Walter Gregory, wrote in his memoirs:

‘I cannot recall any other international or domestic political issue having such an explosive impact upon the British working-class.’

Above all it is this ‘explosive impact’ we want to evoke – the experience of the time and the long trail of memory and myth it left behind, which we want to bounce against our present.

Margaret Dickinson is a film-maker and writer. Her most recent film is City Swimmers, 2006, following a campaign to prevent closure of London’s few natural bathing ponds. Most recent work as producer is in association with an Indian community media centre and includes films for the International Labour Organisation and a series of autobiographical films by young film-makers, linked with a web site developed for teaching anthropology: She is the author of several books and articles including Rogue Reels - Oppositional Film in Britain 1945 -1990 (editor) BFI Publishing 1999.

Pepe Baena is studying for a Ph.D. in Practical Film at Brunel University. His most recent film is After the Battle: The Picture of a Cinema, 2006, about the innovative distributor and exhibitor, the Other Cinema.