On Finishing Memories of a Future: The Spanish Civil War 70 Years on

By Margaret Dickinson

bob-doyle-2.jpgBob Doyle, veteran International Brigadier

I love the double learning process which goes with making a documentary, not only playing with the medium but exploring the subject. It is only sad that it is never possible to pass on to the audience the whole experience. Not long ago I finished a feature length documentary about the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, directed jointly with Spanish filmmaker Pepe Petos. The deeper we went into our subject, the more we felt we had hardly started.

At the beginning Pepe probably knew less than I did about the history but was certainly more involved in it. He had long been uneasy with the knowledge that his much-loved grandfather had fought in Franco’s army. For him the research and filming opened the door to a wider historical understanding which left him less concerned about his family’s past but keener to take part in Spanish politics now and more decisively in favour of ousting the Monarchy and declaring the third Republic.

For me, research and meeting veterans reinforced what I already knew and felt about the war and dictatorship but the history since Franco’s death in 1975 held several surprises. Previously, I had vaguely assumed that the return of democracy had brought a full restoration of rights for Republicans. Now I know that there has been a long struggle over this. Similarly, although veterans of the International Brigades started to revisit Spain soon after the dictatorship ended, there remains even now a grumbling controversy about whether they are entitled to official welcome and thanks.

Although the film is finished, I continue to look out for anything relevant in the news and the day I started jotting down these thoughts, two items caught my eye. One was a photograph of a version of Picasso’s painting, Guernica, covering a wall in Belfast. As an accompanying article tells us, the artists responsible were on opposite sides during the troubles but recently cooperated harmoniously to create two murals, the Guernica and another celebrating the International Brigades. The second news item was a report that Spanish right wing extremists have removed a plaque honouring the memory of 90 British volunteers killed during the battle of the Ebro, leaving graffiti saying ‘the Falange is still fighting’. These contrasting stories demonstrate how the memory of the Civil War remains alive, inspiring some with the desire for peace and reconciliation but providing others with a pretext for acts of hatred.

bob-doyle.jpgTom Mann banner

The report about the Ebro plaque echoes a side story in our film about a monument to the International Brigades in Cardiff which two people featured in our film had campaigned for and which was subsequently attacked by members of the British National Party. What should we make of such monument bashing? In the Welsh case it was undoubtedly more than a thuggish prank. Casual vandals there would hardly know enough history to select the target and the perpetrators were not kids but men who came with a lorry-load of pallets intending to wreck the structure with fire.

The burning of the Cardiff monument was one of many interesting but tangential stories we came across. Some we shot, some we left. We had agreed to feel our way, following a set of questions rather than a fixed script. Until we started editing we were unsure which, if any, of these diversions would find a place in the film but once we began assembling we decided about most of them very quickly. Judging from preview comments, these elements are the most likely to divide an audience, singled out for praise by some viewers but found by others to be redundant. It will be interesting to see if reactions are determined by whether a viewer is primarily interested in history or in the politics of remembrance. One of the most difficult things about imagining the past is detaching from it everything we now know followed.

Historians have argued intensely over the role of the International Brigades and material released since the Moscow archives opened has ignited a new phase of debate. However, few question that they were volunteers; that they numbered about 35,000 drawn from 50 countries and that, far from being a public relations exercise, they were effective fighters deployed on some of the most dangerous sections of the front. Those are central aspects of the story, which explain why there has been a vigorous campaign to raise memorials to the Brigades and why it has been met with active hostility.

It seems to me logical that now, irrespective of any anniversary, the memory should be an object of struggle. This is a time of growing doubt about the wisdom or inevitability of the neo-liberal project. Its evident failure, after quarter of a century and more, to deliver the promised ‘trickle down’ is reviving interest in a contrasting politics of internationalism and solidarity, of which the International Brigades and their defence of the democratically elected Republic was a peculiarly powerful manifestation. We hope our film helps to celebrate those values.

Margaret Dickinson is a writer and film-maker. It is hoped that Memories of a Future will be screened in London in the near future. Watch the Vertigo website for details.