Cinemaattic Directors Interview

In 2019, Scotland goes Basque. As part of this, the Basque Spring Film Festival is celebrating the cinema and culture of the Basque Country, a semi-autonomous region straddling northeast Spain and southwest France. TAKE ONE’s Chris Dobson spoke to Alberto M. Valverde and Rafael Cueto, the directors of Cinemaattic and the men behind Basque Spring.

Chris Dobson: To begin with, can you tell us a bit about Cinemaattic?

Alberto M. Valverde and Rafael Cueto: Cinemaattic is a film collective born in Edinburgh almost ten years ago, strongly advocating short films as an original artform with which to experiment and tell stories. Cinemaattic has been many things and has had many different forms, but five years ago we decided that we wanted to go beyond what was a very casual film club to offer great cinema experiences on a monthly basis and connect our film proposals with institutions in Scotland and the UK.

We started promoting Spanish short film nights back then, which was a very niche choice on our side, but we survived and expanded to other cities such as Glasgow, London and Manchester. We were the weirdos to whom people would say: “A Spanish short film night? Good luck with that!”

The programme proposal has changed from its early days: We now welcome documentary and fiction features, whilst animation has always been an important part of our programming and even more so films that blend genres. Today we show shorts, middle length and feature length films. We look for honest films with a strong feeling and a story that is worth sharing. Sometimes these come from festival favourites like Oliver Laxe or Dominga Sotomayor Castillo, whilst others come from film students. We try to give our programmes the feel of a rollercoaster whilst ensuring that they remain a coherent entity.

“Cinemaattic is passionate about great films and bringing people together.”

Our way of programming has become more selective, as we don’t do call for submissions anymore. Instead, in a ‘sniper style of programming’ we go and catch films we love and put them together in a very handcrafted fashion. We watch a lot, we attend many festivals and we start thinking on programmes of films or retrospectives around themes or geographical areas (Chile, Brazil, the Basque Country, Catalonia). This is very rare these days for the cost and time you have to dedicate to it, but it’s the way we like it! And in these days of mass streaming and binge-watching we reclaim the joy of the film experience with people getting together and good thematical programmes presented with passion by the programmers.

Film discussion is essential for us. Beyond our Q&As, in the last two years we have started a regular agenda of director’s talks, masterclasses and workshops bringing world-renowned animators, documentary makers, producers and filmmakers to share their views, with free events in collaboration with Edinburgh College of Art, the Scottish Documentary Institute, the University of Glasgow and the CCA.

The formula works and we have not only survived but also expanded. We are increasingly collaborating with festivals and organisations that we love such as Take One Action, Manipulate, LeithLate and Neu! Reekie! and we have become one of the most active film collectives, bringing great cinematic experiences and films from around the world to Scotland. We are passionate about great films and bringing people together.

CD: Where did the idea for Basque Spring come from and how were the films selected?

AV/RC: The concept behind this retrospective started from the original idea and book by Joxean Fernandez, the director of the Filmoteca Vasca: Basque Cinema: Three Generations of Filmmakers. Our retrospective acknowledges the value of presenting Basque Cinema to audiences worldwide using this idea of ‘three generations of directors’ and also gives space to think about the tensions within the idea of ‘what is Basque cinema’ and ‘what can be considered a generation’ as well as wonder if we may be witnessing the awakening of a fourth generation.

But soon we started to see that many of the films had an intense thematical dialogue between them with shared topics or formal aspects, so the programme focuses particularly on understanding the Basque conflict and rethinking land and tradition. There is always a message that we want to transmit with the selected films and the final selection shows an evolution in the forms of storytelling and the way Basque directors have been influenced by these two themes.

We had a list of musts, films that we consider represent Basque tradition and Basque cinema – some are here, whilst some are not. So we are already thinking about Basque Spring 2!

CD: With screenings in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Manchester and Leeds over the course of April and May, which films in particular would you recommend to those who are new to Basque cinema and culture?

AV/RC: For many, TASIO represents a milestone in Basque Cinema. Together with VACAS and THE SPY WITHIN, these films show the strong connection between the Basques and their land from naturalist perspectives to allegorical ones.

CD: What makes Basque cinema different to Spanish and European cinema?

AV/RC: Basque society is different to the rest of Spain and Europe. Every generalisation is doomed to fail, but there is a closer relation between the Basque people and the land they live in, the mountains, the forests, the soil and the plants, let alone the produce and food they grow. We see a greater awareness of the importance of the family and the value of community.

The Basques seem to pay especial attention to the important things in life, and so they are less likely to be confused or persuaded by American commercials or dreams of a better life. A Basque friend of mine used to say that the Basque Country is the region in Spain with the fewest adverts in the bus stops and on the streets.

“Basque society is different to the rest of Spain and Europe […] there is a closer relation between the Basque people and the land they live in […]”

Santos Zunzunegui, an eminent Basque academic and film critic, wrote extensively about the impossibility of the term ‘Basque cinema’. You can package it and sell it abroad like that and it probably has industry benefits for people to discover films made by Basque directors, but Zunzunegui argues there are not sufficient aesthetical elements to consider the validity of the term ‘Basque cinema’. He continues to write fascinating discussions about Basque cinema and the tensions around what can be considered for instance New Iranian Cinema or Romanian New Wave.

CD: Basque Spring features over a dozen films from the 1980s to the present. How has Basque cinema changed over the last few decades?

AV/RC: That is a massive question! It would take a 12-book encyclopaedia to develop and discuss extensively, but more generally it has been affected by the digital shift and the opportunities opened up by big streaming sites.

Basque Cinema is undergoing a new awakening with the normalisation of Basque language in productions, enhanced participation in international co-productions and the explosion of films rethinking Basque tradition.

A blooming, this is what the new revolution in Basque Cinema feels like. A revolution in which artists work together in understanding and rethinking the Basque Country’s rich customs. Most of the films we present have an intense dialogue with dance, literature and spoken word. It certainly seems like Basque filmmakers work closely with elements from other arts disciplines.

Traditionally Basque directors would have to go to Madrid or Barcelona to make films. Now things have changed and indigenous film culture is growing in the Basque Country, with producers staying in the region. They have also understood that they cannot make films like the Americans, but they can use their own vision and voice to portray in a different way universal and local conflicts.

We’ve shown films like TASIO and VACAS, films that are deeply rooted in Basque culture, yet they were filmed in Spanish back in the day. I can’t speak for the whole of the Basque film industry, but an obvious change that we celebrate is the use of the Basque language in Basque productions.

CD: What is the reception of Basque cinema like in the rest of the Iberian Peninsula?

AV/RC: Traditionally Basques directors used Spanish language in their films to secure distribution and access to greater audiences. But that also has changed and Basque directors are finding new niche audiences also in Spain. Recent successes include LOREAK (FLOWERS), chosen by the Spanish Academy to represent the country in the Oscars, and HANDIA (THE GIANT), which won ten Goyas.

“People are increasingly looking at the cinematic language of films and don’t care if they are in Basque, Finnish or Korean.”

These tend to be individual cases. Spanish audiences are used to watching films that have been dubbed and most content is consumed in Spanish, which affects the way the general public looks at Basque-language films.

Thankfully, niche audiences are flourishing and Basque-language films can now be distributed nationally. People are increasingly looking at the cinematic language of films and don’t care if they are in Basque, Finnish or Korean.

CD: Beyond those featured in Basque Spring, which other Basque directors would you recommend to those who are less familiar with Basque cinema?

AV/RC: There were films by directors like Victor Erice, Julio Medem, Jose Antonio Sistiaga, Helena Taberna, Asier Altuna or Koldo Almandoz that didn’t make it into this retrospective but surely will be in future ones. We would love to do a full retrospective on the cinematography of Montxo Armendariz!

Festivals like San Sebastián, Zinebi in Bilbao and Punto de Vista in Pamplona are fostering a new generation of Basque filmmakers.

CD: Does CinemaAttic plan to showcase films from other parts of the Iberian Peninsula?

AV/RC: Yes! At Cinemaattic we are particularly keen on films in Basque, Catalan and Galician, but we love films no matter where they come from. We specialise in Ibero-American cinema because so much of it is not shown in the UK, so before our summer break we will focus on Latin American films from Nicaragua (May) and Chile (June).

Most of our programming is theme-led and not necessarily focused on specific regions, so often you find films from Catalonia alongside German/Colombian co-productions or Taiwanese-Venezuelan animations and UK/Portuguese shorts.

We are planning a Focus on Galicia for September/October and our biggest project of the year is our Catalan Film Festival that is scheduled to happen in early December, so watch this space!

We promote films from Spain and Ibero-America because we know a little bit more about what’s happening in that part of the world, but we love films regardless of their nationality, length or language.

Our next event focuses on Nicaragua and the women who fought in the Sandinista Revolution, now forgotten in the history books. We reclaim their importance and celebrate Nicaraguan culture in collaboration with the Human Geography Research Group and Scottish Solidarity with Nicaragua. This will be on 17 May in Edinburgh and 18 May at the CCA in Glasgow.

The Basque Spring Film Festival continues until 23 May with screenings across the UK. You can follow TAKE ONE’s coverage of the festival here.