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Catalan cinema is on the path to international recognition

‘Pa Negre’ (‘Black Bread’) and its nomination to represent Spain at the 2012 Oscars reflects the desire of Catalan productions to shine with their own light, without losing their identity nor language along the way. Catalan cinema has reached a new stage in its history. Powered by a generation of young directors and a renewal of themes, Catalonia’s film industry wants to expand its borders and become part of the international cinema market.

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02 December 2011 06:30 PM

by

ACN / Sara Gómez

Barcelona (ACN).- The release of Pa Negre (Catalan for Black Bread) in 2010 marked a turning point in the history of film creation and production in Catalonia. This popular outlook is a recent phenomenon. For decades, the Catalan film industry was not well known outside of its borders by anyone who was not a film lover. Always included inside the general concept of Spanish cinema, a Catalan production had to carry out a titanic effort to shine within the national market. However, Pa Negre\u2019s recent nomination to compete as the Spanish candidate for Best Foreign Language Film Award at the 2012 Oscars has unleashed an impressive chain reaction that forecasts a new era for cinema made in Catalonia.


The key to this success is the subject of debate among experts, but a common belief leads them to speak about an improvement in production quality and the rise of a new generation of directors capable of creating industrial products without losing the essence of author cinema.

Another matter for discussion has been focusing on what should be considered Catalan cinema. Are Catalan movies only those shot in Catalan or those productions created with Catalan resources? Some make an analogy with literature, and consider the language a film is shot in to be the main element of classification. However, movie critic Josep Maria Caparrós considers Catalan cinema to be that which is \u201Cchannelled in Catalonia and with a major Catalan production\u201D, whether it includes films in Catalan or not. Esteve Riambau, Director of Catalonia\u2019s Cinematheque, prefers to downplay the issue and firmly states that Catalan cinema \u201Cis that produced in Catalonia\u201D. No more, no less.

The Catalan cinema\u2019s trio of aces

Experts have defined the nature of Catalan cinema, the next step in the classification process is that film productions currently developed in Catalonia insert themselves in one \u2013sometimes two\u2013 of three cinema genres that dominate the Catalan movie market: documentary productions, author cinema and industrial or genre films. 

Documentaries as the catalyst for change

Documentary cinema was the first genre responsible for unleashing the transformation process of Catalan contemporary cinema in 1999, when the first feature film promoted by a university was shown at Sitges Film Festival. Mones com la Becky (Monkeys like Becky) by Joaquim Jordà and Núria Villazán converted documentary cinema into the starting point for experimentation methods that fiction had blocked. \u201CIt is a minority production that explores language\u201D, says Esteve Riambau, Director of Catalonia\u2019s Cinematheque. This tendency proved that quality cinema was possible outside robust industrial values and claimed a generational renewal.

Other key names from this trend are José Luis Guerín \u2013with his film En construcción (Under construction - 2000)\u2013, Mercedes Álvarez \u2013former film editor of Guerín that directed El cielo gira (The sky turns - 2005), awarded at the International Film Festival Rotterdam\u2013 or Carles Bosch and Josep Maria Domènech, whose Cuban Balseros (Rafters - 2002) achieved a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2004.

Recovered author cinema

Alongside Catalan documentary cinema, a second film genre has consolidated its place inside the field of fiction: the author cinema. Movie critic Josep Maria Caparrós defines this film genre as a movement that \u201Canalyses our surroundings\u201D. But author cinema is also a branch that brings together two different nourishment sources.

On the one hand, this artistic product is represented by veteran directors that have adapted their styles to the new trends throughout the decades such as Ventura Pons, who has been a key figure of Catalan cinema since the beginning of the1980\u2019s. His film career took off with a documentary production \u2013Ocaña, retrat intermitent (Ocaña, intermittent picture - 1978) \u2013. Pons took advantage of the liberal climate of the late 70s, 80s and early 90s to launch an irrelevant but funny series of comic movies full of spicy behaviour. Què t\u2019hi jugues, Mari Pili? (What\u2019s your bet, Mari Pili? - 1990), Aquesta nit o mai (Tonight or never - 1991) or Rosita, please! (1993) are three examples from this period, which later gave way to more experimental and literary styled films such as Actrius (Actresses - 1997) or Morir (o no) (To die (or not) - 2000). The creations of Pons over the last few decades have shown a more realistic approach to everyday characters. This is the case for Anita no pierde el tren (Anita does not miss the train - 2001), about a recently unemployed cinema ticket clerk that has a love story with a married man; Food of love (2002), a Spanish-German film shot in English that was at the Official Selection of the Berlin International Film Festival the same year, or A la deriva (Drifting - 2010), shown at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival.

Director, screenwriter and producer Pere Portabella is also part of the re-emergence of author cinema. Portabella, who lived through the difficult times of censorship in the Franco dictatorship and the establishment of Spanish democracy, sets himself as one of the most relevant figures of Catalan avant-garde cinema in the 1970s. Despite having broader film production experience in the field of short movies, Portabella\u2019s experimental style also transcends his larger creations. His latest work Die Stille vor Bach (The silence before Bach - 2007), looks at the approach to music through the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, and was presented at the Venice International Film Festival. It is the embodiment of Portabella\u2019s love for anecdotal absence. 

The new author cinema

\u201CA generation of new directors. A generation that couldn\u2019t care less about the dramas of the past and that focuses on daily life and love and work relations\u201D. With these words, professor and movie critic Josep Maria Caparrós shapes the silhouette of the renewed Catalan author cinema. This latest trend started back in the decade of the 90s and is characterised by \u201Cthe eruption of young people as the result of the great work of the ESCAC \u2013Cinema and Audiovisual University School of Catalonia\u2013\u201C, explains a smiling Caparrós, who teaches there.

ESCAC\u2019s production company, Escándalo Films, has been crucial in the expansion of Catalan cinema. Since its birth in 1999, Escándalo Films has had a clear purpose of fostering the incorporation of young artists to the film and audiovisual industries. Features such as the futuristic Eve (2011), fresh and delightful Blog (2010) or Mar Coll\u2019s intimate drama Tres dies amb la família (Three days with the family - 2009) are examples of the success of the company, which includes the production of more than 200 short films that combine over 400 awards.

The French launching platform

The Festival de Cannes has served as a springboard for many of these revelation directors. Albert Serra\u2019s Honor de Cavalleria (Knighthood honour - 2006) achieved great reviews at the French Festival, a well as his El cant dels ocells (The song of birds - 2008), a story that revolves around the story of the Three Wise Men in the Bible. The autobiographical Marc Recha film Pau i el seu germà (Pau and his brother - 2001) entered the Cannes Official Selection in 2001, whereas his collage of daily stories Les mans buides (The empty hands - 2003) was chosen for the festival\u2019s section \u2018Un certain regard\u2019 in 2003. Jaime Rosales is the third name that completes this list of Catalan directors that looked for their lucky star at the French Riviera city with titles like Las horas del día (The hours of the day - 2004) or La soledad (Solitary Fragments - 2007).

A long way from recovering first place in the cinema race

All these successful international films produced in Catalonia, represent what Caparrós sees as the attempt by Catalan cinema \u201Cto spread its idiosyncrasy and language\u201D. Caparrós remembers the times when Catalonia was Spain\u2019s main cinema production centre, before Franco\u2019s dictatorship centralised the entire film industry in Madrid after the Spanish Civil War. In the 1960s, the so-called \u2018School of Barcelona\u2019, a group of intellectuals and directors from the Catalan bourgeoisie  (including Pere Portabella), made an unsuccessful attempt to produce films far from Spanish mainstream movies. The winds of change eventually came after Franco\u2019s death in 1975. For the past twenty years, the Catalan cinema sector has sought to recover its place at the top with the resurgence of revelation directors. Now it is time for the Catalan public to live up to the open challenge of consuming their own home grown cinema, exhorts Caparrós.

Genre films: Catalan cinema\u2019s industrial will

Not all Catalan cinema productions belong to the border territories of documentary or author cinema. Esteve Riambau, Director of Catalonia\u2019s Cinematheque, believes that  the film industry of Catalonia has an \u201Cindustrial determination\u201D. This refers firstly to the consolidation of the successful field of horror movies, also promoted by the Sitges International Film Festival, the first fantasy film festival in the world. Following this trend we find Catalan directors that have caused interest in the American market . Jaume Balagueró started his career at the Sitges Film Festival with Els sense nom (Nameless - 1999) and since then has continued to dazzle the film market with Darkness (2002), shot in English, or the unusual Rec (2007) \u2013codirected with Paco Plaza\u2013, a zombie movie shot as a television reality show that had its own American-remake. El orfanato (The orphanage - 2007), José A. Bayona\u2019s opera prima, also generated international attention. .

The \u201Cindustrial will\u201D has a second important projection when referring to Catalan production companies. The Mediapro group, founded in 1994 in Barcelona, has helped to strengthen the presence of Catalan cinema among Spanish films. Salvador (2006), a film by Manuel Huerga based on the life of a young Catalan anarchist executed in the final years of Franco\u2019s dictatorship, and Isabel Coixet\u2019s last film, Mapa dels sons de Tòquio (Map of the sounds of Tokyo - 2009), are two examples of Mediapro\u2019s activities.

The case of Barcelona born director Isabel Coixet is of special interest to the cinema world as she first started in the advertising industry as a filmmaker specialised in advertisements for several international brands before making the leap into feature films. Although her first movies did not have the expected international impact, she eventually achieved worldwide projection thanks to Mi vida sin mí (My life without me - 2003), a discovery of the appetite for life. The secret life of words (2005) and Elegy (2008), starring Tim Robbins and Ben Kingsley respectively, have earned her the recognition of foreign critics. However, Coixet\u2019s films are mainly produced outside Catalonia and shot in English, and thus could not be considered as Catalan cinema, despite the filmmaker\u2019s origins.

Pa Negre\u2019s bet for the middle road

When asked to summarise Catalan cinema today in one sentence, Esteve Riambau is clear: \u201CThe consolidation of two models, apparently antagonists, but complementary in reality\u201D. Riambau talks about the addition of minority cinema \u2013 represented by documentary and author cinemas\u2013, and industrial productions \u2013horror movies and wider public addressed films\u2013. And in the middle of all this is Pa Negre (Black bread - 2010), a film by Agustí Villaronga based on the novel of the same name by Catalan writer Emili Teixidor. The Director of Catalonia\u2019s Cinematheque believes that Villaronga\u2019s creation gathers elements from both branches, a statement that explains its great impact. \u201CPa Negre is an example of author cinema that has reached the public, and with subsequent international success\u201D, says Riambau.

According to Riambau, Pa Negre\u2019s resonance means \u201Cthat people now watch Catalan cinema not because it is Catalan, but because it is good cinema\u201D. And in the same line he added that: \u201CGood cinema has no sense if it does not reach the public\u201D. The Spanish candidate for the Academy Awards is a film entirely shot in Catalan, which had great results at the box office. It has achieved the double objective of reaching the public \u2013whether it is Catalan, Spanish or foreign\u2013 and, at the same time, has opened a small gap inside a tough market run by the American majors.

A difficult challenge for the future of Catalan cinema

Catalan cinema now faces its next challenge: how to fit into the international market. The main problem, says Caparrós, is that \u201Cinternational critics maks no distinction between Catalan and Spanish cinema\u201D. \u201CThe concept of Catalonia is not fully understood abroad\u201D, complains the film critic, who stresses the search for \u201Cquality cinema\u201D as a lighthouse for new generations of professionals. And he adds: \u201CIf we produce by-products, it won\u2019t work. Films like Torrente only prove the intellectual crisis our country is going through\u201D. Caparrós concludes that maintaining \u201Cgood scripts, actors and directors\u201D is important for Catalan cinema because it is the path it must follow.

Esteve Riambau, Director of Catalonia\u2019s Cinematheque agrees with Josep Maria Caparrós when he says that \u201CCatalan cinema has been under suspicion for a long time\u201D. Luckily, he points out, \u201Cthe situation has shifted for the better\u201D and Catalan cinema \u201Cmust continue its production with Pa Negre\u2019s lesson learned and with no intention of cloning the same product\u201D.

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  • A caption from the Catalan movie 'Pa Negre', to represent Spain at the 2012 Oscars (by Massa d'Or / ACN)

  • A caption from the Catalan movie 'Pa Negre', to represent Spain at the 2012 Oscars (by Massa d'Or / ACN)
Movie critic Josep Maria Caparrós and Esteve Riambau, Director of the Catalan Cinematheque, reflect on Catalan cinema