Catalan Film Academy President Isona Passola: “We can now see the light at the end of the tunnel”

Isona Passola, the producer of the internationally-acclaimed Catalan film ‘Pa Negre’ (Black Bread), the Spanish contender for an Oscar in 2013, believes that “Catalan culture can be appreciated worldwide”. Passola has made many historical documentaries and is now convinced that “life acquires meaning when working for collective benefit”. Last year she presented ‘L’Endemà’, a documentary aimed at countering the arguments against Catalan independence and financed through crowd-funding. Passola, the current president of the Catalan Film Academy, is “a true defender of the right to form a family” and “has never lost the joie de vivre”.

Isona Passola, during the interview (by M. Fayos)
Isona Passola, during the interview (by M. Fayos) / Mar Fayos / Marina Force Castells

Mar Fayos / Marina Force Castells

March 3, 2015 09:37 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- Isona Passola, the current president of the Catalan Film Academy, is convinced that “life acquires meaning when working for collective benefit”. As the producer of the internationally-acclaimed Catalan film ‘Pa Negre’ (Black Bread), the Spanish contender for an Oscar in 2013, she believes that shooting a film in the Catalan language is a bonus when presenting it abroad. In 2014, she released a crowd-funding-financed documentary, ‘L’Endemà’, which deals with the current Catalonia independence debate. In her sixties, Passola is riding high in her career, but remains critical of male leadership in the cinema industry. Proud of her maternity, she is a hard-worker, but “has never lost the joie de vivre”.  

What is the current situation of the Catalan cinema industry? 

Well, we could say that Catalan cinema has ended its journey through the desert. It has been five years since some films succeeded in terms of audience. This prosperous period suddenly finished when the Spanish Culture Ministry dropped all protections on cinema and raised the VAT on cinema tickets to 21%. Furthermore, it did not create a law on sponsorship nor protection against piracy and copyright infringement. These measures hit the cinema industry really hard! Now, however, we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel because the Catalan Parliament has passed an act establishing a tax for content providers, aimed towards boosting the audiovisual sector.

Could we say that this law is a remedy to the industry’s dry spell?

Sure, this tax would allow us to produce at the same level of quality and quantity as we used to four years ago. For the first time, we can say that we will stay afloat! People have suffered from the crisis, but nobody knows how hard it was for the cinema industry…We had to make films with a very small budget and with the crew working for no salary. Many production companies have closed…However, we have managed to do great screenplays, which have been really successful abroad, such as ‘El Niño’, a Catalan co-production with a high budget, and ‘Els Rastres del Sandal’ and ‘10.000 km’ with low budgets, but lots of creativity.

What are the challenges still facing the industry?

Well, Spain is the country with the most pirated content in Europe and the highest cultural VAT. The People’s Party has seriously harmed culture…Nowadays the cinema industry is undergoing a difficult situation because government subsidies were practically reduced to zero. We received a 5 million euro subvention when our neighbours in France received a 700 million grant. The Catalan Government spent just 1% of its budget on culture and it cannot legislate against piracy nor sponsorship, because this is the responsibility of the Spanish Government. That’s why it became necessary to establish a new tax on operators to take the cinema out of this dead end.

Your last work is a documentary called ‘L’Endemà’ (The Day After). What is it about and what differences does it have with your previous film ‘Cataluña-Espanya’?

‘Cataluña-Espanya’ [released in 2008] shows Spanish and Catalan intellectuals conversing about the country’s territorial distribution. Catalonia’s independence was then a taboo issue, despite Spain being a democratic country…When I was on tour presenting this documentary, people asked me to make a film about Catalonia’s independency, so I did it!

‘L’Endemà’ speaks about the country Catalonia will become the day after we achieve independence, what this new state would be like. People are no longer afraid of talking about independence. On the contrary, they are very interested in knowing more about it. The film was funded by 8,170 micro-sponsors.

In this sense, what do you think about Catalonia’s independence?

I really believe it is a great solution for the future of both Spain and Catalonia. It will benefit their economies, for sure. I am pro-federalist person, but always after independence.

‘L’Endemà’ wants to counter the arguments based on fear used for those who are not sure about the viability of a Catalan state. The issues I was not able to counter through the specialists are reflected in the film through the actors’ work. It was really difficult to explain the emotional side of independence given the deep emotional ties many people have with Spain for family reasons!

Are you satisfied with the reception of the documentary?

I feel grateful because I had great colleagues who really helped me during the process. Now, almost every night, I have to introduce the documentary all over Catalonia. Furthermore, it was three months on the cinema screens and has also been broadcasted on TV! You should bear in mind, though, that nobody could succeed or even work in the cinema industry without a great team of helpers and also sponsors.

Do you think crowd-funding will be a common way of financing films in the future?

Definitely not! Crowd-funding is only useful for small projects. I couldn’t have made a film such as ‘Pa Negre’ with this kind of financing. Although ‘L’Endemà’ is the result of the most successful crowd-funding campaign in Europe, we have raised more than 300,000 euros, this amount of money is not enough to fund a big film!

Do you think ‘Pa Negre’, the Catalan contender for an Oscar in 2013, was your biggest success as a producer? 

Each film has its value and also its own audience. I am proud of the documentaries I have made, such as the one called ‘Mirant el cel’ (‘Looking at the sky’), about the bomb attacks in Barcelona, in 1938, during the Spanish Civil War. This kind of screenplay did not have the same level of success as some others I have made, but they are contributing to the Catalan historical memory and they are also making a social critique. Critical thinking is crucial in a society. Usually I get a positive response from the audience and the cinema critics too, but with ‘Pa Negre’, a Catalan language film directed by Agustí Villaronga and produced by myself in 2010, we achieved an enormous success.

Despite being shot in Catalan…

Yes! Sometimes cinema professionals are afraid of shooting a screenplay in Catalan and it is a bonus when presenting it to festivals and abroad. The Catalan language has a wide market. ‘Pa Negre’ proved that films shot in Catalan can reach a global audience.

Did you expect that the film would get such a great reception?

I know that Catalan culture can be appreciated worldwide. Our painters and writers have shown that and they were among the best in their fields. Catalan cinema has been under the Spanish influence far too long...We are undergoing a renaissance now. I was glad and honoured to represent my culture around the world and to experience its amazing reception. Cinema is a tool for cultural dissemination and is Catalonia’s best calling-card in the world.

How would you define the social value of historical films?

Cinema is a very useful tool to get to know ourselves better and it also offers us the possibility to be known worldwide. ‘Pa Negre’ has received awards from Tokyo to Salzburg. We also travelled to New York and Los Angeles, and we could have gone everywhere if we had wanted to. ‘Pa Negre’ has succeeded in every single country where a war and post-war crisis has been suffered, accompanied by the humiliation of those who have been defeated… 

Before going into the world of cinema you studied history. This sphere plays a significant role in your films, doesn’t it?

Yes, sure. I am really interested in history, politics... In every single field related to society. I really love doing historical cinema, although it is much more expensive, because all the cultures have cultivated this genre, except the Catalan one. When there is truth in a historical film, it becomes totally contemporary. The past can help you understand the present: the here and now.

Do you consider yourself a bookworm?

I am a compulsive reader. I have always known that I was born for the humanities. Culture saved me from the Francoist miseries and had a true impact on me. I have adapted many books to films: ‘El Mar’ by Blai Bonet, ‘Pa Negre’ by Emili Teixidor…In fact, I am working on a screenplay based on Joan Sales’s ‘Incerta Glòria’ (Uncertain Glory), which is an amazing literary work, but also an historical one.

Do you have any other projects in mind?

Yes. I am also in the process of producing a small documentary about the 60’s in Catalonia, the arrival of Pop music and the birth of the Nova Cançó [‘New Song’, an artistic movement that promoted Catalan music during the Francoist dictatorship].

Catalan culture and nationalism form part of your family background, don’t they?

Well, I was born and brought up by a family that fought against Franco’s regime through cultural resistance. My father, Ermengol Passola, was involved with the New Song movement. He wanted to give the Catalan language a public dimension it didn’t have, because its use was forbidden and reduced to the private sphere. It is natural for me to think that life acquires meaning if we work for society, not for our own benefit. Seeing my father supporting the New Song and spending his energy and money on the cause really left a mark on me. From him, I learnt that we have the power to change society and the course of history...The current situation [Independence movement in Catalonia] proves this to be the case!

Have you managed to combine both your private and your professional life?

Well, I am professionally really active, but also a true supporter of the right to form a family. I wish I had more than one child, but it took me a long time to have my son. To juggle children and a career is an unresolved matter in Catalonia. I think we should fight to get to the level of the Nordic Countries, where a balance exists between having a job and raising a family. However, this scenario is only possible if Catalonia can manage its own resources.

You juggled both things well, didn’t you?

I was able to combine everything because those people surrounding me were really comprehensive and supportive, but it is tough. Women, however, are really capable of doing many things at the same time and this is not an issue. I am really active and I managed to do everything. I see motherhood as a gift. Bringing a child up is an act of creation, it is more transcendental than making a sculpture or a film.

Do you think cinema is a man’s world?

The whole of society I would say. Those who give orders at the university where I teach are men, although 50% of the teachers in Catalonia are women, even more qualified than men. People should hang their heads in shame…I’m so outraged by it! The small presence of women in senior posts and in the media is a disgrace.

Is there any type of film you haven’t made and you would like to?

I really love making critical and political documentaries, but I cannot wait to produce a romantic comedy. When we become normal and all this is over I would like to do rom coms, because I think Catalonia is lacking them.

The Catalan actress Aina Clotet describes you as a “crazy wise woman”, why?

Because we usually spend the summer together and she sees my funniest side. I love laughing with my friends and I have a great sense of humour. I have never lost my joie de vivre! However, I need to be down-to-earth to bring complex projects to life and I have to be up to the economic and political circumstances we are confronting. All this requires seriousness and rigour. 

As the President of the Catalan Film Academy, would you say that leadership is a huge responsibility?

I believe my main contribution to the Academy has been convincing the Catalan authorities of the importance of cinema as an art form with more repercussions than others. Cinema is an important part of our cultural identity. The French have known this for many years, but here we have progressively discovered this.

What about the presence of the Catalan language in the cinematographic industry?

First of all, it is important to say that all movies made in Catalonia, regardless of the language in which they are shot, constitute Catalan cinema. We appreciate diversity! However, it is true that the Catalan language is very under represented. We should encourage a policy were a minimum of 50% of the films are in Catalan.

We could say that cinema is the last field of Catalan culture to be normalised. My main goal as the President of the Catalan Film Academy is to do just that, then I will live in peace…

What is your opinion about the work done by your predecessor, the actor Joel Joan?

He did an amazing job! He founded the Academy at a time when it was inconceivable, because we were all prisoners of our mindset, strongly related to the Spanish Academy and the Goya Awards. He had the grit and the energy to create, alongside his team, a Catalan Film Academy aiming to join efforts with the Spanish one, not going against it. What he did was worthy of merit! He set it up and did it really well. My work now is to consolidate it.

Changing the subject and talking now about the Gaudí Awards, given by the Academy, do you think they have achieved their goal?

Absolutely. The Gaudí awards were created to disseminate Catalan Cinema and I believe they have been totally consolidated. The seventh edition is the best evidence of this. They have accomplished their goal, which was to promote people’s knowledge of Catalan films and directors.

Do you think you will continue in charge of the Catalan Film Academy for a long while?

Well…It has been four years since I took the presidency and it is pretty hard. It requires a lot of time and mental energy. I really love working ‘generously’, but I also run a film production company [Massa d’Or] and make screenplays. As you can imagine, both things demand time and allow me to let off steam... But, you know what? I’d rather work for the community than live isolated in an ivory tower.