How Female Filmmakers Are Changing Spanish Cinema

The Bookshop - Still 1 -Publicity-EMBED 2017
Courtesy of Celsius

Bill Nighy in the upcoming drama The Bookshop.

Isabel Coixet — whose 'The Bookshop' hits theaters on release Aug. 24 — is the best-known of a new generation of women directors from Catalan whose movies are a world away from the melodrama and machismo associated with Spanish film.

Recent international news coverage of Catalonia, the autonomous region of northeast Spain, has largely focused on a sometimes bloody separatist drive to declare independence from Spain and a local government in shambles.

But against the chaotic backdrop, a new wave of Catalan cinema has cohered. At its vanguard are women making small-scale, semi-autobiographical movies that have become hot commodities on the festival circuit, helped Barcelona wrest some of the movie capital moxie from Madrid and have offered a slice of Spanish cinema a world away from the camp melodrama and machismo most familiar to international audiences.

Carla Simon, Elena Martin and Neus Ballus are among the most promising female Catalan filmmakers working today. Simon’s Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993) won best first feature at the 2017 Berlinale, where it also snagged best feature in the Generation Kplus sidebar. Martín, an actress, made her directorial debut last year with the well-received Julia Ist (Julia Is). And in 2013 Ballus’ La Plaga (The Plague) scored a Berlin nod for best debut film.

“There’s a new generation of directors here,” Simon says. “That’s for sure.”

Simon studied film in London, but attributes the female Catalan wave to increased educational opportunities for women in the region. The film programs at ESCAC and Pompeu Fabra, both established in the early 1990s, have produced many of today’s standouts. The conversations begun in those schools continued and created a crucial “element of energy and references we [women] give to each other,” Simon says. “The more often women see other women directing films, the more they dare to do it themselves.”

“It’s a generation, especially among the women, of collaboration” Martin adds. “We studied together and maintain a communication between these more alternative styles. It’s a privilege to share in the process.”

That sense of community may explain why these films, in Martin's words, “have in common a feminine sensibility, and not only because they're by women, but because we're a generation with a different, less rigid emotional education than our parents.”

These filmmakers are the daughters of La Movida. The countercultural movement was born in Madrid but rippled across Spain in the late 70s and early 80s; a sex- and drug-fueled cultural rebirth that followed the death of Franco in 1975 and the country's subsequent transition to a still-vulnerable democracy.

Simon, who at 32 was not around to witness La Movida's emergence or rise, notes that that earlier, peacocking generation witnessed, and helped, “Spain open up to the world.”

One of the effects of the La Movida movement in Catalonia was the establishment of those very educational and mentorship programs that have resulted in current bumper crop of female filmmakers. Initially adopted in the region to rework the industry’s gender imbalance, the programs found in Catalonia's restive politics, economic strife and identity confusion, a perfect microcosm of the challenges confronting Europe. The result has been fertile creative ground on which a new generation of female filmmakers can create delicate character studies set outside the commercial mainstream.

On the surface, these Catalan directors are all making deeply personal films that can be hard to separate from the singular perspectives of their creators. And the movies, though tuned to the prosaic, draw societal contexts as varied as La Movida’s hangover in Summer 1993, the fragility of a borderless European Union in Julia Is, and the devastation wrought by the Great Recession in The Plague.

Yet this new generation is bound by a common commitment to intimate narratives and pointillistic attention to emotion and place.

Summer 1993 and Julia Is, like other films lifting this Catalan tide, are coming-of-age stories with a gimlet eye on biological and chosen families. The observational acumen and narrative efficiency of these character studies have helped shift the critical perception of Spanish cinema away from the starchy Civil War dramas and brawny crime thrillers that dominate the local box office, as well as the lush theatricality of La Movida paterfamilias Pedro Almodovar.

The films have also held a mirror to shortcomings and prejudices entrenched in the Spanish industry. The largest hurdle these directors face is a lack of funds. While financial constraints are hardly unique to this cohort, they’ve been downright draconian in Spain. The 2008 financial crisis hit the country particularly hard. And while the broader economy has begun a promising rebound, youth unemployment remains stubbornly perched near 35 percent.

Compounding the problem are the recent elimination of a key production subsidy and a reliance on increasingly anemic government and public television financing, down 79 percent since 2010. Such strictures often necessitate international co-productions that favor more commercial projects. Those include The Bookshop, an English-language film by the esteemed Catalan Isabel Coixet, 58. The film, opening stateside on August 24, stars Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson and was bankrolled by Spanish, British and German companies.

“We’re all directors who’ve never known what it’s like to make a film with money,” Simon says. “The crisis came just as we were coming out of school. So we’re used to making films with nothing, basically. And I think this is the difference. We suddenly had to learn to be a lot more creative.”

Lightly-fictionalized autobiography, as well as a focus on the quotidian, can been seen as the natural results of production austerity. In Summer 1993, Simon recalls the summer she moved as a 6-year-old from Barcelona to the countryside after the AIDS-related death of her mother. The movie grew out of several shorts examining her family that lingered on Proustian moments like two girls playing with their mom’s lipstick. Julia Is follows its Catalan protagonist (played by Martin) through a formative stint spent clubbing, Skyping and occasionally studying in Berlin as an Erasmus scholar. Elena Trape’s Distances, due out in Spain in Sept.7, also follows young Catalans transplanted to, and coming of age in, the German capital.

It’s fitting that many of these films take place outside of Spain and its recognizable cityscapes. Despite their success, many of its leading lights of the new Catalan film movement say Spain still suffers from an inferiority complex (particularly in relation to France) that afflicts both the film industry and domestic audiences.

“We have a self-esteem problem,” Ballus, 38, says. “And there aren’t many people asking, ‘How can we improve the language of cinema from Spain?’”

There’s also the issue of a stagnant Spanish box office, owing partly to one of the world’s most rampant cultures of online piratry. A prohibitive 21 percent sales tax on movie tickets instituted in 2013 also hobbled sales, which even before inflation remain at 2001 levels.

Against this grim background, local filmmakers and movie lovers are taking both solace and pride in the strong Catalan showing at recent festivals.

“If you’re successful outside of Spain, then the right people here will say, ‘Oh, OK, we’re going to promote you,’” says Astrid Meseguer, a film critic at La Vanguardia.

Simon and Martín credit the confluence of female Catalan talents to regional initiatives including associations like Dones Visuals (Visual Women). That organization in February selected six (of 43 submitted) in-development projects to benefit from the inaugural Accio Viver program, in which established female directors guide newcomers through the filming process and introduce them to producers.

“It’s a generation, especially among the women, of collaboration and shared references,” says Martín. “We studied together and maintain a communication between these more alternative styles. It’s a privilege to share in the process.”

Barcelona has also emerged as a young creative hub to rival Lisbon and Berlin, thanks partly to an affordable cost of living (one benefit of the economic crisis). A less quantifiable trigger of the Catalan boom is that the region’s persistent political instability has lit a fire under local artists whose limited employment options free them to pursue film.

While their work does not explicitly tackle political isssues, it is clearly informed by it.

“I think when you’re actually living in a moment that will be remembered as a historically important one, you don’t quite realize it,” Simon says. “But we’re in this moment. And what’s happening, it’s all about feeling.”