'La Chana': Film Review | IDFA 2016

La Chana - Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
Flamenco-dancer tribute proceeds via carefully measured steps.

Newcomer Lucija Stojevic's documentary on the legendary flamenco dancer won the audience award at the Dutch nonfiction jamboree.

The beat goes on in Lucija Stojevic's La Chana, a documentary portrait of the eponymous living legend of Spanish flamenco dancing. Buoyed by the passionate energy of its irrepressible sexagenarian subject, it's a lively compendium of rousing archival materials and present-day fly-on-the-wall footage as the Catalan superstar nicknamed La Chana surveys the emotional rollercoaster of her tough life and remarkable career while gearing up for one last comeback. Premiering in a sidebar at the world's largest documentary festival, IDFA, it beat out a huge field to nab the audience prize — pretty much guaranteeing plentiful festival and small-screen bookings throughout 2017.

Recent winners of IDFA's audience award include Oscar-laureate Searching for Sugar Man and nominee 5 Broken Cameras, while last year's victor Sonita also is widely tipped for imminent Academy recognition. Like Sonita, La Chana is an admiring, even adoring portrait of a strong-willed female performer rising above the restrictions of the patriarchal society into which she was born. In the case of La Chana — also known as Antonia Santiago Amador — this was the fiercely traditional gypsy society of Franco-era Spain, as personified by her brutally possessive husband.

Never named here — La Chana pointedly only ever refers to him as "the father of my daughter" — the husband exerted iron control over La Chana's burgeoning career in the 1960s. "He was my master, my owner, and I was his servant," recalls La Chana. She's now much more happily married to the unassuming fishmonger Felix, an individual of self-effacing dry humor. The first husband took particular fright when the dark-eyed beauty came to the attention of Peter Sellers and contributed a show-stopping restaurant-scene cameo to his 1967 vehicle The Bobo — her black hair whirling as she stamps her feet into the frenzy of tightly controlled movement that characterizes flamenco at its ecstatic heights. 

The shadowy husband turned down Hollywood offers and effectively forced La Chana into an early retirement, from which she emerged triumphantly via a 1977 TV special — where her fiery tempestuousness eclipsed international notables on the same bill such as Cliff Richard and Demis Roussos.

The 1980s saw another comeback, this time yielding global acclaim at iconic venues in London, New York and even further afield, as La Chana — in the classic style of blues performers — poured the anguish of her private life into her art: "I had it all, but I felt like an orphan with nothing," she sighs. In the words of her daughter, La Chana suffered "constant abuse" from her husband in a rags-to-riches tale that echoes Stateside equivalents such as Linda Lovelace and Tina Turner.

In her late sixties at the time of filming, the dignified, dowager-like La Chana has mobility issues but is still very much a "force of nature." She retains just enough "strength, speed and soul" — the crucial elements of flamenco — to be coaxed into one last show, delivering her trademark intensity from a seated position during a one-off performance. This gala provides the picture with a suitably upbeat finale as La Chana overcomes ring-rustiness and nerves, responding to her vocally supportive public in the classic style of showbiz "troupers" the world over. 

A conventionally mounted tribute to "a wild woman who broke the mold," Spain-Iceland-U.S. co-production La Chana (which also will be reportedly made available in a 55-minute TV edit) is a lively calling-card debut for director Stojevic. Zagreb-born, Vienna-raised and educated in Edinburgh and Prague, Stojevic is now based in Barcelona, the city where the humbly born La Chana seemingly rivals the likes of Lionel Messi for popular renown. Co-edited by the seasoned Domi Parra, a frequent collaborator of Catalan maverick Isaki Lacuesta, her film really comes alive with the archive materials — the irresistible power of La Chana, even in black-and-white stills, palpably bursting from the screen. ¡Brava!

Venue: IDFA, Amsterdam (Panorama)
Production companies: Noon Films, Bless Bless
Director-screenwriter: Lucija Stojevic
Producers: Lucija Stojevic, Deirdre Towers
Executive producers: Susan Muska, Greta Olafsdottir
Cinematographer: Samuel Navarrete
Editors: Irene Coll, Domi Parra
Composer: Ernesto Briceno
Sales: Noon Films, Barcelona (info@noon-films.com)

In Spanish

Not rated, 86 minutes