Barcelona has attracted some big-name movies but the city has a tricky relationship with the world of film.
With its colourful history, vibrant scenery and rich culture, Barcelona and the surrounding area has much to offer film-makers. Top directors such as Pedro Almodóvar, Ken Loach and Woody Allen have all created some of their finest work in this city. Yet, despite its utopic conditions and world famous iconography, Barcelona’s road to becoming a regular European location for liberal and creative film-makers has been a long one and is yet to achieve the status of other filmmaking metropolises like London, Paris and Berlin.
The film scene in Barcelona kicked off in 1896 with the screening of the first Lumiere films. The city quickly became the capital of the Spanish film industry, until 1915 when Madrid took the reins with the founding of the nation’s first film society by film-maker Luis Bunuel and Ernest Gimenez Caballero. Bunuel was looking to push the creative boundaries of cinema. To do this though he would need the help of a great artist.
This artist came in the form of surrealist Salvador Dali, Catalunya’s most famous son. Together, Bunuel and Dalí created Un Chien Andalalou. Filmed in Paris, to escape the Spanish censors, this surrealist attack on Catholicism has become a major part of the cinematic landscape.
Many Catalan directors migrated to Paris and Hollywood due to the poor infrastructure in the Spanish industry and, by 1931, there were more Spanish language films produced outside of Spain than within. This changed in 1932 when the first Spanish sound studio, Orphea Studios, opened to film-makers and other studios followed suit, giving rise to what is widely known as Spain’s ‘Golden Age’ of cinema. The Civil War sadly brought this era to a close. The great Bunuel left for Hollywood and doom and gloom was inevitable.
When Franco came to power there was no scope for a freethinking film industry. Catalunya was, creatively, more repressed than ever and an even stricter censorship scheme was swiftly implemented. In a similar vein to Hitler, Franco wanted to use film for propaganda projects and Government subsidies were given to film-makers to create nationalistic films. Raza (1942), based on Franco’s novel, was one of the most popular films of the period. It encapsulates the way in which the Spanish government viewed its film industry.
From the mid sixties to the mid seventies film-makers reverted to the use of allegory to dodge the censorship barriers. After Franco’s death in 1975, a new era of artistic expression was possible. True cinematic liberalisation came in the eighties and nineties in the form of Pedro Almodóvar, Spanish cinema’s other great son. Although the majority of his work has been set in Madrid, his most acclaimed film to date, the Oscar-winning Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) in 1999, was set in Barcelona. The film depicts the life of Manuela, who ventures to Barcelona to find the father of her son and give him the news that their child has passed away. Barcelona helps Manuela to cope with her grief due to its therapeutic sunset scenery and breathtaking architecture.
All About My Mother wasn’t Barcelona’s only success story of the nineties. The 1992 Olympics ushered in a vast range of government subsidies to promote Catalan culture, including the production of Catalan language films. Foreign directors also began to come to the Catalan capital. Walt Stillman made Barcelona in 1994, his first studio-financed film, inspired by his own experiences in Spain during the early 1980s. The protagonists, Ted and Fred, experience the awkwardness of being in love in a foreign country that is so culturally and politically different from their own. Ken Loach also shot Land and Freedom (1995) in Barcelona, a highly acclaimed picture about the Spanish Civil War.
The 21st century has also contributed significantly to Barcelona’s cinematic legacy. Woody Allen’s quirky rom-com Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) achieved numerous awards and starred Spain’s biggest acting exports, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. The film is about two American women who visit Barcelona for the summer and their experiences with a seductive artist (Bardem) and his ex-wife (Cruz). However, due to the beauty of Barcelona, it is not only Bardem who does the seducing. As Jill Adams notes in The Guardian, “Woody captures the magic, but it’s the city that does the seducing.”
Bardem also starred in the high-budget Spanish language Biutiful (2010) which was filmed in Barcelona and tells the story of Uxbal and his struggles to raise his two children.
Locally, Catalan production companies began to develop a strong brand of cinema that reflected Catalan society and language, and in 2010 Pa Negre (Black Bread) became the first Catalan language film to win the Goya for Best Film; it was also Spain’s submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The film takes place in the post-war Catalan countryside where a child, Andreu, finds the bodies of a man and a young boy. The authorities want to blame Andreu’s father for the murders. In a bid to help his father Andreu tries to find out who really committed the killings.
To this day, Barcelona is still a very appealing destination to film-makers, but the industry is not as thriving as it should be. Like many, Sara Gibbings, the executive producer of Padi Productions, believes that, “From a location standpoint, Barcelona has it all; sea, mountains, world famous architecture, rich culture and history.”
However, production service has decreased in Barcelona recently, and Gibbings feels there are three key reasons for this: “The first one is financial. Second is a case of fashion. Barcelona is ‘in fashion’ in a major way every two to three years. I’ve been in production here for 14 years and it is always the way. 2014 is an ‘off year’. The last reason is street crime. Barcelona has gained a really bad reputation for petty crime and theft. Almost everyone I know—crew, friend or family—has, at some point, been robbed.”
Gibbings also believes that the Catalan government is not doing enough to support home grown films: “There is not enough investment, not enough support for young film-makers, female film-makers or foreign film-makers. Funding here is not transparent or democratic or even practical, as they often only give money retrospectively.”
History is in severe danger of repeating itself in Barcelona due to ongoing conflicts between politically left film-makers and a right-wing government. The small-scale film industry means there is little commercial funding for cinema from outside the government. As a result film-makers have to tread carefully and not bite the hand that feeds them.
Enrique Gonzalez Macho, president of the Spanish cinema academy thinks something needs to change to avoid another decade of drought in high quality cinema, “The government is scared of culture, and of cinema in particular. They are destroying film-making. If this carries on there won’t be any creative film-makers left.”
Gibbings echoes Gonzalez Macho’s concerns: “There are some terrific professionals here, but they are leaving in droves as they know the situation will not change in the immediate future.”
Let’s hope that there are brighter times ahead for Barcelona’s film industry. And, that the city continues to attract foreign film-makers to continue the legacy created by some of the world’s finest director.
FILM FESTIVAL CALENDAR
Barcelona is host to many top-quality film events during the year.
DocsBarcelona shows the most important and interesting recent documentary productions on the international scene. Alongside the festival there are also talks with directors, master classes and pitching forums for people needing finance for unfinished documentary works.
October: Sitges – International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalunya
Running since 1968, this is now the number one fantasy film festival in the world. It is a stimulating universe of encounters, exhibitions, presentations and screenings of fantasy films from all over the world.
October: Barcelona International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival
Since 2001 the Barcelona International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival has been showing films from around the world focusing on LGBTI issues. Each year the festival centres on a particular theme such as homosexuality and Islam, and homophobic violence. The festival also supports and brings attention to ORAM International, a San Francisco-based non-profit that helps those attempting to escape sexual and gender-based violence around the world.
October: Beefeater In-Edit International Music & Documentary Film Festival
In-Edit is a network of music documentary festivals, with over 70,000 attendants in Spain, Chile, Brazil and Germany. The festival also runs parallel events such as the mixing room, where musicians and audiovisual artists can meet and connect, and In-Edit Fast Forward which showcases the latest inventions and ideas in the audiovisual and musical worlds.
November: Barcelona Human Rights Film Festival
Now in its 11th year this annual film festival is held in Barcelona, Paris, and New York. Showing both national and international animated and documentary films. The festival aims to awaken our conscience, denounce injustice and reflect on the social and cultural diversity of humanity.
November: The International Environmental Film Festival (FICMA)
FICMA was founded in Barcelona in 1993 and is now the longest-running environmental film festival in the world. The festival centres on ecology, culture, economics, migration and war, as well as other social issues.
November: L’Alternativa: Festival de cinema Independent de Barcelona
Split into various categories the festival showcases the best international independent film-making, introducing new directors and screening little-known films. Alongside the festival there is also space for education and debate with the Film Schools workshops, professional seminars and advice sessions.