El Cielo gira

There are some films that could only be made by a certain director, at a certain point in time. Here is an account of three such films, and of a journey to Spain in October to encounter first-hand examples of a contemporary alternative cinema.

El Cielo gira (The Sky Spins, 2004) (1)

Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place. For those who, with the inhabitants, are behind the curtain, landmarks are no longer geographical but also biographical and personal.

– John Berger’s A Fortunate Man (2)

El Cielo gira. As the heavens turn and turn, objects appear out of the mist. A flock of sheep. A bowl of milk. A windmill. And the fourteen elders living out the rest of their lives in the dying Sorian village of Aldealseñor in northern Spain rest their backs against an ancient elm, and talk of impressions and memories with words that are hard to catch. But they have spoken together for so many decades that words no longer matter.

Director Mercedes Álvarez’s family left Aldealseñor when she was just three years old, seeking greater opportunities elsewhere. She has returned various times, drawn to the familial house with ties of curiosity and an acquired nostalgia. When she decided on the subject of her début feature film, the village was not just a matter of curiosity for Mercedes; it was a point of reference for her entire life. As the last person to have been born in Aldealseñor (in 1966), she will always be the child of the village. Her film, El Cielo gira, focuses on the world of what will probably be its last residents. She presents their world through images and first-person narration, through a series of concentric circles, or layers of meaning. (3)

Mercedes Álvarez (left) and Linda Ehrlich

On an afternoon filled with a fragile autumn sunlight, Mercedes Alvarez came to La Floresta, north of Barcelona to the home of my friends, Helena Rotés and Jaume Almirall, to speak to me about her film El Cielo gira. Mercedes’ intensity and warmth were evident from the very first moment of meeting. (4) Our hours of talking about her film, and films in general, were punctuated by an occasional bee in the grapevine, the sudden cry of hidden birds, and the falling of autumn leaves. I was reminded of how film historian Carlos Losilla compared El Cielo gira to a painting by Giovanni Bellini, and Santiago Navajas drew comparisons to Johannes Vermeer. (5)

Mercedes received her M.A. in “Documental de Creación” in 1998, as a student in an innovative program at the Universidad Pompeu Fabra, chaired by Professor Jordi Balló. (6) El Cielo gira was funded in part by that program. Her film went on to international acclaim, winning top awards at the Rotterdam Film Festival, the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema and the Festival de Paris Cinéma du Réel, among other prizes. (7)

In our conversation, Mercedes stressed how it might seem that there was “nothing there” in the quiet Sorian landscape of El cielo gira – a landscape “almost frozen in time”. On the contrary, during her nine months of filming there (from October 2002 to June 2003) she found that the landscape is actually very open (abierta) and full (amplia) of subtle fluctuations in the light and dramatic movement of clouds. Although she first went there to film with a full crew, she soon saw that this would be an intrusion and so she returned with only two colleagues to live with the villagers for the duration of the filming. “The time not filming became as important, or even more important, than the time of the actual filming”, she noted. (8) The reason for editing the film to start with scenes from the autumn months was to show the village as it is during most of the year, when the occasional summer visitor or grown children have returned to their lives in the city.

As I suspected, some members of the village had never seen a film before. Mercedes praises this as a “pre-filmic way of looking”. In fact, upon seeing the footage in which he appeared, one of the shepherds expressed surprise to find that he was at times the only one in the frame! Before seeing the finished film, the villagers expressed doubt that anyone would find their lives interesting. These are not the personages of an “official history”, but they have compelling stories to tell.

At one point, Mercedes decided to bring into the village an unusual outside force, the painter Pello Azketa (b. 1949). In the 1970s, this artist had been part of the Escuela de Pamplona, a group of painters who favoured Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. The artist’s dignified form on their quiet paths is accepted easily by the villagers – they ask no questions as he learns his way around the giant elm tree in the village square. Pello’s soft-toned landscapes are infused with light, with a lingering tribute to light. Pello is going blind.

Like the gradual, but inexorable, fading of the painter’s vision, the village of Aldealseñor hovers on a brink that is at once treacherous and precious. It is a portrait of “that interval where there is still some life left” (9). Mercedes describes the elderly villagers as fatalistic but with a redeemingly sardonic sense of humour. We see in them the wisdom, and continued silliness, of old age. The sense of instability she found in Pello’s paintings was one of the incentives to bring him into this film about the instability of a village on the verge of disappearing after more than eight centuries of uninterrupted habitation, even as the landscapes continue in their unending cycles.

El Cielo gira

Although Aldealseñor might seem a world distant from change, except for the changes caused by the seasons and mortality, this is not completely so. Wars – remembered and approaching – circle around the village. They appear in the sound of planes passing overhead en route to Iraq, in images that flit across television screens, and in talk of the Spanish Civil War period. Thankfully, incursions from the outside world are minimal and appear mostly in one semi-humorous scene in which a young man and woman whitewash a wall and paste up political posters, blaring their car radio to make the time go faster. But the inhabitants of Aldealseñor are in no rush – they go back to their afternoon siesta once the recorded noise has departed. A dog – a spiritual cousin of the one in Jacques Tati’s 1953 film Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot – sleeps unperturbed on a warm spot in the middle of the road.

El Cielo gira

In this meditative atmosphere, even an Olympic hopeful seems to be in no rush. Mercedes films a Moroccan shepherd who lives four kilometres from the village and (by coincidence) a Moroccan athlete, running his thirty miles per day, who represents the new world of international exchanges. Here we find what the director refers to (quoting the poet Antonio Machado) as “el vértigo de tiempo” (the vertigo of time). In this vertiginous point-of-view, a cyclical sense of time mixes with historical/biographical time and with mythic time. The Arab towers of mediæval Spain found in that area were followed by the “reconquest” of the Catholic rulers and the disappearance of Moorish life in Spain. Now we can see a new kind of return as things repeat themselves over and over again, and remain in what Mercedes describes as a “convivencia” (existing together). In this seemingly remote area (which is actually only two hours from Madrid!), dinosaur tracks coexist with thousand-year-old ruins and futuristic metal windmills. The current residents will disappear like those who inhabited the space in previous generations have disappeared. What remains is their rural lifestyle (at least for the present) and legends and myths that have been passed down through the generations, like the legend of the girl who didn’t know how to laugh.

Transformations. An old (and some think haunted) castle near the village will soon become a five-star hotel. High-tech windmills defy the memory of Don Quixote. Within the village, the transformations are more gentle, more resigned. The saddest moment – the realization of the death of Mercedes’ uncle Eliseo – is reported only by a specific tolling of a church bell, the appearance of a fox and the removal of the uncle’s favourite chair from the yard. In this way, the director ties images together to help us see – or, even more, to immerse us in that fertile place between the present and the remembered past through her specific inner gaze (mirada interior).

As the sun dipped lower in the sky over La Floresta, I began to wonder: what would it be like to return thirty years later to a place where one once had ties? The village that has disappeared is a theme with a surprising resonance in my own life. Unable to trace any lineage beyond two generations, back to a Ukrainian village wiped out by pogroms at the start of the twentieth century, I look back to a few sepia-tinged photographs of faces, but to no luminous landscapes or long-standing farmhouses. How fortunate Mercedes is to have such a place – however transient – where people still remember her name.

The film ends on two landscapes – one real, one painted – yet the soft dissolve from the natural landscape to the one on canvas reveals them both as splendid. In a landscape on the verge of disappearing, memories hover above the ground, not touching down, in a weightless manner like mist.

La Leyenda del tiempo (The Legend of Time, 2006)

Ay, cómo canta la noche, cómo canta!
Qué espesura de anémonas levanta!

– Federico García Lorca, Así que pasen 5 años (10)

Director Isaki Lacuesta and I spoke on an overcast afternoon in the café adjoining the CCCB (Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona). His enthusiastic replies were punctuated by the crash of skateboards against the concrete wall on our side of the building. Suppressing my annoyance at the unwanted staccato interruptions, I plunged into the world of his film La Leyenda del tiempo, a world of a softer climate but no less passionate pursuits.

Camarón de la Isla in Sevillanas (Carlos Saura, 1992)

The story of this film, set in the San Fernando island in the bay of Cádiz, introduces us to two lives on the point of transition: a gypsy boy who refuses to sing, and a young woman from Japan seeking a new voice. What ties the parts together is an absent voice, that of Camarón de la Isla, a voice that inspired thousands until (and beyond) his death in 1992 at the age of 42. The film is divided in two: the first part exploring the world of Isra (Israel Gómez Romero), a young gypsy boy in the throes of a budding adolescence, and the second part (“Makiko’s voice”) about a young Japanese nurse (Matsumura Makiko) who has travelled to the distant island to learn flamenco cante (singing) and to try to deal with her inner conflicts about her father’s serious illness. (11) When the shy, but resolute, Makiko listens to Camarón’s voice, she becomes something different, something only she can see. The asymmetrical structure of the film seems surprisingly Japanese.

An older Japanese man, Joji (Yukimune Soichi) – father figure, companion, perhaps lover – serves as a link between the two sections. Although this is an entirely fictional character, he represents the Japanese fishermen who came to that part of Spain to catch tuna in a manner described by Isaki as “similar to what we see in [Roberto] Rossellini’s Stromboli [1950]”.

Isaki (also a graduate of the Pompeu Fabra program) insisted on working without a screenplay for this film. He told me he prefers to divide films into “cine escrito” (written cinema) and “cine no escrito” (unwritten cinema) rather than terms like “documentary” or “feature film”. (12) Producer Paco Poch was willing to embark on this film without a set screenplay, only a ten-page declaration of intent. The film was shot on video (with approximately 90 hours worth of footage!). Isaki sees it as a risky film – a kind of “choral film” – but with a “parachute” of the many interwoven stories. “I was always looking, in an intuitive way, for a surprise. I wanted the actors to surprise each other.”

Isra (left) in La Leyenda del tiempo

As a film of faces, of people (and not of preconceived ideas), one could imagine La Leyenda del tiempo as a chain of many stories set in this same locale – stories of others who hope to become the new Camarón or who hope to open up their lives on some distant island.

These are not arbitrary choices. Isra and Makiko share the same irrevocable desires, though their ages and nationalities may be far apart. Both of the main characters have childlike qualities, and yet both have complicated lives. “Sometimes Isra would act like a small boy, and sometimes like a fully grown man [un señor].” Like many boys of his age, Isra sought out father figures while, at the same time, fighting with the one person who was a kind of surrogate father, his older brother. In the photos from the time of filming, I’m struck by the power of Isra’s gaze – a boy on the point of becoming a man – another indistinct boundary. Isaki noted that “Isra’s gaze reveals only a little of what is inside.”

While the young kids from the island in La Leyenda were really more enamoured with what they call “break beat” and the songs of singers like Shakira, they have an unconscious sense of a sort of fusion-flamenco, mixing the traditional with the contemporary. Isra was born the year Camarón died and, like many of the island boys, hoped to become the new Camarón (although he himself could not sing at the moment because he was in mourning for his father who had passed away that year). Isaki offers us a unique view into the musicalities of that island society. Aware that many Spanish films employ dialects of the South to evoke a sense of the lower class and the uneducated, he was determined to avoid that tendency.

The filming took place between December and February; then the director and crew took a break to work with editing and re-evaluate how it all was going. Filming resumed again in March and, by the time it had finished in June, Isra had grown taller and, by coincidence, his voice had changed. While casting Isra, the filmmaker had no idea at first that the boy’s father had recently died. In fact, the theme of mourning became apparent only during the filming itself and was not part of any preconceived plan. “I had imagined La Leyenda as a rather happier film”, Lacuesta commented wryly. This style of filmmaking – following the truth of the characters revealed through improvised situations – left the director and crew exhausted but exhilarated by the end of the months of filming. The fact that many of them had worked together before made it somewhat easier. (13)

Although Isaki has never been to Japan, the Barcelona Asian Film Festival and other sites have helped him acquire a taste for Japanese cinema. I wasn’t surprised when he mentioned directors Naruse Mikio and Imamura Shohei as favourites. (14) Both are directors who focused on character and, in the case of Imamura, tended to favour an actor-centred production. Isaki’s sensitivity to the real lived experiences of his Japanese protagonists drew me to this film. A Japan of full and varied dimensions – not an imaginary island-country – has formed a large part of my own life.

Makiko in La Leyenda del tiempo

Filming with Japanese non-professional actors worked out well for Isaki, although he did recall some moments that were somewhat unusual. “When Makiko and I would meet on the set, first we would embrace Spanish-style and then we would bow!” Makiko was discovered in a flamenco class in Seville. Her love of flamenco began when she first went to a Spanish restaurant in Japan and saw the dance performed. Like her character, Makiko herself was a nurse in Japan, but she announced (in one of the DVD’s special features) that she feels a greater sense of comfort living in Spain. Now she reports that she feels contented whenever she is dancing flamenco, and that the young woman she portrayed in La Leyenda was “yo misma” (she herself). Fleeing the certainties of life in Japan, she entered an island world whose outline she only barely understood at first.

On the DVD of the film, Isaki adds two evocative shorts that continue to explore the relationship between the older Joji and the younger Makiko. Intriguingly, he chooses to use two of the little-known Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Kawabata Yasunari as the voice-over narration of those short films, including one entitled “Harbor Town” (“Minato”). In this, and other ways, Isaki looked beyond stereotypical images of the Japanese abroad.

Pijote in La Leyenda del tiempo

The director himself was born into a Basque family in 1975 and grew up in Catalonia – areas rather distant from the world of flamenco. “I went to Cádiz like Makiko, for the songs.” In one special feature on the DVD, a brother of Camarón, Luis Monje (“Pijote”) sings a Tarantos with a voice so low, so barely audible, it is like a boat moving softly and steadily into the mist. A manly voice of sorrow that will never change. In the booklet accompanying the DVD, Isaki writes that he hopes viewers will juxtapose the fresh “unwritten” face of Isra with the chiselled lines of the face of Pijote.

The Japanese translation of the title of the film “Jikan no densetsu”, can also be translated as “the legend of time”, but it seems somewhat heavier than the Spanish “La Leyenda del tiempo”, the name of a 1979 album by Camarón dedicated to the memory of the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca – a recording that marked a change in flamenco because it introduced non-traditional instrumentation into the form. For Isaki, hearing Camarón and his musicians marked a change in his way of hearing music, a change in his artistic world as a whole.

Camarón. A voice confident of its splendour, broken and strong at the same time. A voice that too much strain, and too much alcohol and tobacco, silenced. The man who began as a singer steeped in traditional modes broke away to become an innovative force in the world of flamenco cante. A legend in his own time.

It was the director’s idea to ask a female singer, Montse Cortés, to take the place of the deceased Camarón in the new version of the song from La Leyenda del tiempo performed at the end of the film. While she carried out the performance with style, the taped jam sessions (lasting until 4 a.m.) reveal how nervous she was about stepping into that role. The musicians (including Jorge Pardo, Carles Benavent and Joan Albert Amargós) were “royalty” (in Isaki’s words), and it is a delight to watch them let the melody fly and then catch it again just before it falls. Isaki mixed younger performers like Cortés with the older veterans of sessions with Camarón, Paco de Lucia and Chick Corea, among others. But the producer Poch balked at the idea of placing their musical sequence along with the credits at the end of the film, following a black screen. “They were the most expensive part of the movie, and he became angry when people got out of their seats to leave, thinking the film was over!”

La Leyenda was made for just 600,000 Euros (roughly US$870,000), and Isaki sees the digital age as a new terrain in which directors in their twenties can afford to enter the field. Companies like Intermedio, whose owner, Didac Aparicio, also studied Audiovisual Communication at the Pompeu, distributed La Leyenda as the first Spanish film in their collection. Isaki affectionately refers to them as “locos”(crazies) for their dedication to an unconventional line of films, such as a complete set of Chris Marker DVDs (which includes a short Isaki made as a homage to the director’s work).

Flexibility and variety mark Isaki Lacuesta’s repertoire to date. The day after our talk he was off to Granada to film a short while concurrently trying to find funding for a feature-length project set in Argentina. For him, filming is a form of writing and a form of knowledge – getting to know people he might not otherwise have known. His preference is for “imperfect films”, films that are always “en camino” (moving to a new level). In retrospect, the director muses: “As a means of making a ‘film’ [película], this might not be the best method. But as a means of making cinema [cine], it is the better route.”

Unas fotos … en la ciudad de Sylvia (Some photos … in the city of Sylvia, 2007)

From the familiar phantoms composed, reconstructed, and scrutinized 101 times – forward and backwards, forward and backwards – by an implacable camera, which acts on the images like a kind of scalpel, to the vision – stripped of rhetoric – of the skeletons of those ancestors lost in the night of time, run the traces of a process of knowledge. Or what is the same: that open wound in the body of fiction, through which History flows. The nameless dead in En construcción [José Luis Guerín, 2001] are something more than a gift of chance: the generous tribute that everyday life offers directors who, without expecting anything, surrender themselves to it.

– Víctor Erice, from Los muertos (15)

José Luis Guerín (b. 1960) was away promoting his new film in South America while I was in Spain, so I wasn’t able to meet him personally. He is older than the other two directors and has had more time to develop a unique style in award-winning works like Innisfree (1990), Tren de sombras: El espectro de Le Thuit (1997) and En construcción. (16) The latter two films, in particular, have acquired almost mythic status. Film scholar Marsha Kinder describes the (almost completely) silent Tren de sombras as one of

several experimental nonlinear European films from the 1990s that enable us to imagine new modes of interactive spectatorship through expanded forms of montage, database structures, and simulations of randomness – a combination which generates new narrative pleasures. (17)

And so my encounter with Guerín would become my own journey into the elusive world of his films, with the real surprise yet to come – his evocative (and as yet unreleased) Unas fotos … en la ciudad de Sylvia. Along the way I encountered his Innisfree, which revisits the area around Cong, the site of the filming of John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), and Tren de sombras, which “revisits” (supposedly found) footage of a silent home movie shot in France in the 1930s.

Guerín’s En construcción, filmed during major demolition/reconstruction efforts in the Barrio Chino of Barcelona, was another essential step along this journey – a film which sets up a tension between personal memory and an official present reality imposed from outside. (18) In this unassuming documentary, we are shown an entire world on the verge of transformation: the carpenters’ precision, children playing “house”, a young worker flirting with a young woman hanging out laundry, a prostitute drawing pictures on her soon-to-be-destroyed wall, elders sighing behind shuttered windows, knowing that the birds have wisely sought other hiding places and wide-eyed children who turn out to watch this free noisy “pageantry”, including the unplanned unearthing of skeletal remains … In this way, the past asserts itself into the present, even as the present is being irrevocably changed.

Guerín’s films are full of hiding. Like a palimpsest, they reveal themselves slowly, in haunting montage sequences of images and memories half-revealed. Moving images, photographs, testimonials, silence (and sometimes sound), landscapes, pensive thoughts, destruction, construction and memories interact, but no one layer ever takes precedence for long. This is not to say that his films are unstructured or confusing (although there are sometimes surprises or even “tricks”).

Unas fotos … en la ciudad de Sylvia

Writing of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Guerín remarks that “there are films that bring you back to an original state, to the excitement of seeing something for the first time […] to this first contact with things.” (19) Guerín’s own black-and-white silent film, Unas fotos … en la ciudad de Sylvia, offers us that “first contact” as it sets up a capricious voyage to several European cities to try to discover a woman the filmmaker had met 22 years earlier. The director undertakes a kind of literary journey, following in the footsteps of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarch and the cities of their lives, as he follows images of a Beloved who might not exist or, in any event, cannot be found. Through a series of evocative still images, we follow vague leads barely anchored by circles drawn on exact maps. Maps of straight lines and circles, intersections, an occasional green patch, and in between the people who cross our path – such expressive faces. Faces with their unspoken mysteries, their vague bodies. In the museum, torsos of the viewers half-obscure the painted portraits and even merge for a moment with the portraits. As I watched, my thoughts floated along this meandering river of images as I slowly realized that it could be Strasbourg or Boston or Kyoto – any city of memory, of a certain size and antiquity, with an uncertain fragrance of the hoped-for encounter.

Later, Guerín drew from these photos to make a feature-length sound film, En la ciudad de Sylvia (In the City of Sylvia, 2007), but the greater organization of images, in vivid colour, could be seen as a distraction. (20) His initial photo sketch is even more haunting. Unas fotos is more than just a trial run, a sketch to be “filled out” by the feature film version. On the contrary, Unas fotos is, as film critic Miguel Marías perceptively noticed, “something completely new” (21). Marías places Guerín’s film in the lineage of early pioneers of the cinema like étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge, who explored the illusion of movement and the fact that the cinema is a succession of stills where “between each, there is always at least a diminutive, almost unperceivable ellipse, the black blank piece of film between each frame.”

The quintessential flaneur, the narrator of Unas fotos is both at one with the city and an outsider at the same time – a stance that all of us who have lived abroad know intimately. Abandoning himself to the flow of faces (and yet, now and then, punctuating them with a special lingering gaze), he ends up with “la ciudad y el rostro”(the city and its face). Characters without names, yet personages whose inner worlds are revealed through their posture, spontaneous gestures, inward gazing, the pace of their strides.

En la ciudad de Sylvia

Perhaps the weakness I found in the feature-length In the City of Sylvia is the appearance of an actual woman (Pilar López de Ayala). Attractive as she is, her specificity offers an imbalance with the rather unspecific male protagonist (played by Xavier Lafitte). Both are ultimately unnamed, but he is searching and she (as far as we know) is not. The unnamed hero/stalker’s ambiguous, uncertain search even seems to touch the heart of the woman who has been trying to elude him, and she offers him a fleeting kiss as she gets off the tram. She remains iconic, the one to be pursued. As elegant as Guerín’s new film is (22) – and his films are always thought-provoking – this is no tale of Dante and Beatrice, despite the fact that the protagonist stays in a hotel named “Paradise”. If the artist/protagonist descends into hell – and the bar Les Aviateurs he revisits after his failed attempt to reconnect with “Sylvia” seems close to an inferno of shallow temptations – then he needs to continue his journey upwards, and not just in outward forms. After realizing the futility of his initial quest, the male protagonist in Guerín’s feature film (and the viewer) sees images less ideal: an old man with a cane, a woman with a scarred face, the same immigrant vendors seen during the first two days, including a man with a marked limp selling roses to people in the street. Are we nothing but a gaze, absorbing images as they pass by? I could not help wondering: if the protagonist had been a nameless woman gazing at a mixture of men and following one obsessively through the streets, would the story have been the same?

But imagine, just for a moment, that we move into another “emptiness” – that of the traveller, a role that favours neither gender. Sylvia belongs to the city; it is indeed one of the few things that has a kind of name in the film, “la ciudad de Sylvia.” In a recent CinemaScope article, Jay Kuehner reminds us “As Sylvia proves elusive, so do the simpler pleasures of wandering the city unperturbed by love, such as the taste of cherries, offered by a farmer who ‘picked them this morning’.” (23) Seeking an image of Beauty on which to rest our eyes, we wander labyrinthine streets of a city which is not our own and never will be. To seek such an identification would be, as the hero comes to realize, “a disaster”. Only by renouncing that search do we start to see and appreciate what is right before our eyes.

Unas fotos … en la ciudad de Sylvia

The black-and-white film breathes with a gentle, elegiac respiration, and invites reflection again and again. The narrator (Guerín himself) reveals himself through his notes placed intermittently over the images, like notes scribbled on a page over a series of quick sketches, or like journal entries. From these notes we learn that Guerín’s search took place during the period of summer to autumn 2004, and the result was this series of beautifully clear images, or ones reflected through glass, or one image superimposed over another – a flow of life. Most of the people he “captures” on film seem to take no notice of him, but a few gaze back suspiciously, or teasingly, or in surprise. At times, he offers a nod to Alfred Hitchcock as in a night-time courtyard scene à la Rear Window (1954), a shot of stationery with the words Bates Motel on top, and even (I believe) a slight reflection of Guerín in the glass of a framed reproduction of a Manet painting in his hotel, like the wry cameo appearances of Hitchcock in his own films.

In Unas fotos, Guerín explores a wider range of facial types and ages than in En la ciudad and tells us overtly that we are witnessing “el enigma de un rostro” (the enigma of a face) which, as Gonzalo de Lucas adds, is also an image of evanescence. (24) We are reminded of our mortality with a lengthy montage of scenes of hospital buildings and glimpses of nurses (for the Sylvia he had met many years ago, as he recalls, was a nurse).

The search in Unas fotos evokes – along with the gentler strain of Proust and Gérard de Nerval – a Cervantian imaginary. It could also be seen as a kind of “message in a bottle.” As the veteran actor Ryū Chishū reported in Wim Wenders’ Tokyo Ga (1985), Ozu Yasujirō once told him, “Even a poor marksman will hit the mark if he just keeps trying over and over.” If the director sends out all of these splendid images into the world, perhaps the “real Sylvia” will respond! But this line of reasoning would make a complex order into something too simple. While watching Unas fotos we are encouraged to search, hope, observe, recreate, withdraw, find anew. Through his particular cinematic genius, Guerín invites us into a story of countries that are not our own, of books that belong to everyone, and of lovers who have disappeared into air.

Concluding notes

A trip recalled in fragments. We would probably desire to visit Cádiz or Strasbourg, but the magic of the cinema allows us to feel the splendour in the old village of Aldealseñor which we might otherwise have passed without stopping. These are not ethnographic films but rather films of specific faces and stories that place the documentary impulse beside the fictional along a narrow thread. The films preserve for us worlds on the verge of disappearing, but all three directors move away from the picturesque, even when they are filming landscapes that could easily be idealized. In fact, the films bring distant landscapes closer (although Mercedes remarked to me that, in the Netherlands, El Cielo gira was viewed as the presentation of an “exotic” landscape).

“Portraitists more than narrative filmmakers” – this is how Miguel Marías described these three directors to me. In fact, all three have tended to renounce both the screenplay (at least in these three films) and the onscreen face of the narrator. They have a profound respect for the spaces between images. The names of Víctor Erice, Jean Rouch, Jean Eustache, Jean Vigo, Joaquim Jordá, Pedro Costa and Abbas Kiarostami appeared frequently in talks with Mercedes Álvarez and Isaki Lacuesta, and in the writings of Guerín, when they spoke of models and inspiration.

Isaki Lacuesta

And so the landscape crowded with people, and the one almost emptied of the human form, speak to us in a language we can barely decipher. As Isaki noted in his dialogue with Gonzalo de Lucas: “When you begin to film, you discover that there’s something much stronger in the surroundings, something the camera can’t capture.” (25) Films like these leave us with an expanded sense of time. El Cielo gira’s slowness arises from the isolation of the village, the age of the villagers, and the intimate and caring regard of the filmmaker. With La Leyenda del tiempo, slowness appears naturally in the improvised dialogues within marginally fictional situations. The elegant flow of images in Unas fotos slows us down to the point where Guerín’s search becomes, unconsciously, the starting point of our own. In these three films, the searching is never completely abandoned: it is only transformed.

The painter Pello Azketa’s dignified stance before the indistinct colours of the landscape is our stance (for how clearly can we truly discern one point of light from another?). We walk down barely discernible streets of our own memories along with Guerín’s image-filled wanderings. And Makiko’s desire for a voice to express what she can’t quite excavate with the tools of her own language: is that not a common longing for clarity of sound?

Note: The author would like to offer thanks to (in Spain) the directors, and Helena Rotés, Jaume Almirall and Margarida Almirall Rotés, Carlos Losilla, Miguel Marías, Carlota Broggi, Ramón Espelt, Maria Luisa Villalba and James Amelang; and (in the U.S.) to Steven Wenz, Gabriela Copertari, James Quandt, Antonio Candau, Corey Wright, Casey Hicks and Matthew Bates. The research trip was made possible thanks to travel grants from the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities (Case Western Reserve University), the Program for Cultural Cooperation between the Spanish Ministry of Culture and U.S. Universities, and the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Case Western.


  1. The film was made with the participation of the Pompeu Fabra program, Canal+, the government of Navarra Vasco, and the Junta de Castilla y León.
  2. John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967). This is the story of Dr John Sassall, physician to a remote English rural community.
  3. In Representing the Rural, Catherine Fowler and Gillian Helfield conclude their introduction with words that could epitomize El Cielo gira: “the journey is essentially one of (re)discovery; a means of traveling back to the strong time of cultural and national origins, the source of a collective heritage, while at the same time traveling forward, to social, cultural, and national self-realization”. Catherine Fowler and Gillian Helfield, Representing the Rural: Space, Place, and Identity in Films about the Land (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006), p. 13.
  4. In the case of directors with whom I had personal conversations, I would prefer to use the first name as a reference.
  5. Carlos Losilla, “El cielo gira – Hacerse mayor,”Dirigido 346, June 2005, p. 1. Santiago Navajas, “El cielo gira, un lujo del cine español”, Telefonica, 15 July 2005.
  6. For more information on this program, consult the Universidad Pompeu Fabra website. Mercedes also received experience as editor of José Luis Guerín’s En construcción (2001).
  7. El Cielo gira will become available through New Yorker Films in late spring or early summer.
  8. Mercedes Álvarez, “He querido filmar ese tiempo de la ruina y la decadencia de un pueblo que precede a su desaparición,” interview with Alicia Ezker, Diario de Noticias, 27 October 2004, p. 72.
  9. From the director’s short essay “Appearance and Disappearance”, in the English-language booklet on the film.
  10. “Oh how the night sings, how it sings! What a density of sea anemones it raises!”
  11. Israel Gómez Romero won the Best Actor award at the Las Palmas Film Festival, and the film won a Special Jury Award as well. In addition, it received awards at film festivals in San Sebastián, Cadiz, Ecuador, Nantes (France) and Tubigen (Germany), among others.
  12. Isaki already had some impressive shorts (including Rouch, un noir, 2004, and Miscroscopias, 2003), and one scripted feature (the enigmatic Cravan vs. Cravan, 2002), under his belt when he began La Leyenda del tiempo. In one short, a 35-minute pastiche homage to Chris Marker entitled Las Variaciones Marker, there are sequences in which Makiko appears. Another (Musica de piedra) is a lyrical homage to the sculpted walls of the Cathedral of his birthplace, Girona.
  13. Brad van Hoeij, “Interview: Isaki Lacuesta on La Leyenda del tiempo”, european-films.net, 10 February 2006.
  14. Japanese names will be given in the Japanese style, with surname first.
  15. Translation by Linda Ehrlich and Steven Wenz.
  16. It is impossible to offer a synopsis of those complex films and they are not readily available on DVD.
  17. Marsha Kinder, “Uncanny Visions of History: Two Experimental Documentaries from Transnational Spain – Asaltar los cielos and Tren de sombras”, Film Quarterly 56:3, Spring 2003, p. 21.
  18. Immigration to Spain becomes a clear presence in films by these directors. Lacuesta views it as a “natural presence” and El Cielo gira also hints that immigrants like the Moroccan shepherd will carry on work that might not be considered so desirable by young Spaniards.
  19. José Luis Guerín, “Work in Progress”, Rouge (online, 2004), translated by Cristina López and David Flórez. Originally delivered as part of the colloquium “Cinema and Thought: The Filmic Essay,” Madrid, 28 August 2003.
  20. This film was made with the participation of TVE, TV3, and Wanda Vision (in Spain).
  21. Miguel Marías, “Something Really New: Starting Over,” FIPRESCI 1:4 (2006, online).
  22. Note the blog entry entitled “Three Nights of a Dreamer” by David Bordwell (8 November 2007) where he carries out a masterful analysis of En la ciudad’s “minimal and uncertain story action […] heightened by engaging visual narration”.
  23. Jay Kuehner, “José Luis Guerín’s Point of View”, Cinema Scope 33, Winter 2008, p. 12.
  24. Gonzalo de Lucas, “Los puntos cardinales,” Cahiers du cinema España, No. 4, September 2007, p. 43.
  25. “Diálogo en torno a La leyenda del tiempo por Isaki Lacuesta y Gonzalo de Lucas”, included as a booklet in the Spanish DVD (Intermedio).

About The Author

Linda C. Ehrlich, associate professor at Case Western Reserve University, has published articles in Film Quarterly, Cinema Journal, Literature/Film Quarterly, Film Criticism and Cinema Scope, among others. She has co-edited (with David Desser) Cinematic Landscapes (University of Texas Press). Her second book, An Open Window: The Cinema of Víctor Erice, appeared in the Scarecrow Press Filmmakers’ Series in 2000 (with an expanded paperback edition in 2007). Her audio commentary on The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu de la colmena) appears on the Criterion DVD of the film.

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