“I think cinema has helped me turn sadness into anger. But this is not an angry picture.” From the third floor of de Doelen, Luis López Carrasco stares at the floor to ceiling windows shielding us from a storm raging above Rotterdam. It’s been raining all day, the eighth of this International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), and we’ve been chatting for almost an hour, less than a third of his mammoth El Año del Descubrimiento (The Year of the Discovery). A four-year-, three-and-a-half-hour-long project documenting life inside a cafe in the southern Spanish town of Cartagena, López Carrasco’s second feature unfolds as a conversation between patrons sharing their thoughts on the city’s past and present. It’s a perceptive and moving choral portrait of a town’s history, exhumed and patched together by its own inhabitants, stirring one to bestow it with that oft-overused label of an “immersive” experience.
And it’s also a faithful continuation of López Carrasco’s meditations on Spain’s recent history, kicked off in 2014 with El Futuro, a chronicle of a house party set on the eve of Socialist leader Felipe González’s 1982 landslide electoral triumph. But where that film crackled with a mix of anxiety and optimism – zooming in on a group of youngsters bracing for what was set to herald an era of change – the tone here is far more sombre. For better or worse, Cartagena’s fortunes have been tied to the industrial complexes that mushroomed around the city through the years. By the 1960s, mining, shipbuilding, and the advent of petrochemical companies had turned it into one of Spain’s key industrial hubs. But only two decades later, the riches began to dwindle, as the factories – many of which dated back to Francisco Franco’s dictatorship – were either shut or subject to reconversions that left behind mass unemployment. Abandoned by the state, the city’s rage erupted most ferociously in 1992, when workers took to the streets of the region’s capital, Murcia, and burned down the parliament.
Those protests undergird López Carrasco’s project, as The Year gives ample space to the testimonies of workers who suffered first-hand from the factories’ closure. But by concentrating on their muffled echo among the youngest patrons, it also gestures toward the dangers of a collective amnesia, and the importance of history as collagen to salvage the city’s social fabric. Yet López Carrasco complicates matters further, provocatively blending past and present. Just when exactly is the film set? Shot entirely in low-res Hi8 – and in split screen, with archival footage of the marches and protests to intersperse the discussions – The Year has the look of a time capsule, a relic shot in the 1990s and plucked out of oblivion. But the chats inside the bar gradually reveal period markers from our own days – we hear of euros, not pesetas – so much so that the effect comes close to that temporal blurring that made Christian Petzold’s 2019 Transit such an unsettling watch. Is this a re-enactment? A documentary, fiction, or a hybrid of the two?
Such anachronism and blurring are the film’s beating heart. Designed to look like an untimely meditation, an archaeology of an irretrievable past, The Year of the Discovery registered as contemporary in a way arguably no other IFFR entry did this year, as though by exhuming forgotten social battles it had also managed to sponge up some of the anxieties of the day – from Brexit to the rise of the alt-right, from the fate of trade unions to that of the EU. And while the storm outside de Doelen raged on, López Carrasco went deep into the film’s genesis, and its emotional costs on cast and crew.
You were about 11 when Murcia’s parliament was set on fire. Do you remember anything from that day?
I remember the building burning on TV, yes. I was seven when it opened to the public. At school, they gave us classes to explain what “autonomy” meant, and made us colour sketches of the new parliament. And there it was, four years later, on fire. When I first started to think about this second film, I wanted to look at the industrial reconversion of the city, because it’s a process that affected plenty of people, and yet it hasn’t really been studied much. Anytime you approach it you always hear the same standard explanations: well, we had to do it, those were factories from the Franco era, they were old, it was inevitable… But when I began to ask those around me about those dramatic protests, even the elderlies, nobody seemed to remember.
Seriously? The marches, the strikes, the burning?
Yes. They thought I was making it all up.
Well, that was the question that made me want to make the film! Why did nobody remember any of that? There had to be a reason. And that was because 90-95% of our attention those days was given to Barcelona’s Olympic Games, and Seville’s Expo 1992. The Spanish people was called upon to show the world the country was a civilised, modern nation. And nothing was to shatter that illusion. Yes, protests had occurred all through the 1980s – in Asturias, Galicia, Cadiz, Bilbao… but our zeitgeist said otherwise. We were becoming part of Europe. You see, after Franco’s dictatorship, people wanted to believe things were going to be alright. I remember my mother would tell me, “I don’t want anyone to give me bad news”. Plus, the state-controlled public television channels always turned those protests and suffering into background noise. And the main goal of this movie was to give them a new voice, and shatter a myth the press helped fabricate: that workers were nostalgic, opposed to progress. They billed workers as reactionaries at odds with the world around them, trapped in a country that no longer existed, working for relics of the dictatorship, unable to catch up with the present. It’s as if there was an effort to strip those conflicts of all their political and social dimensions. As if the whole thing could boil down to a struggle between past and future. And who doesn’t want to be part of the future?
I was really fascinated by the hybrid nature of your project. It’s not exactly clear whether what we’re watching is a re-enactment, a documentary, fiction…
Well, in my first feature, El Futuro, the re-enactment was a much firmer premise. I threw a party, and just shot the people who showed up. But El Futuro was a portrait of the 1980s, and of a certain lifestyle, la movida, as seen in Almodóvar’s films. It’s a commentary on that life. But here, well… Here we’re talking about a time and a place nobody really knows much about. It’s about making visible something that doesn’t really exist. That’s why when we started to interview the workers, we wanted them to also feature in the film. But that meant the whole re-enactment premise started to shrink. We did keep the idea of using old Hi8 cameras to shoot. And we did keep the idea of filming in a bar that had the look and vibe of those years.
But it isn’t just the bar – the whole film seems to hang in some anachronistic region, and everywhere you turn things and people look frozen in time. Does the city really look like that?
Well, it very much depends on the neighbourhood you’re in, and as Cartagena received plenty of investment since 2000, with the growth of tourism, it changed a lot. But La Unión, for instance, hasn’t at all. I was walking there with my partner not too long ago, and she turned to me and went: “am I even in Spain? This looks like 1970s Portugal”. It’s not like it’s underdeveloped, or abandoned – but it truly does look like it’s frozen in time. We made sure people wore outfits that could easily pass for that era, too. And in some cases we tried to add a layer of fiction to their chats, but never too much. Some of the youngest folk would ask if they could add some temporal references from the era: “ok, but let’s mention pesetas, let’s give this or that detail…” But those early experiments did not work out. They were all too hung up on that fiction. So I ended up giving them a blank cheque, and decided I’d recreate this temporal ambiguity in the editing room. Sure, there was still some artifice, but none of it could ever match what they offered us through sheer improvisation. In the end, I did attenuate the re-enactment a fair bit.
But it’s still all very porous.
It is. You have actual TV clips dating back to those years that intersperse the chats, and radio snippets, too.
Even so, I found it very interesting to see that disclaimer among the credits: “the opinions expressed by these people may not necessarily represent what they truly believed.”
Well, think of the ending of Chronicle of a Summer (1961). When Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch showed their documentary to the people who took part in it, many of them didn’t seem to agree with what they were actually saying on screen. And sure, the editing played a key role here: what you end up seeing are snippets of chats that very often spanned hours. I know that many of these people are actually defending views at odds with those of the folks they’re chatting with. But that’s just to mess around, to play devil’s advocate, so to speak.
On the subject of Chronicle of a Summer – did you show the film to your participants, like Morin and Rouch?
No. Not yet. I made a deal with them though: before shooting, they were all told what topics we’d talk about. Still, some of them would approach us after a scene and go “hey, I realised I said this or that thing, and I think I may get into trouble, I may get fired, so please don’t mention my company’s name, etc…” So I drafted a list of things that we could not incorporate in the film. But yeah, of course I want them all to watch the film, though I’d like this to happen in Cartagena.
I was asking because I can’t even imagine how emotionally difficult the whole process must have been for these folks, especially the older ones – having to exhume such sorrowful memories…
Of course. I mean, bear in mind we knew many of these people from before. Many of them would come up to us to share their stories, but they’d ask not to appear onscreen. But then something happened, and we came really close to cancel the shooting. Basically, we lost funding, and I had to call them all to tell them. And that was when they realised just how fragile our whole project was, and I think that’s what convinced them to join us, when we finally could shoot. Because naturally, for many of them the shooting was very painful. Some of the women who’d played some key roles in those protests, whom I was meant to interview, decided to cancel, because the experience was way too painful. They just could not bring themselves to chat about those things. Let alone in a film. So yeah, I tried to make sure everyone knew what the project was about, but also emphasise that their lives were important, that their stories were brave and meaningful. Which gives you that responsibility. People trust you, and you can tell they do by the freedom with which they open up.
It’s such a cosy atmosphere: you get the feeling that everyone’s at ease, even as the chats touch on very poignant subjects.
Right. We tried to re-create that bar atmosphere, even when the place was closed to public and it was just us, shooting inside. There were people sitting at tables. The cameras would be placed very far away. Sometimes the mic person would be with us, other times we’d leave the mic on a tripod. [Co-writer] Raúl [Liarte] and the art director, Víctor [Colmenero], would serve as waiters. And there’d always be a chat first. A conversation. And then we’d start to add more people to the group.
Hang on, so how did those groups come about? As in, how did you decide who would form part of each conversation?
Well, on the one hand, it was a very organic process. Sometimes we’d be having informal conversations with people at the bar, or even members of our own team, and then we’d ask them if they felt happy to share those stories on camera. We were very open and receptive to the life and people that surrounded us. But at the same time, as we sought to figure out how to create those conversations with the people we’d cast, the key question was – how do we create pairings or groups where everyone will feel comfortable enough to open up, even if with people they never met before? That was the key criterion: whatever would allow folks to chat as openly as possible.
But did you give participants time to prepare, to get to know each other before the shoot?
As in: “you two will chat together, please take a seat, let’s shoot.”
Pretty much. And that was the hardest challenge. Who gets to speak with whom, so as to generate those affinities. There were some cases when the groups were made up of people who knew each other or had worked together, but we’d make sure to include in those same chats others who didn’t. And it’s impressive because they look like they’ve known each other all their life. And this worked out well because we had a chance to analyse how to do it best. I really like the films of Brazilian director Eduardo Coutinho, so I reached out to his casting assistants and asked them how they’d work on that. And my brother is a sociologist, and has plenty of experience working with focus groups, so he gave me advice. The protocol we came up with was fairly straightforward, but reaching it took its time. And to me, that was key. Also, we just had so much time in our hands. They could spend hours eating, drinking and chatting at length. And the idea was for them to forget they were actually in a shoot. Are you thirsty? Here’s the art director, handing you a beer. But it was difficult. I remember when we first sat with the four men who worked for the Peñarroya factory, those who ended up losing everything once the factory shut down – we spoke for a couple of hours and they told us what it felt like, how badly depression hit them, and once we ended we were all exhausted. Them and us. Worn out. It was tough.
And what about you? How much of an emotional weight did the project carry, for you?
Well, I don’t know how you felt when the movie ended, but… Spanish folks tend to leave the film feeling very exhausted and with a heavy emotional baggage. The editing, in particular, was very hard. Sometimes my editor [Sergio Jiménez] and I would have to stop because we were sobbing too much. It’s been very demanding, emotionally. There’s a moment in the film, right after the protests – we’re inside the bar, and we see a picture of Cartagena’s lagoon, Mar Menor. If you come from Murcia, chances are that sequence will be extremely painful, because this past year that lagoon was devastated by an environmental catastrophe, after being polluted for 25 years by the local farming industry. It’s been a disastrous few months for the area – it’s like a curse is hanging above it. And I mean, hell, my grandparents lived there, and one passed away as we were shooting, and I have friends in the film, my uncles… it’s something that’s very close to us. But at the same time, we had to keep a cool head. Stir empathy, of course, but also keep a fair distance from it all.
I guess that’s what is so striking about your film. To me, the most moving segment came at the very end, when one of the younger characters shares a recurrent nightmare with his friends – he’s caught in a fistfight with a bunch of Nazis, but, he says, he can’t hit them as hard as he used to. I fear that sense of depression is very much pan-European, especially among those from our generation.
Totally. Look, I think the extreme-right thrives on fear and low self-esteem. And as far as Murcia goes, people from the region have historically been targets of ignorant stereotypes that paint them as the laziest and dumbest people in the country. It’s like this punishment toward the South, toward poor people. Which is why I wanted to emphasise the strength of that community. Show that they had their own dignity. Exhume part of that collective memory, so as to show it to others and to the rest of the region, where those protests and that suffering seem to have been all but forgotten.
So would you say the film serves as a vehicle for struggle in itself?
Well… [pauses] Look, I think this story is very tough, but I never wanted the film to turn into a hopeless tale. It certainly does highlight the difficulties and impotence of collectives to come together and fight as one. But I do think it’s a good starting point. That it can offer some diagnosis of our present. But there are all sorts of little moments that I also find very uplifting. Think of the girl who stops midway through conversation to say: “I just don’t recognise the city anymore, there’s too many tourists, it’s changed too much.” And then she goes “but no matter how tough it gets, I don’t want to leave, I want to stay here and fight for the place, even if I don’t consider myself to be patriotic in the slightest.” And there’s another one in the group that says: “to me, the motherland is the people I love.” It’s all about these different concepts of nation, and it underlies one of the major themes of the whole film – this sense of plurality, and this invitation to try and listen to those who think differently to you. I think all these people are both right in some of their views, and wrong in others. The worst thing you can do to someone who doesn’t share your opinions is to single them out and demonise them. So the film turns into a platform for debates, where people can argue, get things wrong, and reach a compromise. What I wanted to do with the film was to rescue a shared memory. And I think memory is always a form of critical stimulus. I like to believe this project could serve as an instrument to start thinking about action. Because it’s always action that leads to real-life results. No film or conversation, by themselves, could do that.