The New Wave of True Fiction: LA OLA and Independent Cinema from Spain

Reality and fiction converge in new Spanish independent cinema.
Alejandro Veciana

MUBI is partnering with L.A. OLA, a showcase of the best contemporary independent cinema from Spain, to show several of their films on MUBI in June and July, 2018.Julia Ist

Júlia Ist

For the fourth consecutive year, LA OLA brings the best of independent Spanish cinema over to this side of the Atlantic. This year, in addition to their regular editions in Los Angeles and New York City, LA OLA stopped in Mexico City for the first time, offering a carefully programed lineup showcasing the freshest voices in today’s Spanish independent landscape. This year’s films walk that notorious thin line between reality and fiction. And even though that line has been walked many times before, it is eye-opening to see films that can still feel fresh and original all while using familiar forms and styles. As different as they are, they all touch on some quintessential Spanish themes, some of which weigh in on the current conditions of Spanish youth and others delve into an older generation and perhaps a forgotten Spain, one populated with fable and myth. Nevertheless, they are all bold works of docu-fiction, exploring intimate spaces both in the quotidian and in the imagination. 

For the New York edition of LA OLA—which begins on Friday, June 15th at Anthology Film Archives—four feature films will be screened along with a selection of short films and a few Q&As.  

From Andalusia, in the warm, vast lands of the southern region of Spain, come two poetic documentaries: the meditative and lyrical El mar nos mira desde lejos (The Sea Stares at Us from Afar) by Manuel Muñoz Rivas, and the fable-like, Cervantes-inspired Donkeyote by Chico Pereira. Both films tell different stories in very different ways yet both seem equally concerned with the past myths and tales of forgotten and popular Spanish folklore and literature. Both films use fictional elements to tell very literary stories that flirt with the imaginary and occasionally dips into nostalgia. 

In the meditative The Sea Stares at Us from Afar, we follow fishermen working on beaches somewhere in the sandy coasts of Andalusia. Muñoz’s subjects are rugged, tan and salty-skinned with thick southern Spanish accents. We observe them as they work and as they rest. Shot by the infuriatingly talented Catalan cinematographer Mauro Herce, whose impressive body of work includes shooting Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas (2016)and directing his feature debut, Dead Slow Ahead (2015). Herce’s impeccable shots of the wind-changing sand dunes are as graceful as they are mesmerizing. Often crossing over from vast landscape widens to more abstract detailed shots of water and sand, The Sea Stares at Us from Afar is a meditative film. The film’s narration hints at stories about a semi-mythical city that dates back to 4th century B.C. Now, after two millennia covered by the ever-changing sand dunes, Muñoz’s film contemplates at the passing of time and the weight of history on these vast, dry coastal landscapes and the solitary men who inhabit them. 

Donkeyote, on the other hand, is a documentary that is more focused on a particular narrative. It tells the story of Manolo, a 73-year-old man whose simple life includes his passion for walking, his daughter Paca, and his donkey and best confidant, Gorrión. We follow Manolo as he attempts to leave Andalusia to travel all the way to the U.S. with Gorrión to walk the Trail of Tears, the harrowing trail Native Americans were forced to relocate after Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. Needless to say, Manolo finds numerous hurdles in his attempt. 

Beautifully shot by Julian Schwanitz, we observe Manolo and Gorrión as they travel the vast western-like landscapes of the south of Spain. Pereira uses western clichés like shots of Manolo riding into the sunset, sitting around a fire and wandering from place to place finding an array of colorful characters. Of course, the title is a reference to the classic 17th century epic novel, Don Quixote, which tells the story of a deranged old nobleman who embarks on an epic adventure after reading too many romantic chivalry novels. But unlike Don Quixote, Manolo hasn’t so much lost his sanity as he is a daydreamer—he is aware of all the impediments. But perhaps like Quixote, Manolo yearns for the way things used to be—noble and moral. Now everything is “full of industrial plants and cargo ships,” he protests.

Even though Manolo isn’t an actor, luckily for Pereira he happens to be a great performer and a natural raconteur—we see him recite poems to barflies and tell stories to his daughter’s special needs class. His donkey Gorrión also happens to be incredibly fascinating to observe. He wears beautiful off-white color pelagewhich Schwanitz photographs impeccably, periodically inserting close-up shots of his sad eyes adding layers of personality to the sweet hoofed mammal.

Andalusia has always been and continues to be a very desirable filming location for local, foreign and Hollywood productions. It is a unique part of the world with a rich and seductive culture. It’s dreamlike landscapes and incredibly long history have inspired centuries of literature, art and music and continues to touch the hearts of filmmakers and poets alike.

Moving away from the south towards the north are two films from the big cities in this year’s lineup: one from Barcelona-based actress and filmmaker Elena Martín, who is best known for her enthralling performance in Les amigues de l’Agata (Agata’s Friends)—featured in last year’s LA OLA program—and another film set in Madrid called Niñato, by Adrién Orr. 

Elena Martín makes her directorial debut with the incredibly intimate and revealing Júlia Ist. Martín plays the title character, a 21-year-old architecture student who travels to Berlin on an Erasmus grant. Leaving her boyfriend, friends, and family behind, Júlia finds herself alone for the first time in her life. Júlia Ist focuses on the anxieties and excitement of living outside of your own culture, the shock of leaving home for the first time and subsequently, the even greater shock of coming back. But Martín’s film doesn’t just deal with the Erasmus as a cultural and generational phenomenon, it is also about coming to terms with one’s own sense of being lost.

Martín’s performance is as subtle and slick as Pol Rebaque’s cinematography, which employs heavy rich and dark saturations of Berlin’s cityscape and nightlife. Martín and Rebaque capture great natural performances and vérité-like moments. Similar to Agata’s Friends, Júlia Ist seeks a raw realism and natural texture that pulls the audience into very intimate spaces both physical and emotional. Also notable is the cool, soulful atmospheric soundtrack, a selection of electronic tracks featuring the minimal funk from the Barcelona-based Wesphere and the grungy hip-hop beats of German partnership MXM & Pavel.

Similarly, Adrián Orr’s rough and rugged feature debut Niñato also deals with intimate spaces. Set in today’s Madrid, Niñato follows a single dad named David Ransanz aka Niñato who is portrayed as himself (or at least a version of himself) as he struggles to raise his kids (also portrayed by Ransanz’s own kids) all while trying to make it as a rapper. Like Donkeyote and The Sea Stares at Us from Afar, Niñato is totally unconcerned about whether it is clearly a work of fiction or a documentary. Shot by Orr himself, it is mostly set in the confined spaces within David’s small apartment whom he still shares with his mother. Orr’s camera stays still, allowing the brutality of ordinary life play on screen. What’s more incredible is the family’s natural presence on screen. It is unclear whether it is a result of how comfortable they feel with a camera around or how good Orr is at going unnoticed, but it is probably a combination of both. Niñato centers on David’s search for dignity as a man, a father and citizen in today’s Spain. Orr’s film is a Dardennesque portrayal of the moral and material hardship of everyday life.  

It is always encouraging to see that independent films in Spain continue to be produced against many odds. After nearly eight years of deep cuts in funding for cultural programs by the Spanish right-wing party’s leadership, Spanish cinema has suffered a significant blow. Government funding of cinema has been part of the country’s tradition for years, it will be interesting to see the consequences of such cuts in the coming years. But while it will be even more interesting to see how the newly established center-left party handles funding for the arts, this writer can’t help but remain skeptical. Yet independent cinema is by definition not accustomed to large budgets, big resources, and committee-sized investors. It is precisely within these limitations, that true independent cinema thrives. Financial constraints can mean innovative ways in form and style. LA OLA presents exciting new voices coming from a country currently struggling with institutional crises, financial constraints, and uncertain future, in other words, a perfect storm for great cinema. 

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Festival CoverageL.A. OLAL.A. OLA 2018Now ShowingManuel Muñoz RivasChico PereiraElena MartínAdrián Orr
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