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Basque Cinema

by Brian Davisson
Tucked between the Pyrenees and the Cantabrian Mountains along the northern coast of Spain and southwestern France, the greater Basque Country (Euskal Herria) comprises the Spanish provinces of Álava, Guipúzcoa, and Viscaya, as well as parts of Navarre, and the French provinces of Labourd, Lower Navarre, and Soule. In all, there are around 3 million persons living in the region. The Basque people predate the arrival of agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula, which occurred around 7000 years ago, and speak a language, Euskara, that is unrelated to the Indo-European languages. During the Franco era (1939-1975) the use of Euskara, as well as… Read more


Tucked between the Pyrenees and the Cantabrian Mountains along the northern coast of Spain and southwestern France, the greater Basque Country (Euskal Herria) comprises the Spanish provinces of Álava, Guipúzcoa, and Viscaya, as well as parts of Navarre, and the French provinces of Labourd, Lower Navarre, and Soule. In all, there are around 3 million persons living in the region. The Basque people predate the arrival of agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula, which occurred around 7000 years ago, and speak a language, Euskara, that is unrelated to the Indo-European languages. During the Franco era (1939-1975) the use of Euskara, as well as other regional languages such as Catalán and Galician, was forbidden, and displays of Basque culture were prohibited (though this restriction was eased in the late 1960s). Today Euskara is taught in schools and spoken in both rural and urban areas of the Basque region. Around 27% of persons living in Euskal Herria today speak Euskara, and the Ikurriña can be seen flying from balconies throughout the region.

The “Ikurriña,” the flag of the Basque Country The “Gernikako Arbola,” in Gernika, the oak tree
that represents the Basque Country


A History of Basque Cinema:

More coming later, but for now, a couple of links:

A brief history of Basque cinema from the Historical Dictionary of Spanish Cinema.

And a much more comprehensive history of Basque cinema divided by eras, titled Euskal zinema. This article is in Euskara, Castellano, and English, and contains a lot of very good information.




Three notable Basque directors:

Nemesio Sobrevila (1889-1969)

Nemesio Sobrevila Saracho was born in Bilbao in 1889. He studied architecture in Barcelona, and furthered his studies in Paris. He made his first film, El sexto sentido, in 1926 (ed.: other sources list 1929). A year later he directed Lo más español and Al Hollywood madrileño. He worked as a screenwriter, model maker and decorator. In 1928 he gave a presentation at the Spanish Cinema Conference on “The applications of architecture in filmmaking”. In 1935 he started to film Juan Simón’s Daughter, produced by Luis Buñuel, which he did not finish because of their disagreements. While exiled in Paris he filmed Guernika. When the Second World War broke out he moved to South America. He returned 20 years later and settled in San Sebastián, where he died in 1969.
(from the site Spanish Culture)

Click here for a much longer biography in Spanish

El sexto sentido, from 1929:

Elai Alai, from 1936:




Néstor Basterretxea (1924- )

Néstor Basterretxea was born in Bermeo, Viscaya, in 1924. Exiled in 1936 due to the political activity of his father, he lived in France and its African protectorate in Casablanca, and in Argentina. After working in the field of publicity design in Argentina and presenting in several expositions, he returned to Spain in 1952. He serve as Cultural Advisor to the Basque government, under the Partido Nacionalista Vasca, for two years in the 1980s. He has been involved in the artistic groups Equipo 57 and Guar. His most important film is the 1968 documentary Ama Lur, or Mother Earth, which he co-directed with Fernando Larruquert.
(adapted from the Spanish Wikipedia)

On Ama Lur: Following the long dark shadow of Franco, two visionary filmmakers, Fernando Larruquert and Néstor Basterretxea, took advantage of a few loopholes in the system and managed to outwit the prevailing censorship of the period. Together they made a documentary which addressed a number of national demands presented by way of metaphors that were easily interpreted by the viewing public but overlooked by Franco’s machinery of repression. Their work also launched an attempt to establish a kind of cinematic Basque grammar and syntax based on narrative models taken from traditional oral literature. Since then, this documentary trend has walked the dichotomous tightrope between what could be said about the country and its political vicissitudes and what was politically advisable to tell.


Julio Médem (1958- )

Médem was born on October 21, 1958 in San Sebastián. After college graduation (where he earned degrees in Medicine and General Surgery) he worked as a film critic and later as a screenwriter, assistant director and editor. After a few shorts he directed his first full length feature, Vacas (Cows) for which he won a Goya Award. After this film he directed The Red Squirrel and Earth, both receiving good reviews at Cannes. In his next movie, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, which has been compared to the works of Krzysztof Kieślowski, he explored circular narrative and a taste for minimalistic textures that he then overcame in his next film, Sex and Lucia, where the plot dissolves into a very lyrical eroticism. After this film he took a tangent from his style to direct and produce La pelota vasca (The Basque Ball), a documentary film about the political problems of the Basque Country, which caused a furor amongst victims of terrorism. Following this, his film Caótica Ana debuted in 2007.
(from Wikipedia)



Other Basque directors on the site (and one who needs to be added):
Montxo Armendáriz (Olleta, Navarra, 1949- )
Juanma Bajo Ulloa (Vitoria-Gasteiz, 1967- )
Yannick Bellon (Biarritz, 1924- )
Ramón Barea (Bilbao, 1949- )
Pío Caro Baroja (Madrid, 1928- )
Pablo Berger (Bilbao, 1963- )
Borja Cobeaga (San Sebastián, 1977- )
Antonio Eceiza (San Sebastián, 1935-2011)
Karra Elejalde (Vitoria-Gasteiz, 1960- )
Víctor Erice (Carranza, Viscaya, 1940- )
Álex de la Iglesia (Bilbao, 1965- )
Eloy de la Iglesia (Zaráuz, Guipúzcoa, 1944-2006)
Antonio Mercero (Lasarte-Oria, Guipúzcoa, 1936- )
Koldo Serra (Bilbao, 1975- )
José Antonio Sistiaga (San Sebastián, 1932- )
Enrique Urbizu (Bilbao, 1962- )
Imanol Uribe (San Salvador, El Salvador, 1960- )
Iván Zulueta (San Sebastián, 1943-2009)


A few books on Basque cinema or Basque directors:
Luis Fernández Colorado, Nemesio Sobrevila, o el enigma sin fin (1994).
Jaume Martí-Olivella, Basque Cinema: An Introduction (2003).
Santiago de Pablo and Robert Forstag, The Basque Nation on Screen: Cinema, Nationalism, and Political Violence (2012).

Other lists, featuring Basque or Spanish regional cinema:
Homage to Cataluña, by Laali
Spain: Mystery, Passion, Life, by Kenji, has a nice shot of the Basque coast, and several films by Basque filmmakers
Spanish Documentary Filmmaking, one of my lists with some Basque documentaries
50 Spanish Films, another of my lists with several Basque films



Bilbao, the largest city of the Basque Country.


Donostia-San Sebastián, home to the annual San Sebastián Film Festival, the most important film festival in Spain.

Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque Country. I studied here for a semester as an undergrad, so it’s a special place for me.


Some important authors from the Basque Country include two of the great Generation of 98 writers, Pío Baroja (from San Sebastián) and Miguel de Unamuno (from Bilbao), both of whom wrote in Spanish but at times dealt with issues of specific concern to the Basque region, and Bernardo Atxaga (from Asteasu, near San Sebastián), a contemporary writer who is likely the most often read author writing in Euskara.

Pío Baroja

Several of Pío Baroja’s novels have been made into films, including Zalacaín the Adventurer, in 1929 and 1955, The Restlessness of Shanti Andía in 1946, and The Search in 1966. Baroja’s brother Ricardo Baroja appeared in Nemesio Sobrevila’s The Sixth Sense, and was an important cultural figure in his own right. Their nephew Pío Caro Baroja is a documentary filmmaker who has made several films about the Basque provinces.

Miguel de Unamuno

The great Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s novella (or nivola) Abel Sánchez was filmed in 1946 by Carlos Serrano de Osma, and his La Tía Tula was made into a film in 1964 by Miguel Picazo.

Bernardo Atxaga

Several of Atxaga’s works have been filmed, most notably Obaba, by Montxo Armendáriz in 2005.


For now, these are films made by Basque-born directors. Some of them, notably Víctor Erice and Pablo Berger, don’t make films that concern the Basque Country in any clear way. I might change it to films dealing with the Basque Country later:

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