An Overview of Spanish Independent Cinema in 3 Films

Three recent movies selected by the L.A. OLA showcase allow us to take a closer look at Spain's contemporary film landscape.
Alejandro Veciana
We are excited to partner this year with L.A. OLA, a showcase of the best contemporary independent cinema from Spain, to show several of their films on MUBI in May and June, 2017.
Agata's Friends
For the third consecutive year, the L..A. OLA showcase strives to bring the best of Spain’s current independent cinema to Los Angeles for a short but concise program. This year, the festival will take place in various L.A venues from May 18 - 21 and will later travel to the East Coast with four of the program’s feature films for a special New York edition, which will show from June 2 - 4 at Anthology Film Archives. Although some of the films showcased are already well into their international festival lifespan, some of the films might have their U.S. premier at L.A. OLA. But for us here in the U.S., L.A. OLA marks a good moment to take a closer look at Spain’s contemporary film landscape, its new generation of auteurs, and perhaps get a glimpse of what lies ahead. 
There are three films in particular from this year’s program that, although being formally and stylistically diverse, they can each inform us about a distinct attribute of today’s Spanish independent film industry. Les Amigues de L’Àgata (Agata’s Friends), No Cow on the Ice and Esa Sensación (This Sensation) will screen in both the L.A. and New York editions of L.A. OLA, as well as on MUBI. They inhabit their own genres and separately are great stand-alone works of art, but together they form a triptych, depicting what it’s like in today’s Spanish indie scene.
It’s interesting to note that each of the film’s narratives can be loosely connected to the filmmaker’s own journey. For instance, Agata’s Friends is about four friends in their early college years and is directed by four college friends as their thesis film. No Cow on the Ice is a documentary film shot entirely in Sweden and is blatantly about a documentary filmmaker’s experience abroad. Lastly, Esa Sensación is a film with three separate stories made jointly by three different filmmakers as a collaborative project. Whether or not they are intentionally self-referential, one can’t help but see these films together as an exercise in self-reflection and therefore of the country’s industry itself.
Laia Alabart, Alba Cros, Laura Rius and Marta Verheyen’s deeply personal feature debut, Agata’s Friends, was shot with a low budget as a thesis film for the filmmaker’s final year at Barcelona’s Universtiat Pompeu Fabra (UPF). The filmmaker quartet directed, shot, and edited the film, all sharing equal credit. Although the film was released in 2015, they are still enjoying a successful festival run and have received critical acclaim both locally and abroad.
As mentioned, Agata’s Friends is about a group of intimately close girlfriends in their early twenties while they transition from adolescence to adulthood. Tensions slowly rise as Agata (Elena Martin) starts hanging out with her new college friends. Rendering quite an organic performance, Martin is equally enthralling as she is subtle. We can only guess what her character is thinking. We see how Agata’s unspoken thoughts boil in her mind throughout the film, until these thoughts rewardingly climax in what is by far the best scene in the film, when the young women venture off to a weekend getaway. The final scene erupts in an off-season, desolate beach house in a dramatic and gloomy sequence worthy of Ingmar Bergman. 
True to its DIY spirit, Agata’s Friends employs some familiar formalities including lots of close-ups, dirty shots, and plenty of improvised dialogue (all in Catalan), but nevertheless it is surprisingly crafty. The film’s superb acting benefits from equally superb cinematography; the camera patiently allows the actors tremendous flexibility to perform naturally on screen. The way they often leave the frame, come too close, or even have their backs to the camera shows off the filmmakers’ quick grasp on their craft and their promising potential.
Barcelona has blessed Spain’s indie scene with some of the country’s best film schools and is producing a generation of quality filmmakers. In addition to the UPF, there’s the celebrated Escola Superior de Cinema i Audiovisuals de Catalunya (ESCAC), which is located in Terrasa, just an hour away from Barcelona. In contrast to UPF, which is a proper academic multidisciplinary university, ESCAC is exclusively a film school focused more on practice, but just like UPF, the school has heavily contributed to Spain’s industry, particularly in Catalonia. These schools have produced some of the best contemporary local films and are crucial for the local industry. But equally important is the growth of Catalan language films. Due to their small budgets, modest ambitions, and academic origins, young filmmakers have more leeway to make films about their own daily life and the Catalan language plays a large role in that.  
In contrast to those who begin their film careers as film school graduates, there are those filmmakers who go abroad to shape their careers, like Galician director Eloy Domínguez Serén. His fascinating video journal No Cow on the Ice chronicles the filmmaker’s life in Sweden as he makes a living in construction and tries hard to integrate and learn the language. Serén turns the camera around to himself quite literally, as we first see him as he turns the camera upside down, adjusting the frame and the aperture, letting the audience know that he is the one shooting, ergo, he is the filmmaker and this is his story.
No Cow on the Ice, which takes its title from a literal translation of a Swedish expression, is as much about being away from home as it is about language itself. Serén’s insistence on learning the language feels obsessive. He even tries to teach the audience some words in the opening shots of the film where he provides definitions of certain adjectives describing a dark and cold Swedish landscape. His feelings about Swedish culture are muffled, however his silent narration is subtitled rather than in voiceover, as if he himself is embarrassed of his poor pronunciation. But throughout the film, Serén  polishes his Swedish with the help of what appears to be his girlfriend, Fathia, and towards the end, grows more comfortable with his abilities.  
Serén has made several films in Sweden—where he has lived for several years—as well as in Spain and more recently in the Sahara desert. But Spanish filmmakers leaving Spain to seek careers elsewhere is neither uncommon nor a recent phenomenon. From Luis Buñuel to Albert Serra, Spain’s film industry has often surrendered its créme de la créme to French cinema. Some like J. A. Bayona and Alejandro Amenábar have turned to Hollywood for success, while others take the international auteur route and make films all over the world conditioned by a combination of creative decisions and financial constraints. International filmmakers like Isabel Coixet or Julio Medem survive on the international festival circuit propelled more by Cannes, Berlin and Venice than San Sebastian. 
Esa Sensacion
But not all Spanish directors leave the country for critical success. Juan Cavestany, Julián Génisson and Pablo Hernando’s Esa Sensación is a hilarious yet heartbreaking film set in Madrid. The film loosely follows three absurdist stories: a woman who has sexual relationships with inanimate objects, a father and son’s estranged and strange relationship, and a series of encounters of people who pass onto each other the awkward habit of spontaneously saying random and poorly timed comments. 
The film’s characters desperately seek some sort of human fulfillment. For example, the first story presented is that of a woman who finds no intimacy from humans and is instead aroused by inanimate objects. We see her kiss a parking meter, make love to an aluminum ladder, embrace and sleep with a rock in the middle of a roundabout, and masturbate while thinking of Madrid’s Arganzuela bridge, with which she later develops romantic feelings for and subsequently gets her heart broken by it. But the film isn’t just gratuitous absurdity—the directors eventually give us some logical reasons for these  eccentric behaviors. The filmmaker trio examines and pokes fun at some of the oddities of social behavior when human beings are in pursuit of happiness and social satisfaction. It’s easy to think of Buñuel here and make the obvious connection with his more surreal films, mocking the absurdity of bourgeois social conventions like The Exterminating Angel or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
But satire is a tradition in Spanish cinema, particularly self-mockery and clichés like in the films of Bigas Luna or Luis García Berlanga. When you have films like these making the grounds today, it’s hard to predict what’s next for independent Spanish cinema, especially as the landscape keeps changing and the industry continues fluctuating. But it’s easy to get excited about emerging filmmakers, whether they come from local film schools, succeeded internationally, or have been building their careers in Spain.  There’s a promising future for Spain’s industry and lucky enough for us, an opportunity for festivals like L.A. OLA to bridge a stronger cultural relationship between both countries.


L.A. OLAL.A. OLA 2017Festival CoverageLaia AlabartAlba CrosLaura RiusMarta Verheyen
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