Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Favorites - La Vieja Memoria (#100)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love to find out what makes them - and me - tick. La Vieja Memoria a/k/a "The Old Memory" (1979/Spain/dir. Jaime Camino) appeared at #100 on my original list.

What it is • As this film opens, it's been forty years since the Spanish Civil War, the same period that Moses and his followers wandered in the wilderness, cursing and cursed by God. Forty years since the Spanish Republic collapsed, forty years since Generalissimo Francisco Franco took over, forty years since the non-fascist world watched anxiously - and mostly neutrally - while an ally of Nazi Germany destroyed a vital workers' movement (with the help of backstabbing Stalinists). Now it is 1979, Franco has died and a more timid republic has finally been restored; filmmaker Jaime Camino takes his camera to the people who were involved in that titanic struggle, interviewing them as they struggle to cut through the mists and myths of those four decades. Onscreen, fascists, communists, anarchists, and republicans recall executions, battles, atrocities, revolutions, and political brawls from various points of view. We see some pictures but mostly this film consists of talking heads - yet it's riveting, because the stories they tell remain vital and disturbing.

Why I like it •
This may be the most obscure film on my list - I saw it in 2006 when Lincoln Center in New York screened a rare print as part of a brief series on the Spanish Civil War. Attendance was a no-brainer for me: I've always been fascinated by the ideological battleground of the Spanish Civil War, the ways in which the commitments and contradictions of political forces like Communism, anarchism, fascism, Catholicism, and representative democracy came face to face against the parched landscape of twentieth-century Spain. The series also contained authentic newsreels from the 30s which were fascinating, but this documentary was the crown jewel. Like Claude Lanzmann's masterful Shoah (a 10-hour documentary about the Holocaust which I only saw a month after composing my top 100), La Vieja Memoria proves how much of cinema is about what we don't see, what is suggested rather than shown. Unlike Shoah, it is less about loss (the finality of absolute extermination haunts Lanzmann's film like a ghost - or rather like a living presence which has rendered everything else spectral) and more about the way history is never "complete." The losers of the Spanish Civil War live on up there on the screen, their struggle terminated yet never really finished. The tragedy is moving, the history fascinating.

How you can see it • Sadly, unless you speak Spanish (as I know at least several of this blog's readers do) this is pretty hard to see. But a version without subtitles exists online here if you've got two and half hours to kill and know the lingo.

What do you think? • If you have managed to catch a screening, or that video works for you, what are your thoughts on La Vieja Memoria? In lieu of that, since it's more widely-seen (available here, by the way) and it wasn't qualified to make my list in December, what are you thoughts on Shoah? Do you think talking-heads documentaries can be "cinematic"? To what extent should filmmakers allow their subjects to speak for themselves; to what extent should they counter them with the "truth"? What's your own favorite documentary approach? And do you have to be interested in a documentary's subject to want to see it? Answer these questions below - whether or not you've seen this particular film!

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Previous week: Introduction

Next week: La Haine (1995)

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