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By James Lattimer
Luis López Carrasco’s dense, devious El año del descubrimiento confirms his reputation as Spain’s foremost audiovisual chronicler of the country’s recent past, albeit one for whom marginal positions, materiality, everyday chitchat, and the liberating effects of fiction are as, if not more, important than grand historical events. While his miniaturist 2013 debut El futuro forged a fake celluloid time capsule out of a fictional 1982 house party in Madrid, suggesting that the optimism of the recent Socialist election victory would soon be in holes, López Carrasco’s second feature takes a 210-minute plunge into the early ’90s, VHS, and growing disillusionment by way of a neighbourhood bar in south-eastern Spain on a day of violent protest. Categorizing El año del descubrimiento as a period drama may be a considerable stretch, but the film does at least bear one hallmark of the genre: it betrays as much about the era in which it was made as the one it’s depicting, if they can even be told apart.
As the scene-setting intertitles announce, Spain was a country of marked contrasts in 1992: a state seeking to display its newfound modernity via the Summer Olympics in Barcelona and the Expo in Seville on the one hand; a place of breakneck deindustrialization and accompanying job losses on the other, as encapsulated by the violent protests that set fire to the parliament of the Autonomous Community of Murcia in Cartagena on February 3rd. The fact that these two distinct, yet coexisting visions of the nation appear on separate screens within the frame doesn’t just underline this dichotomy, but also acts as a visual premonition of the others to emerge over the course of the film: margin and centre, re-enactment and testimony, newly shot material and archival footage are all placed side by side long enough for the boundaries between them to become helplessly eroded.
In El año del descubrimiento’s opening stretches, the split screen set-up is primarily used to establish the atmosphere of its carefully chosen setting: an unspectacular café-bar somewhere in a fringe neighbourhood of Cartagena, itself only the second city in Murcia, a region of southern Spain that is hardly known for shaking up the nation. People of all ages and from all walks of life come together in this modest establishment to drink, eat, smoke, and chat. For all their differences, everyone’s anecdotes keep returning to the subject of work, whether the teacher telling of the difficulties of dealing with drug-dealing pupils, the unemployed man talking about his depression and anxiety, the factory worker who details the system of nefarious, never-ending “American shifts,” or the woman who recounts how juggling two jobs at the age of 18 made sleeping practically impossible.
One screen shows the person speaking, while the other observes their conversational partner(s) or the patrons elsewhere in the bar, as well as the woman working there and the tasks she’s carrying out, with the camera accompanying her to the backroom and kitchen at times; López Carrasco is careful to highlight that margin and centre exist even here. As each chat segues smoothly into the next and the screen used to collect words and that used to gather impressions repeatedly shift back and forth, a sense of increasing immersion is produced, the familiar feeling of following a conversation while keeping another eye on the surroundings, even as the tight close-ups of faces and hands prevent the precise spatial arrangement from being discerned. With first reports of the protests outside to be heard on the radio and news broadcasts dated February 2nd popping up on one or both screens from time to time, bookended by cheesy, yet ideologically pertinent ads, it would be easy to sink into this seemingly fictional recreation of the mood of the day before things went up in flames, with all the interlocking concerns that lit the fuse on subtle display.
Yet inconsistencies are being woven into this immersive atmosphere even as it is being created. While the patrons of the bar initially seem to be talking amongst themselves and responding to each other’s casual prompts, their anecdotes progressively lengthen and seem more intended for the camera or directed towards the man asking questions offscreen, later recognizable as López Carrasco himself. A shift in tense also makes its presence felt, as those speaking increasingly focus on what was rather that what is, also in respect to the protests and their causes that are theoretically unfolding outside at that very moment. By the time Facebook and salaries paid in euros are being mentioned, any illusion of this being the simple past is broken, which doesn’t mean that any new certainty is established in terms of what we’re actually seeing, whether temporal or otherwise.
Part of this uncertainty stems from the content of what’s being said, regardless of how closely individual accounts cleave to conversation or testimony. When people talk of the difficulty of making ends meet in a post-industrial reality, discuss the complications caused by Spain’s regional languages, or hark back to the Franco era, they could be addressing the state of things in the country in 1992, 2020, or any point in between, with the tension between the big central events and their oft-unseen effects on the margins a constant. In fact, the wealth of issues discussed during El año del descubrimiento, many of them pointedly uncomfortable, seem so tailor made to address every corner of recent Spanish history that one can easily imagine their having been scripted as such, although they are voiced with such conviction, even anger, that it’s impossible to conceive that they’re entirely written.
This sensation of being unmoored from standard categories (time, reality/construction) is only amplified by the use of video, which might appear like an over-obvious attempt to bestow a past temporality onto the bar scene if it weren’t for the other video footage that increasingly comes to the fore in the film’s latter stretches—first in the form of the ads, and later in that of the archival footage of the clashes that would come to engulf the regional parliament. Placing footage from such different origins and of such different functions alongside each other in the same format creates yet another deliberately unresolved dichotomy, a disparate collection of competing facts and fictions made to look as one. When the pitched battles outside in the street give way to shots of eerie, empty façades, it’s the perfect illustration of the realm the film is constructing: a third space of pure atmosphere, not fully identifiable as either past or present, neither entirely real nor wholly constructed, a space where all manner of ideas can interact and resonate in the absence of boundaries.
If creating such a space and recording what takes place there is typical of López Carrasco’s approach to representing history, it follows that El año del descubrimiento doesn’t build towards tidy resolution, but rather a lengthy, polyphonic conversation on the events of those two days in February that, tellingly, unfolds in the same bar. As in the rest of the film, this space has ultimately been created for the people within it, as giving an account of yourself is always going to depend on how comfortable you feel; what could be more liberating than speaking in a relaxed setting, unburdened by any obligation to say the “right” things, unburdened by what a specific timeframe requires you to mention, unburdened even by the need for everything you say to be true? Yet viewed from the outside, this space is hardly cozy; it resembles the setting of a ghost story, a realm of the perfectly uncanny in-between, like that described in the dream recalled at the very opening of the film, in a monologue delivered, not coincidentally, by the screenwriter of the film: a walk through the familiar settings of the past, now enveloped in the fog of the present day; people on all sides, all of them familiar, all of them eaten up by the same frustrations, all of them shades. Waking up is the only way out, but that isn’t the end; this dream will be dreamed again.
Cinema Scope: Your films are set at very specific moments in time, taking place in the shadow of big events while unfolding separately from them. Can you talk a bit about your approach to history and how you came across the story of the strike in Cartagena? To what extent is it known about in Spain?
Luis López Carrasco: I’ve always been interested in how cinema can portray daily life, the idea of using cinema to approach those hidden, unknown moments of what one might term microhistory. When I started working on El futuro and El año del descubrimiento, one of the main ideas was to speak of history from a very marginal position, to use cinema as a way of commenting on official history and offering counter-information and alternative political approaches. It was interesting for me to realize that the burning of the parliament in Cartagena was a very unknown event: the people from there remember it clearly, but my family, for example—who are from Murcia, the capital, just 40 kilometres away—don’t remember it at all. The fact that nobody remembers something as violent as the act of burning down a democratic institution in a democracy just 14 years old, as the Franco dictatorship only officially ended in 1978—which was supposed to be a major achievement and symbol of collective pride—is astonishing. Understanding what happened and how everybody could forget was an important motivation for doing this film.
Scope: It’s crazy to think that such an event could be forgotten so easily.
López Carrasco: It’s crazy, but also completely normal—there were many factors at work there. Working-class conflicts didn’t seem so interesting in 1992, because the whole of Spanish society was looking elsewhere, at the Olympic Games in Barcelona and the Expo in Seville. We had the mindset of a poor country wanting to make a good impression on its wealthy neighbours. I remember that in 1995, Julio Anguita, leader of Izquierda Unida, the main left-wing coalition in Spain, predicted exactly what was going to happen with Ireland, Portugal, Greece, and Spain because of the Maastricht Treaty and the euro, which then came true in 2010. I remember asking my mother, a left-wing voter, why she didn’t pay attention to what this communist leader was saying. She told me that she didn’t want to hear any more bad news, she’d had bad news her whole life, growing up in a dictatorship, and when democracy arrived, she wanted to believe that everything was going to be fine. No one wanted to listen to people saying there was trouble on the horizon. This idea of a pact of collective forgiveness is so important to understand the way democracy and consumer society arrived in Spain.
Scope: It’s a logical response to a specific historical moment.
López Carrasco: You can feel that the middle class doesn’t care that much about working-class issues. Our capitals don’t care a great deal about what’s going on in the outskirts, in the corners of their own territory. There are multiple dichotomies here: middle class versus working class, capital versus periphery, modernity versus being old-fashioned.
Scope: The idea of marginal positions extends to the specific setting of the film too, which unfolds in a café in Cartagena, rather than anywhere more “traditionally” significant, which is itself not even the largest city of the Community of Murcia, which is, in turn, one of the smaller regions of Spain in terms of both size and wealth. Can you talk a little bit about the café, both in terms of concept and the actual place? Does it exist in real life?
López Carrasco: My screenwriter Raúl Liarte, who plays one of the waiters in the café and narrates the first dream in the opening scene, is from Cartagena and the son of a factory worker, so he was really into their story. We both live in Madrid, but we spent three years travelling to Cartagena to interview people and find a location. I wanted to find a place where you could imagine that the customers, the owner, and the place itself could belong to 1992. I started having breakfast at different places in Cartagena. The bar that we eventually used was still in operation; when we arrived, it was so ’90s that they still had the football league classifications from 1991, 1992, and 1993 hanging on the walls, so it felt like time had stopped at that moment. The customers looked like the people I remember from my childhood, still dressed in sports jackets and shirts; I often didn’t see a cell phone for a whole hour. The café is in a very underdeveloped, forgotten neighbourhood of Cartagena, which used to be a working-class district in the ’60s and is now mainly home to immigrants and prostitutes.
The first sequences in the film were shot with the bar still open, although not all the customers were actual customers. Then we had a big problem, because the owners were going to retire and close the bar. We did the main shoot one year later with the bar closed and had to reconstruct the atmosphere we’d experienced when it was open, that of a mixed space, with public workers and cops, but also prostitutes, dealers, and families, even teenagers bunking off school.
I always knew we needed a closed space. We had an apartment for El futuro, which was a night film, and I wanted to have a café-bar because I knew this film was going to be a day film and a film where the spoken word was going to be the main vehicle. For me, cafés are private places that are also public or semi-public in a way: the space is owned by someone on the one hand, but then people come there on the other and speak about very intimate things more freely with a waiter they don’t know than with their friends or family. Having this semi-public space was also important because it allowed me to bring together different generations and different social classes, which is something that no longer happens as much in Spanish cities because the neighbourhoods are much more closed, in social terms. Bars and cafés were traditionally places where different social classes and genders were present and able to share their concerns.
Scope: Can you tell me more about the people you were filming in the café? At the beginning, it seems like they are acting, potentially even from a script, while as the film progresses, it increasingly seems like they’re giving testimonies from real life, often prompted by you.
López Carrasco: The answer is complex, because we worked in different ways with all the 45 characters. We were initially aiming for a re-enactment like in El futuro, working with actual working-class people from the neighbourhood. We started to interview people who participated in the events of 1992 to use as source material for dialogues that younger workers would then perform, based on the idea of re-enactment and fictionalization. But once we met the original workers and union leaders, we felt that their voices had never been listened to and it would be sad not to have them appear themselves, not least because we didn’t think that anybody could imitate or perform them in the appropriate manner. They simply had to be in the film.
We had several fictional ideas to give context to the film, and made open castings with people from the neighbourhood, workers, unemployed people from Cartagena and La Unión. Every time somebody came to the casting, everything they told us was much more interesting and relevant than any fictional sequences we could have written, even if they were supposed to be based on testimonies. So the longer the process went on, the weaker the fictional part became, even though we also retained certain fictional sequences that functioned well. We worked to create an atmosphere during the shoot in which every character could feel comfortable enough to be able to develop their own stories and experiences. But I should mention that some of the characters were played by friends of ours who knew that the film was about 1992, and tried to depict or to look like somebody they knew accordingly. And of course, every character is in costume, except the last ones who appear, who wore their own clothing. Together with the costume designer, we made an effort to create a look that could be equal parts from the ’90s and the current time, by aiming for a neutrality and avoiding traditional markers of time. It adds to the ambiguity of not knowing exactly when the film is taking place.
While shooting, we were trying to create conversations with the people and make them interact. There were also moments when my assistant director or I were interviewing them more directly, but we mixed these strategies. We usually spent two or three hours with each character or group of characters, doing first an interview, then a conversation, then an open conversation, and finally an open interaction between different people. And we edited together these more organic, natural interactions at the beginning of the film to give the impression of being in the café where different conversations are being conducted. We ourselves only appear later in the film.
Scope: This idea of not being able to orient yourself in terms of time is also reflected in the shooting medium. The use of video doesn’t just allow you to index the past era, but also allows you to move back and forth between your own footage and archival material without the transition being noticeable. The film is constantly playing with the idea of what is the genuine past and what is reconstruction anyway.
López Carrasco: Everything is genuine. And at the same time, every shot is a slight reconstruction. In terms of the boundary between fiction and documentary, the two ended up nearly overlapping. Sometimes we would finish a sequence and the characters would ask me not to include certain things in the film, as they were worried about getting fired. So they were performing different versions of themselves on the one hand, but putting a lot of their own experience into the shoot on the other. For me, that’s a mark of documentary filmmaking, the idea that what you are doing can have a direct effect on the people you are creating a portrait of. We obviously respected these warnings.
The archival footage was important, as I knew that those would be the only moments where the film would leave the café. It was part of the film from the very beginning, because we found this local television footage when we were starting to do the interviews and doing research. Originally, the film was going to end with these riots, but then we decided to put them at the start of the third chapter. I was really influenced by Eduardo Coutinho’s work and the idea of the oral or the verbal being the main aspect of a film. But I also understood that it was important to be able to examine the events going on outside for a moment, and I think the split screen facilitates this. It emphasizes the violent aspects of the riots, because all the explosive moments, all the screaming, all the noises are happening at many different moments in time simultaneously.
Scope: Was the use of split screen intended from the outset then? And in relationship to that, how much material did you shoot and how did you edit it? Obviously, 200 minutes times two screens is in itself a vast amount of material.
López Carrasco: Well, the editing process was horrible! The idea of a split screen was always there, but we ultimately decided to use it at the very start of editing, when my editor and I watched all the material with two cameras on the same two screens. We really felt this experience of being inside a café, of being part of all the conversations there, looking at many different places at once, being able to have a point of view split across multiple positions. It was the same immersive feeling I actually experienced when thinking of the film, having breakfast every morning in the café.
Additionally, I had the feeling that the space might feel claustrophobic and closed off, and we could expand it by splitting the screen. I also really wanted to connect these individual people talking to a collective community. When you see the film, you usually have one person speaking, but then you have the environment, the atmosphere of the café on the other screen. And the possibility of portraying a space in split screen makes the experience of watching the film very fluid. Your sight is less guided, you can choose where you want to look every time you see the movie; it’s like actually being there, you can choose where you want to focus your eyes. It was equally about associating different characters with the left or right screen, linking original footage of the riots to what they saying or connecting what a character was saying with a Wikipedia-style explanation.
It was also very complex, though, and made the editing really difficult, as we were trying to synchronize two shots not filmed at the same time. We had 65 hours of footage, and my editor and I knew that the film was going to be long; also because we knew we had 48 characters, of whom 44 or 45 ended up in the final version. I wanted to develop every character, even if just a little, and as it was also a collective portrait we were making, we wanted to describe it in some detail and go deeper into what happened because it was so complex. I got rid of one chapter because the film was too long: there was originally going to be another one-hour chapter between the second and the third parts describing the dictatorship and the struggle of the communist dissidents, which included other characters I had hoped would form part of the film. We felt that the film was not going to be only about industrial crisis, but also function as the collective memory of the working class since the end of the Civil War to the current time. And that needs a while to describe.
Scope: The film has yet to screen in Spain, although its political content is also very pertinent for Europe as a whole. How do you anticipate the film playing in Spain given that the film is also a snapshot of the current moment, and an obvious critique of both it and the steps that led to it?
López Carrasco: Well, I’m not sure how the film is going to work in Spain because it’s not easy to distribute a film of three hours and 20 minutes. Maybe nobody’s going to see it! I’m sure the film will work in the end, though, maybe on VOD or in ten years’ time. I’m confident that the film is a portrait of many current issues in Spanish society and that it will work as a way for future generations to grasp what happened in 2018, and why what happened in 1992 can also help us understand why politics, social collapse, and the sense that marginal regions have been abandoned has made people so angry about many things. I already had the impression in Rotterdam that the film will have a very strong emotional impact on Spanish audiences. I think they feel unaware of what was happening in the other corners of their cities and elsewhere in the country, that they really didn’t care about a very large amount of people living alongside them. This film makes people look at a place nobody has wanted to look at for 30 years. The most difficult thing is going to be making people go into the theatre, but I’m sure that the moment they go into the theatre they won’t leave, because they will feel addicted to the film, they won’t be able to keep their eyes off it.
Scope: You started in 1982, then you jumped to 1992, so does that mean the next film will be set in 2002?
López Carrasco: I actually have two ideas—it appears like I’m becoming a bit of an expert in emblematic dates of Spanish history! One logical next step would be making a film about the start of the civil war in 1936. But at the same time, I was developing a sci-fi film set in 2055, which was also about Spanish history and the current era in Spain, but told from the future. So making a sci-fi movie about the Civil War could be something very unique and interesting!