From Cinema Scope #67
The Changing of the Age: Pere Portabella on Informe General II
By Jerry White
I have always thought of Pere Portabella as the most French filmmaker outside of France—though “French” in the specific sense of the long-standing Gallic idealization of
l’artiste engagé. The summit of this ideal, in cinematic terms, would most likely be the Godard of the late ’60s and early ’70s, i.e., the Godard of Godard-Gorin and Godard-Miéville, moving easily between short, medium- and feature-length films and wedding formal innovation to radical politics. Yet even the most sympathetic of observers (amongst whom I count myself) at some point faces the difficulty of explaining how this kind of politicized work relates to actual political change. Godard’s leftism is certainly key to the work, but it’s not as if the maker(s) of Struggles in Italy (1969), Vent d’est (1970), or Ici et ailleurs (1974) went on to serve in the government, or participate in the rewriting of a national constitution, or forge alliances with figures from both the left and right of the political spectrum in the name of a shared desire to find new forms of sovereignty.
The thing about Portabella’s experimental, counter-cinematic, semi-Godardian cinema is that it actually did lead to its creator proceeding to all of that. Portabella began as a producer, first of Carlos Saura’s breakthrough film Los Golfos (1960) and then of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), still the only Spanish film to win the Palme d’Or. The scandal surrounding Viridiana made it impossible for Portabella to travel outside of Francoist Spain, and so he wound up turning his attentions to what was going on at home, especially in slowly and fitfully internationalizing Barcelona. Following shorts such as the Mirò-inflected No compteu amb els díts (Don’t Count on Your Fingers, 1967), Portabella carried his experimental sensibility over into his first features, Nocturne 29 (1968), Umbracle (1970), and Cuadecuc, vampir (1970), the last of which transforms behind-the-scenes footage of a cheap Jess Franco horror film into an eerie evocation of a fascist state that had already outlived its natural lifespan, with Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula a vampiric image of Franco. Made just after the death of the dictator, Portabella’s 1977 Informe general sobre algunas cuestiones de interés para una proyección publica (hereafter Informe General I) tries to visualize, via both documentary-style detail and oddball, semi-fictional re-enactment, the new state (or states) that was (were?) struggling to emerge. Three-and-a-half hours long, sometimes rambling, and always absorbing, Informe General I stands alongside The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) and The Battle of Chile (1975-79) as a landmark of Third Cinema-style cinematic activism.
The experience of making Informe General I marked Portabella so much that it inspired him to retire from filmmaking to more directly participate in his nation’s politics, as outlined above. Returning in 1989 with the moody, not-quite art film Warsaw Bridge, Portabella has since moved fluidly and unselfconsciously between features and shorts, his resurgence capped in 2013 by the release of his collected cinematic works on DVD by the Barcelona label Intermedio (which I wrote about in Cinema Scope 55). That collection is no longer complete, however: towards the end of 2015, Portabella finished Informe General II, which, though rather shorter than its predecessor (130 minutes), is no less ambitious in its attempt to intervene in Spain’s highly unstable politics.
The film spends a lot of time on the institution of the museum, moving in and out of Madrid’s Reina Sofia as various European intellectuals discuss the role of art in history and its relation to economics, power, citizenship, and subjectivity. But Portabella also tracks the seismic changes in his country’s political landscape. Catalan separatism is a large part of that: separatist coalitions have held power in Catalonia’s devolved parliament for most of the last decade, where they have staged one semi-legal referendum (where independence won by a huge margin) and promised to hold another one in the very near future. Another major theme here concerns the collapse of the post-Franco party system and the rise of smaller, more grassroots groups, including the centre-right (liberal in the European sense) Ciudadanos and the left-wing Podemos (“we can”), led by the ponytailed, PhD-holding, political theory-deploying Pablo Iglesias. (The super-progressive mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, is also a major player in this political realignment.)
One of the reasons that these groups have captured so much attention, both nationally and internationally, is because of their connection to the movement known as los indignados. Essentially the Spanish arm of the global Occupy movement, los indignados had a huge impact in austerity-ravaged Spain, culminating in what is known in Catalonia as “15M”—a reference to May 15, 2011, when massive demonstrations throughout the country signalled that a powerful new political force had truly arrived on the scene. Of course, that’s what people said about Occupy as well, but until the rise of Bernie Sanders it was—Godard-Gorin-Miéville-style—not at all easy to identify anything concretely political about all that fuss at Zuccotti Park, at least in terms of how it constituted any kind of practical challenge to the traditional party system.
In the case of los indignados, promise became practice. Spain went to the polls a few days after I attended an early screening of Informe General II at the Filmoteca de Catalunya, and for the first time since the death of Franco, neither the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) nor the centre-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) emerged with anywhere close to enough seats to govern. Coalition talks followed, with Podemos making demands and playing hardball. After months of negotiations, it proved impossible to form a coalition; the country now goes back to the polls on June 26.
Where Latin America was once the most obvious comparison to the Spanish situation in terms of the continent’s long history of military dictatorships, the Spain of today now finds its political brethren in the likes of Greece under Syriza (Podemos’ political cousin, which is currently tenuously holding on to power) and the Republic of Ireland, where Sinn Féin’s ongoing transformation into a European urban socialist party has yielded Podemos-style gains in the last round of national elections. Just like its predecessor, Informe General II places itself right in the centre of the action, capturing the full-scale political transformation of a multi-national state. While the once engagé Godard now seems more retiré, Portabella has—in a career spanning seven decades and films running from two minutes to four hours—deepened our sense of what a truly political political cinema can be.
Cinema Scope: Is it easier to make short films now, rather than feature films?
Pere Portabella: I made feature films in way tougher times than these. Cuadecuc, vampir, Umbracle—these were low-cost films, made with three people.
Scope: And the shift to digital?
Portabella: You can tell a story in three seconds, depending on your capacity, upload it, and in a single day it’ll be seen by a multitude of people with whom, more and more, you can have an interaction.
Scope: So it’s not a question of economics, making short films?
Portabella: There’s no economic factor in a film that’s made low-cost style. When I made Informe General I, I was a lot more involved in the political life of the period. But now, my vision is much more that of a filmmaker. I’ve gotten my profession back.
Scope: What was your role during the constitutional process?
Portabella: I was elected as a senator in 1977. At first we didn’t expect much, but we all insisted in our meetings that elections needed to be set up. Thanks to the president of the government—a mediocre figure, really old, but with the capacity to do things that a more tuned-in figure probably wouldn’t have—we engaged in a broad consultative process.
There were 40 senators. I was part of a coalition between two Catalan socialist parties, the PSOC (Partit Socialista i Obrades de Catalunya) and the Entesa dels Catalans. Then it was decided that it would be the senators and members of the lower house who formed the two commissions that had just been set up. Just think: there was not even a constitution! The commissions were formed with 25 members, in a way that had no parallel because we had no ties when it came time to vote. I was nominated, together with the historian Josep Benet and Alexandre Cirici, a guy very closely connected to art and architecture, to form part of a senate commission. It was a great experience because just a few months earlier we had been clandestí. Nobody could have guessed that in less than a year we’d be in the senate. Everything had been illegal—everything. And we didn’t really know if they’d hold elections.
Scope: Were you politically active during the transition?
Portabella: I was definitely engaged in politics, as an independent, but folded into the left. The strongest part, the most articulated part, was the Communist Party (PCE). Here in Catalonia it was the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC). But I was never a party activist at all: I moved between the Communists, the Socialists, and the parties of the left. I chaired the Assemblea de Catalunya, a clandestine political body. That was all independent, and so I kept the confidence of everyone.
Scope: Was that typical of the militants of the period?
Portabella: In the ’70s, independent intellectuals were well thought of by the political left. After that was the purge, and intellectuals began to leave the parties. Those who had stayed outside were treated better, and kept everyone’s confidence. People knew I had presided over the Assemblea to the end of 1971, and that’s where the PSUC, the other Socialists, and the Christian Democrats had come from. Still, I wrote the script [of Informe General I] very carefully. Because I am, without a doubt, a filmmaker.
Scope: So is Informe General I a fiction film?
Portabella: Yes, it’s a fiction film, because it’s choreographed. They’re actors, and I dealt with them as a filmmaker. It was me who was relating to them, never interviewing them. I interviewed Jose Maria Gil-Robles [former leader of the Catholic party Acción Popular] and Santiago Carrillo [former leader of the PCE] because they are the only characters who remained from the Civil War era. The word “informe,” it’s a partial, written, or visual explanation of something. Where I transgress the meaning of informe is in the way I’ve made a kind of true story. I’ve reported on a subjective point of view, a view of the changing of the age.
Scope: But do you consider Informe General I a fiction film like Umbracle or Nocturne 29?
Portabella: These genres are more interconnected than they may seem. The best documentaries are those in which the director involves himself and in which his subjectivity constructs a reality. Alain Resnais’ Nuit et brouillard (1955) is a magnificent film about the Holocaust in which we never see a gas chamber. It’s pure fiction. But you get much more of the barbarism than if you had shown the chambers, the taps, the gas, etc.
Scope: So in Informe General I, does Jordi Pujol—founder of the Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, and arguably the father of modern Catalan nationalism—play the same role as Christopher Lee in Umbracle or Cuadecuc, vampir?
Portabella: Yes. It’s a matter of making an icon. For example, Cuadecuc, vampir is a reflection that moves through the genre of a vampire movie. With the figure of Christopher Lee, what we’re doing is vampirizing a commercial horror movie, using the same texture of materials, black-and-white film, etc. But by way of constructing a different story.
Scope: What were your important international influences of those years, the ’60s and ’70s?
Portabella: Carl Dreyer and F.W. Murnau were my main reference points.
Scope: And activist filmmakers?
Portabella: I worked with them, inasmuch as I was part of the clandestine networks. I knew about the demonstrations organized by the unions. I always knew where they had their meetings and was able to contribute to what they were doing. I went along, basically out of solidarity, but I was never carrying a camera.
Scope: In Umbracle, there is quite a bit of description and discussion of clandestine or underground cinema.
Portabella: That’s the contribution I made. At that point I wanted to reflect on what was happening. The film has three people who offer an analysis. What were the examples they used in these analyses? They were films we called “underground,” but not a kind of commercial underground; that was one of the things we denounced.
Scope: During the ’60s and ’70s, Catalan filmmakers like Joaquim Jordà and Vicente Aranda were making connections with European and South American filmmakers. Glauber Rocha made a film in Catalonia in 1967, Cabezas Cortadas, during his Paris exile. Jordà also had links to Italian and Portuguese political cinema. Were these kinds of connections important to you?
Portabella: These were friends. Jordà was a great talent as a newspaper and magazine writer. But I opted for an approach between what was being done in political cinema, while still looking for a bit of the underground that broke with Spain’s “official cinema.” That included the potential of a revitalized Spanish-language cinema. So I took the line of the artistic avant-gardes. I was with Antoni Tàpies, Antonio Saura, and Eduardo Chillida. I made films from that place. My films have parallels with their work. It isn’t aligned with them, exactly, but it has a magnificent connection. What ended up happening is that my films went down another road again.
Scope: Why did you leave cinema for 17 years?
Portabella: I was part of three or four legislatures during the writing and finalizing of the constitution, and also developed organic, grassroots-led laws. So I was intensely involved in political activity. So yes, it wasn’t until 1989, with Warsaw Bridge, that I came back to the cinema.
Scope: How does Warsaw Bridge connect to those earlier films?
Portabella: It’s a consequence of them. My strategy was based in articulating them and making a film with the same freedom. I had proposed to make a commercial film, with tracking shots, soft lighting, the typical crane shots, etc. So it’s a kind of critical revision of that kind of culture, much like what you see, for example, in Informe General II, which I’ve just finished. Remember that Warsaw Bridge opens by leaving a museum. Thus the idea to make Informe General II.
That film stems from two years ago, when the director of the Reina Sofia, Manolo Borja, asked me to do something at the museum. We had already published a monograph together in 2001, Historias sin argumentos, when he was the director of the MACBA in Barcelona. This time they were proposing something very simple: capture the Reina Sofia, the icon, this museum that is, despite some differences, the Louvre of the 19th century. Then I proposed to make it a reflection on what art is. Today that seems a question of both class and power.
Scope: How do the analyses of the two Informe Generals differ?
Portabella: The circumstances then were very different from now. The forces of Francoism realised that without Franco himself, things wouldn’t be the same. They adopted European democratic systems, but without losing control. That is to say, it was a controlled democracy. And that’s what I wanted to reflect in Informe General.
Now it’s been two years since we’ve noticed that things are changing. Here in Europe, people are organizing, mobilizing, being indignant, and now organizing politically, creating serious, active pressure. These are people who belong to assemblies, and who are now on the councils of a lot of the autonomous communities [Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia, etc.]. Citizens are self-organizing.
Scope: In the two Informe Generals, is the central theme the “national question”?
Portabella: No. There are two principal questions. In Informe General II, the first is the mobilization of the masses. This has two senses: the famous 15M is the key to the question. These mass movements indicate to everyone that during a democratic regeneration, during the occupation of institutional spaces, there is a desire to bolt from the political parties. One of these currents is Podemos; that’s the one I analyze. The other current is one from here: that’s the matter of Catalan independence. These two currents flow into the 15M moment. The Catalan theme takes on a considerable force because it poses a territorial crisis for the state. However, the other theme, Podemos, poses an institutional crisis for the state: the matter of democratic regeneration. The most important political subject of the 2010s is the state of the citizens.