Scribbler in Seville

Fear and repression in Franco’s Spain

Last week I saw two new films about Spain under Franco’s dictatorship. Both were dominated, predictably, by the recurrent themes of injustice, incarceration, abuse and human suffering. Both had a strong Andalucian connection: one was set and filmed here; the other’s protagonists were mostly from Andalucia, and was also shot partly in the region.

La Voz Dormida, set in 1939, is a feature film about the story of two sisters, one of whom has been imprisoned for her association with communists, and who has strongly-held political beliefs (thanks to Becoming Sevillana for blogging about it). Deportados 1969, which takes places  30 years later, is a documentary about workers who were imprisoned for demanding improved rights and working conditions. It was showing as part of the Seville International Film Festival; this was the film’s premiere.

Devotion to your cause, routine mistreatment, and flouting of any rights, civil or human, ran through both films like blood through veins. These people fought for what they believed in, and suffered the consequences, sometimes paying the ultimate price. The two films packed a serious emotional punch, leaving me – and the others in the cinema – impresionados afterwards.

Deportados 1969 tells the story of 12 workers who were taken from their houses in Seville at dead of night, interrogated and beaten. All this took place under an Estado de excepcion which Franco had imposed, in order to have the freedom to “suppress the most dangerous sections of society” – basically, so the police could do what they liked without breaking the law.

The families of the men weren’t told where they were, why they had been taken away, or what would happen to them.

They were not allowed to visit them, and neither were the men allowed to see lawyers.

After this, the men, who worked in metal and fabric factories in Seville, were taken to prisons, and later each was transported to a different Andalucian town: small, isolated and not always welcoming to such dissidents. They were given a blanket and told not to try to return, on pain of imprisonment. The men had to report to the Guardia Civil every day; they had no money, and nowhere to stay. One man asked the priest if he could sleep in the church, and received the reply, “No. It’s your problem.”

Eduardo Saborido, one of the Deportados.

In some towns, the inhabitants were too scared to talk to them. However, one ended up marrying a local girl, in the middle of the night; she was wearing her pyjamas. Another became good friends with the Guardia from the cuartel of the town. With no money, they had to rely on the charity of the townsfolk; one was taken in by a woman, who became like a second mother to him: he still visits her regularly. Most found work doing manual labour, such as building roads.

They could, at least, contact their families by telephone; one man was married with children, and his wife came to visit him. After a month, the special state was lifted, and they were allowed home.

All this was told by the typical documentary mix of talking heads – the men themselves, and historians; film footage from the time, of students demonstrations; and recreation by actors – those playing the younger versions of the deportados themselves looked convincingly similar.

Young Eduardo in Deportados 1969.

It was well structured, and well told. But what I couldn’t help thinking at the end (and an English friend, who happened to be there too, agreed) was, why it was such a big deal? They went to prison, without being accused of a crime, which is a symptom of dictatorship – the justice system has no weight or value. But being sent to a town for a month? Yes, they were scared, cold and hungry. And lonely – it was designed to break their spirit, but all continued with their political campaigning afterwards.

I guess you have to realise how cut-off these towns were; the roads were terrible and it took hours to get anywhere. Political rebels, those who didn’t tow the line, were considered outcasts – the Guardia must have chosen the towns carefully, knowing they were Franquista.

In Andalucia, your town is your identity, and your family is your life. Without both, they would have been lost.

Here is a trailer for Deportados 1969. [vimeo]

In La Voz Dormida, two women from Cordoba are in Madrid: one, in prison for being married to a “bandit” – a communist fighter known as El Cordobes, and expecting his child; the other, her sister, who has come to the city to be closer and help. Tensi, who is played by the actress from TV series Aguilar Roja, her huge, dark eyes more expressive than ever as she suffers the privations – little food, no privacy, scant contact with family; they have to shout to each other through metal gates, unable even to touch.

Tensi in prison, with warder on left.

The brutality and total lack of compassion of the nuns who run the facility, along with prison warders – funcionarios, was one of the most shocking aspects of the film, for me.

The Catholic church is already taking a battering for its involvement in the Stolen Baby scandal – trafficking newborns from women who were told had died, as well as taking them from communist mothers and other unsuitables. This movie portrays them as inhuman monsters.

Pepita, Tensi’s younger sister, conveys messages – a punishable offence in itself – and helps her brother-in-law, falling in love with his compañero along the way. But all the action builds up to Tensi’s fate. I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that it is extremely well acted and convincing.

Pepita with her beau, a communist fighter and friend of her brother-in-law.

There are a few scenes which particularly resonate: all the women inmates are told to kiss the foot of a baby Jesus statue, the nun telling them “El culto de Cristo forma parte de su educacion”. When one refuses, and the statue falls to the ground and breaks, in a fit of rage the nun beats the unfortunate prisoner to the ground with a baton, and then shouts “Todos ustedes son basura!” (You’re all rubbish!). Faith, hope and love.

One of the most moving scenes is when Tensi sings a lullaby to her sister:

“…Ay mi niña morenita, no te asustes con mi pena, que las lágrimas que corren riegan a la hierbabuena, duerme niñita duerme…”

Oh, my dark-haired girl, don’t let my pain frighten you, the tears which flow will help the mint to grow, sleep, my baby, sleep…

It’s a beautiful, haunting song, super-charged with emotion, which will stay with you long after you leave the cinema – as will the film.

Events such as those in the film were repeated throughout the dictatorship of Franco – people imprisoned on trumped-up charges, show trials, torture, executions.

Many still prefer to keep quiet about what happened during those 40-odd years.

This film was one of three finalists in the selection for Spanish Oscar entry for best foreign film (Pa Negre was chosen in the end). I hope that more brave people like Benito Zambrano, director of La Voz Dormida, bring these appalling and shocking stories to public attention. We (perhaps especially foreigners, with no family history with the country) need to understand what happened here in Spain, what the people suffered, and how it affected everyone, in order to even begin to comprehend modern Spain with all its shadows, ghosts, and still-raw pain.


6 thoughts on “Fear and repression in Franco’s Spain

  1. alien1okcular

    . . understanding the past is the only way to understand the present. As a young man I was a ‘servant of the state’ and it took a long time before I recognised the commonality I shared with those who were no more than my victims. The past doesn’t sit quietly or easily for me. Telling the truth; being honest about actual history is a role the media has largely abrogated – it is left to a few outspoken individuals to open eyes and hearts to our humanity and inhumanity.
    Thank you for your post.

  2. Fiona Flores Watson

    Thanks for your comment – it’s interesting what you say about the media – they certainly take very different attitudes, but I think some are honest. El Pais has run many stories on the Niños Robados, and also on the Ley de Memoria Historica. But I agree about the individuals. What I am waiting for is the moment when someone has the cojones to detonate the ticking bomb that is sexual abuse going back decades in the Catholic Church.

    1. alien1okcular

      . . at a shallow level it seems that if you create and foster an organisation with ‘un-natural’ codes of conduct that it will attract un-natural adherents. The actual abuse is the tip of the iceberg with the secrecy and cover-up a crime of equal magnitude.

  3. Fiona Flores Watson

    Well said, you’re right – there are actually two separate crimes – I never thought of it like that. And the potential web of lies, denials and lack-of-action (ie failing to remove abusive priests) is terrifying. I wonder if any of the perpetrators will ever be sent to prison? A Spanish judge (most probably under a PP government, after Sunday) finding a Spanish Catholic priest guilty and condemning them to 20 years for their crime? If only…

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