¡Viva! festival returns with another ambitious programme of Spanish and Latin American theatre, film and visual art. This year's programme celebrates 40 years since the end of censorship in Spain following the death of General Franco – we find out more
Imagine political oppression, strict control of the press, repression of the arts. If you think we have it tough now, this was the atmosphere in Spain for 36 years under the rule of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. From 1939 until his lingering death in 1975, millions endured a regime where censorship was the norm. But on the dictator's demise, the floodgates of self-expression opened, and two years later his censorship was abolished. “It was like all the frustrations and all the repression suddenly exploded,” says Andy Willis, senior visiting curator at HOME, Manchester.
This period in which democracy was handed back to the Spanish people was dubbed La Transición, and its burst of uninhibited creativity is celebrated at the heart of this year’s ¡Viva! festival. Its film retrospective marks the 40th anniversary of Spain’s abolition of censorship, while the festival’s dazzlingly eclectic group exhibition celebrates La Movida, the countercultural movement that flourished in Madrid during the era. We wonder, however, if the programmers also had today’s political climate in mind when choosing La Transición as a subject?
“Not when we were initially planning it,” admits Sarah Perks, HOME’s artistic director of visual art. “But we did have in mind the idea of change.” Even before Brexit and Trump, the ¡Viva! team had a feeling that something poisonous was in the air. “It felt like, gradually, people were trying to attack the things that we had all fought for, the freedoms that we were used to,” says Perks. “Whether it’s the rise of UKIP, or a Tory government that’s pushing austerity, it felt like there was already some kind of reversal in progress. So it felt recently like the idea of transgression was one that doesn't come up very often.”
Spanish cinema during La Transición
You’ll find it in spades in this year’s ¡Viva! programme. The most famous artist to emerge during La Movida was Pedro Almodóvar, who became the spiky figurehead of the movement. The celebrated filmmaker’s scrappy provocation Pepi, Luci, Bom, which paints Madrid as a colourful and flamboyant carnival where anything goes, screens – but there are plenty of lesser-spotted films from the era to discover too.
We love the sound of Ivan Zulueta‘s Arrebato. “It’s interesting because it's a film about filmmaking,” says Willis, “so it's wildly self-reflective, but it’s also often seen as one of the more authentic films of that movement.” In a eulogy to Zuluta, who died in 2009, Almodóvar evocatively described his close friend’s style as “pure image, brimful of meanings but freed from the burden of fiction, always cushioned on a rich variety of soundscapes. David Lynch, but less shadowy and more pop.” Sounds good to us.
Another fascinating character from this time was Eloy de la Iglesia, who Willis describes as “one of the most important directors of that period.” Unlike Almodóvar and Zuluta, whose debut feature appeared during La Transición, De la Iglesia was making genre films throughout the Franco years. After Franco's death, De la Iglesia became increasingly politicised.
“His films have lots of characters who are marginalised from society: juvenile delinquents, drug addicts, sex workers,” explains Willis. “But they're not the kind of titillating sex films like Jesús Franco would make. They're more kind of... you might describe them as social realist melodramas. I know that's contradictory, but they've got a kind of melodramatic feel in terms of the story, but they've also got this explicit representation of the margins of society.” Two De la Iglesia films screen at ¡Viva!: El Diputado (1978) and El Pico (1983)
Exhibition celebrating La Movida
Outside the cinema space, Perks is looking forward to an exhibition that channels the transgressive attitudes of La Movida. The aim isn’t simply to shock, though: “It’s about people understanding where to draw the line and who’s drawing the line for you,” she says, “and where you might need to join together to kind of explore or express different boundaries.”
One of three new commissions comes from Spanish filmmaker Luis López Carrasco, whose debut film, El Futuro, was set during a house party on the eve of the 1982 Spanish election that would bring the Socialists to power and an end to La Movida. Perks tells us that “[Carrasco] talks about how with El Futuro he was recreating something in the 80s but felt like what was going on in the film could be now, so he’s sort of struck by that feeling that we’re meeting that time again, just the other side of it.”
While making El Futuro, Carrasco came across a pop star from that era, Tesa Arranz, who sang in The Zombies. “She was kind of the Debbie Harry of La Movida if you like,” says Perks. “After the early 80s she quit the band and moved to Valencia to have a baby. Now she almost exclusively paints pictures of aliens, so [Carrasco]’s just wrapped shooting an extended interview with her, which is filmed in Hi8 and features a lot of her painting her work.”
There’s also a new performance piece from Liverpudlian artist La JohnJoseph. “He wanted to take the role of the king of Spain, who made a series of speeches related to democracy and La Movida,” explains Perks. The performance piece will open the exhibition, and we’ll see La JohnJoseph deliver elements of what the king was saying. "It’ll be in the style of the king, while dressed as a sort of Liverpudlian housewife!”
Another new commission is Clara Casian's video piece Savoyard, which looks at the world of publishing and censorship through the history of Savoy books, a Manchester publishing house in the late 70s, and includes archive material from the time, including a rare clip of a young John Cooper Clarke reciting a poem – “he would have definitely been part of La Movida if, er, Manchester was in Madrid,” laughs Perks.
The rest of the show is hugely eclectic, with work from artists as varied as Puppies Puppies, Bruce LaBruce, Linder Sterling and Derek Jarman. We think Almodóvar would have approved of the exhibition’s sheer eclecticism and inclusivity. "We weren't a generation,” he once said. “We weren't an artistic movement; we weren't a group with a concrete ideology. We were simply a bunch of people that coincided in one of the most explosive moments in the country."