Documentaries of the Franco Era
The Journal of Flamenco Artistry 3(2).
is scrawled across my guitar case where it serves to remind
me of the promises, problems, joys, and jeopardies that pervade
this passionate style called flamenco. Most folks probably
miss the point of my "No...Do," but most aficionados are attuned
to some of its meaning.
If you're travelling in Seville, you're bumping into "No...Do"
at almost every turn. Fitted out with a 8, figure-eight-like
skein of yarn in its midsection, it adorns the backs of buses
and the covers of manholes; it appears on city buildings and
in official documents. This No8do insignia is a word puzzle
- really a rebus - that recalls old hopes of the people of
this city, and the promises made to them when Seville was
an outpost of Christianity in the Muslim world of the south.
No8do speaks of a city not to be abandoned: The Spanish for
the 8, the skein, is madeja, and so the motto reads
No ma dejado or roughly "I have not
been abandoned," a phrase that plays off the disconsolate
cry of Jesus on the cross. This "No...Do" insignia prompts
Sevillanos to raise their heads high and puff out their chests
with pride. Theirs is a city that has been crucified and resurrected,
seen the worst of times but rebounded and clawed its way back
into the best of times. Theirs is a city of distinction, a
city that marches to the beat of its own drummers and buglers.
Of course, besides marching, it also dances, and, as ever,
it dances to a beat all its own - the sevillanas
that many consider a flamenco oddity. The pride that a Sevillano
takes in his music, like the parallel prides of Jerezanos,
Gaditanos, and Malagueños, is an indication of an intensely
felt sense of independence, just as "No...Do" suggests.
It is well to keep this sense of independence in mind when
thinking about flamenco, when playing the music, and, more
to the point of this essay, when interpreting documentary
films about flamenco. Here I will talk about three such films:
"Duende y Misterio del Flamenco" by Edgar Neville (1952),
"A Través del Flamenco" by Claudio Guerín and
Romualdo Molina (1972), and "Rito y Geografía del Cante"
by Mario Gomez, Pedro Turbica, and José María
Velázquez (1971-73). The first is readily available.
I bought my copy of "Duende" in a department store in Madrid
for about eight bucks. It has English subtitles - American
collectors maintained a healthy version of this film while
copies elsewhere were deteriorating and disappearing. The
second film "A Través" is a rarity. Originally shown
on the primary channel of national television in 1972, it
was widely praised in newspaper reviews as the first serious
handling of flamenco on television for a vast viewing audience.
To my knowledge, it is currently available only at the archives
of Spanish National television. The third film "Rito y Geografía
del Cante" is not one film, but one hundred, each of which
explores and illustrates a flamenco form, a flamenco region,
a flamenco artist, or a topic closely related to the flamenco
style. Produced and aired for national educational television
- generally regarded as stuffy, if not snobbish - it was seen
by a comparatively miniscule viewing audience and was then
squirreled away in the archives of Spanish National television
where it remained until the mid-1980s when it was unearthed,
thanks in part to the indefatigable efforts of Brook Zern.
It is now available for viewing in the elegant surroundings
of the Centro Andaluz in Jerez, and in the somewhat less exotic
settings of Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Each of these film projects bears witness - some more than
others - to the emphasis on cultural and musical independence
that is so characteristic of flamenco artistry. Each is a
testament to Andalusian No8do spirit which is so much a part
of the flamenco style. Edgar Neville's film is tour through
flamencoland, a merry waltz through the bright and joyful
south of Spain overflowing with beautiful women and eager
dancers. The beautiful María Luz Galicia, a dancer
whose sun has long since set, is showcased - too much I think.
She shown in one scene, distracting the local police with
a coquettish dance so as to divert their attentions from smugglers
sneaking behind. La Fernanda and La Bernarda in their youths
are shown too briefly. If only Neville had had the foresight
to know that, while Maria would fade, these two wispy young
women from Utrera would become the flamenco matriarchs of
our time (as shown in this photo taken a couple years ago
by Peter Holloway and used here with his permission). Near
the end of the film, a young Gitana decked out in all her
flashy finery sings bulerías while her young husband,
with his arms encircling their infant, provides palmas
for her cante. Qué maravilla! The
final scene is monumental in every respect: Antonio breaks
the mold of flamenco traditionalism with a martinete danced
at the foot of the soaring cliffs of Ronda.
José Blas Vega has described Duende as the
"the most important filmic work on this theme that has been
produced to date" but when I discussed the film with Romualdo
Molina he sneered. That sneer peaks through Romualdo's commentary
in a recent issue of La Caña: "Maligned for
years within our borders, it (Duende) now enjoys
unmerited prestige." Professional rivalry must certainly explain
some of his negativity. After all, Molina, rose from Seville's
renegade radio station, Radio Vida, in the early 1960s to
occupy a prominent position in Madrid's national television
industry. There, in Madrid, he codirected "A Través
del Flamenco" in 1972 and oversaw the production of the documentary
series "Rito y Geografía del Cante" between 1971 and
73. With these projects completed, no one could blame him
for feeling that he had outstripped all earlier efforts including
Neville's. After all, he was instrumental in ushering flamenco
documentary into its golden years.
I chatted with Señor Romualdo on a couple of occasions.
Even now as I recall those long conversations, I find myself
squinting my memory and stretching my consciousness so as
to reconstruct the fullness of his warm personhood. Even if
one were endowed with all divine power, still it would be
a great challenge to create a more intelligent, effervescent,
and hospitable person than Romualdo Molina. The only thing
that persists longer that his non-stop discourse is his smile.
On one occasion we went up to his apartment to explore his
personal archives. After interrupting his elderly mother who
was at that moment wrapping herself up and giving herself
over to the enchantments of a bullfight on television, her
daily fix, we inched our way through tight quarters to get
to Romualdo's study, itself tighter than tight because it
was packed full from floor to ceiling with books, papers,
disks, and tapes. He ransaked his files for me with an eye
to his golden projects, "A Través" and "Rito," and
I came away well versed on their background, and loaded me
down with commentaries and reviews.
Través del Flamenco," filmed in 35 mm. color, is an
award-winning tour de force of both music and cinematography.
Like Saura's recent film Flamenco, this film consists
of one performance after another, each filmed in a distinctive
setting, each introduced with its form name and song title.
After an initial section of sevillanas, a
solo guitar granainas "Agua," rendered by
Manolo Sanlucar, exploits the historic fascination of Andalusians
with water. Shot almost entirely inside a dripping limestone
cave, the camera captures water as it drips and ripples and
swirls in tandem with the rhythm, as if it were resonating
with the strings of Sanlucar's guitar. Captivating cinematography!
In taranto "Hombre," Rafael de Córdoba
is shown dancing across the sierras as if he to anticipate
the recent Coors beer commercials with its young blond gargantuans
frolicking across the Rocky Mountains leaping from peak to
peak in single bounds. For bamberas "Aire,"
the camera displays red tile roofs and whitewashed walls of
an Andalusian town. And here too, and again in the concluding
frames of this film, viewers gaze out across the endless fields
plied by workers who struggle to fend off the blistering sun
as they labor through the heat of the day. The most satisfying
footage, from my point of view, offers Pepe El de la Matrona
with serranias and seguiriyas "Soldedad"
and then Pedro Peña accompanying his brother Juan Lebrijano
as they sit in a bar filled with smoking, drinking men only
half-attending to their soleares "Pensamiento."
These snippets of Andalusian cultural life stands out from
all the other images in "A Través del Flamenco" because
they are so uncultivated and, as Miguel Espín noted,
"menacingly regionalist" in their deviation from the conventions
of No-Do, taken now in its second sense which I should stop
Not long into his 35-year-long regime, Generalísimo
Francisco Franco put his censorship machinery into full swing,
strangling all discordant words and images, yes, but also
inventing and promoting those that were favorable his regime.
The operative word for this manner of censorship is propaganda.
In 1942 his notorious arm of documentary film production went
into operation, "Noticiario Cinematográfico Español,"
an agency charged with the responsibility for developing the
newsreels to be shown at the movies, "Noticias Documentales"
or "NO-DO" films, all of which were bent and shaped so as
to accentuate the positives of the Franco regime. The impact
of these No-Do films is pervasive. They were the only documentary
films produced in the 1940s, and their style wormed its way
into popular documentary film produced thereafter. Heavy-handed
voice-over commentary and celebratory landscapes, de riguer
for officially approved films, are featured in both "Duende"
and "A Través del Flamenco." With "Rito y Geografía
del Cante," Romualdo Molina, along with his three project
principals, struggled to escape out from under the heavy arm
of official censorship, aiming for a fresh take on flamenco
music. The series that resulted from their efforts was praised
in left-leaning journals of the day as an accurate presentation
of flamenco in its natural social context, all code words
for propaganda-free film.
Interestingly, both the director of the "Rito" series, Mario
Gómez Martín, and his primary assistant, Pedro
Turbica, are Madrileños. But they were vigorously supportive
of this Andalucía-centered project. José María
Velázquez Gaztelú, the on-screen interviewer
and author of the voice-overs, hailed from Arcos de la Frontera
(Cádiz) where he grew up amdist cante. He
embraced this project as an occasion for both salvaging and
celebrating the threatened musical styles of his youth. Not
accidentally, he made sure that "Rito" footage was packed
with his heros, Antonio Mairena, Juan Talega, Añica
la Periñaca, María La Perrata, Diego del Gastor,
Manolo de Huelva and on and on through the flamenco hall of
fame of the sixties. To ensure documentary candor, the three
authors traveled the dusty roads of the south, visiting artists
in their homes, drinking with them in their bars, and capturing
them on film 16 mm. black and white, the best that these young
Spanish Charles Kuraults could do on their shoe-string budget,
which, by the way, was cut by a third once its independent
approach became apparent to franquista officialdom. Thanks
to the energy of these three, their persistence, and their
insight into flamenco, we have a treasure trove of examples
of the old style in its fading moments and of the new style
when it was still new. We can witness Juan Talega and Diego
del Gastor in their final performances and Camarón,
Enrique Morente, Paco de Lucía just as they were beginning
to peak. The details of these films are bound to generate
squeals of delight at every turn, Pedro Bacán with
hair, Pepe Marchena in his smoking jacket, Pepe Martinez in
his bathrobe, Vincente Peña cooling himself off after
some very hot bulerías by pouring a glass of vino over
But while sampling these delightful details, viewers would
do well to remember some important social and historical factors
that accounts for the distinctive character of "Rito" footage.
I myself became keenly aware of these factors after talking
on numerous occasions to Gómez, Turbica, and Velázquez,
all of whom gave freely of their warmth, their enthusiasm,
their time...and their wine - I am greatly indebted to these
three extraordinarily generous men. What they taught me during
our many hours of conversation was that the music they were
documenting was not what one should call entertainment, but
rather a kind of blood music, suffering people singing to
express their pains and their hopes. And clearly, the music
they gathered was linked to the then current political scene
- for some of these authors more consciously and deeply than
for others. This was the time - in the late 1960s - when,
up north, novo cançión was helping
to strengthen Catalan opposition to Franco, and when, down
south, Andalucía's Menese and Morente were singing
flamenco subversiveness on university campuses, cantes
with pointed fingers, singing - like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger
- songs that jabbed at audiences, goading them into action.
The "Rito" authors understood these singers and the challenges
they faced, being themselves only too familiar with the business
end of Franco's bayonets. In consequence, their "Rito" series
ended up as much more than a collection of folk songs. It
is a collection of souls that were bowed and bloodied but
Still in all, the series had to be marketed as a folkloric
collection. How else to get it aired on Franco's own television
network? In consequence the "Rito" series is a paradox, a
film project that is carefully cultivated as an uncultivated
documentary so as to display the old while invisibly stimulating
hopes for the new. It treated the music of Andalucía
as folkore, but its little twists made it clear that this
traditional music from the good old days had a power to influence
the future. A good close look at a few of these programs will
make it obvious that the flamenco music of the "Rito" series
refuses to sit quietly, as if it were shelved in a museum,
dead and stuffed and mounted. Consider, as a first example,
the programs that focus on Manuel Soto "Sordera," one of which
shows him in Madrid discussing his life as a tablao singer.
Longfaced and lonely, he talks only of Jerez and his family
and his eagerness to be back home. The other program profiles
Sordera family festivities at Christmas time. Here a wholly
transformed Manuel, with bright face and electric smile, lights
up the screen as he encourages his kids to sing and dance.
The cante builds with a rising intensity that peaks
when the sound track morphs into La Niña de los Peines,
thereby nudging viewers toward that quintessential flamenco
response, goosebumps (escalofríos).1
What is clear and obvious is that Manuel's heart belongs to
his family, and to his home, and that means Jerez. What is
hidden from viewers is the fact that these Christmas scenes
were shot not far from Madrid. A second example involving
a young Lole Montoya, accompanied by Eduardo El de la Malena,
is equally telling. In a humble kitchen packed tight with
a motley crew of kids and teens and older folks, Lole breaks
out in song and dance - this is her first major moment in
the public eye. Dressed simply, in pants yet, a bit flustered,
with hesitant gaze, wholly different from the wolf-eyed Carmens
of her day, this engaging beauty sings tangos....in
Arabic. The Arabic coplas not only eluded comprehension, they
also flew in the face of Franco's cultivation of flamenco
as a symbol of national Catholic Spain.
When I was in Madrid I stopped by José Blas Vega's
bookstore, looking to get the skinny on "Rito" from this distinguish
flamencologist, co-author of the Diccionario Enciclopédico
Ilustrado del Flamenco. To my surprise, he winced and
sneered as he discussed the series, explaining that, besides
depreciating the importance of Madrid, it played fast and
loose with tradition when it emphasized the role of family
and attributed such great importance to the contributions
of Andalusian women...Lole singing Arabic; Cristobalina belting
out tangos while her child slept at her breast; Maria La Perrata,
the linchpin of the contemporary Perrate dynasty (see enclosed
photo from the "Rito" program entitled "La Familia de los
Perrate").2 Clearly the No8do spirit of the "Rito"
series, deviating as it did from Franco's No-Do style of documentary
film, rankled some aficionados as deeply as it pleased others.
Such mixed and deeply felt reactions are a sign of the fact
that the "Rito y Geografía del Cante Flamenco" is a
pivotal documentary project, one that merits repeated watching,
some imitation, and always our critical scrutiny.
Some of these "Sordera" kids now comprise Ketama. Their growth
from the 1971 "Rito" program entitled "La Navidad" to the
present has been beautifully profiled in one of Pedro Turbica's
patchwork documentary series of nine televized programs, "Los
Años Flamenco" (1994).
Not to say that Madrid never payed attention to women: Manolo
Caracol, in a "Rito" interview, justified the ornate spectacle
of a Madrileña ópera flamenca, claiming - with
a porous if not sexist argument - that such enchanting delights
were necessary to attract women who were otherwise bored by
the serious art of cante!