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GIJÓN 2021

David Varela • Director of Un cielo impasible

“We ought to have explored our history more self-critically”


- The documentary filmmaker takes a scathing look at historical memory and the education system in his second full-length feature, screening as part of the 59th Gijón International Film Festival

David Varela • Director of Un cielo impasible
(© Carolina Santos/FICX)

Four teenagers get to know the site of one of the Spanish Civil War’s bloodiest battles in David Varela’s Un cielo impasible [+see also:
film review
interview: David Varela
film profile
. The documentary has just enjoyed its world premiere in the Tierres en trance section of the 59th Gijón International Film Festival. We met up with the director at the Antiguo Instituto, one of Gijón’s foremost cultural centres, to find out more.

Cineuropa: How did you go about selecting the young people who appear in the film?
David Varela:
It was a unique kind of casting, not really a casting at all. It was more a series of conversations, starting with parents I knew from the town where I live, near Madrid. I didn’t want to go through the school system, because I had no desire to get involved with that whole institutional structure. I wanted something looser, less forced. I asked around until I had a handful of names, and it all went from there. We met up for drinks and I explained the process step by step. Of the seven or eight we started with, we ended up with five who felt able to devote enough time to the project, because it was important to have real commitment and continuity. Of those five, one dropped out for personal reasons, leaving us with the four leads we see in the film.

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They’re very bright and inquisitive kids: not at all how we usually imagine that turbulent age...
That’s right. They’re interested and they want to learn without having to rely on the media. The school system is fairly poor when it comes to teaching history and reflecting on our country's past.

Historical memory and a critique of the education system are two themes that dovetail perfectly in your film.
That becomes apparent as we get deeper into the film. We understood that there were a lot of problems around teaching history in the classroom, and we wanted it to be young people themselves who called that out, based on their own experiences. They will tell you openly that nobody has given them the tools to come to terms with the past and analyse it critically. This also comes out in university research and in surveys. The results are appalling, because they suggest that more than 50% of students leave school without knowing which sides were involved in the civil war. Some even believe that Franco was a Communist.

All of the original material used in the film — tapes, objects, documents, evidence... How did you get your hands on it?
Slowly and over a long period of time. The film inched forward step by step, with pauses while we rethought certain things before getting back into filming, or made adjustments to the script. That’s how documentaries are made — you’re learning at every stage of the process. You shoot a little, stop to start editing what you have, and then depending on what you end up with and the overall plan, you might need to do more research, which leads to more filming, and so on. That was how we went about the project and it suited us just fine. The two experts in military history who appear in the film encouraged us to question how we look at and analyse the past, so that the kids could approach the war from a different perspective. These questions touched on aspects like the degree of neutrality with which we should think about that period, whether there is room for an emotional, ideological and political dimension when analysing such a traumatic event that has never really gone away, because the wounds have not been healed, just covered over and left to fester. The work of healing should have been a priority during the transition. All of that means that we now need to take a much broader view, not just thinking like historians, but also seeking a kind of empathy with what happened here through the eyes and the voices of those who lived through it, each interpreting it from their own political and ideological position, while also avoiding conflict.

Some people would say that it’s dangerous to stir up the past…
I would ask those people to read about countries that suffered totalitarian regimes and have done the necessary work, like Germany, Italy, France, Argentina, Chile and Rwanda. Spain may refuse to learn, but those countries take a more balanced view and are less politicly polarised. Here, we’re all wearing ideological blinkers and everything has to be political, because we don’t know how to look at the past without them. It’s like this because we haven’t yet understood that we ought to have dealt with what happened in a more self-critical way. We ought to have confronted everyone’s role, made amends with those who suffered and dug people out of the ditches to give them a decent burial.

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(Translated from Spanish by Ruth Grant)

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