Exactly one month after the much-debated exhumation of the remains of Spanish dictator Franco, a documentary about the unhealed wounds of the Franco era world premieres at IDFA.
At the beginning of The Death of Antonio Sānchez Lomas, directed by Ramón Gieling and son Salvador, the southern Spanish village of Frigiliana is presented in wide angle within a beautiful drone shot, together with views of the surrounding mountains, and the Mediterranean in the distance. Then we dive in until we are in the cemetery, where we see the villagers mourning and honouring their dead, on a sunny All Saint’s Day.
The vision changes. We are onlookers while the camera searches, in surprisingly moving slow motion, across the faces of the mourners. A little boy licks a wall, and a voice-over tells us that, after all the fighting in the Civil War, there are ‘families that still feel resentment towards one another’.
The focus changes again. In close-up, we are being scrutinised by a man, his glare pulling us in, making us part of the dilemma that Spain has experienced for such a long time, that of dealing with decades-old trauma, and the accompanying silence after the Franco era.
And, within the context of this film, how do you treat the open wound of Frigiliana, which is still in the grip of the event of that black day, 20th January 1952, when the Guardia Civil went to the house of Antonio Sānchez Lomas and shot him, in broad daylight, in front of his family?
Sānchez Lomas was the last of the ‘Maquis’, or ‘Men from the Mountains’, as the armed guerillas were called, the rebels who were dispersed across Spain after the victory of Franco’s victory.
After the shooting, the Guardia Civil draped the body of Sānchez Lomas across the back of a mule, his daughters and wife in tow, which was led through the packed village which was celebrating the San Sebastian fiesta. The event is a core part of the village’s cultural and historical fabric.
Under the direction of Ramón Gieling and his son Salvador, some of the present day villagers embark on a chilling journey to recreate the shooting and the provocative procession that followed. “Don’t,” advises a villager when he learns of this reconstruction. “The crack is still too deep. Like in the time of Jesus Christ, it will take generations to overcome this execution. The victims are still around, alive.”
Carefully, and adhering to the principle of audi alteram partem in tact (‘listen to the other side’), the filmmakers reveal how deep the crack remains.
With tact and respect, they unearth emotions that have not been expressed for decades, but neither have these emotions faded. Families have been made to pay a very high price. Mothers and brothers still carry over 60 years of sorrow. And many villagers retain hearts of stone.
The film’s reconstruction of the brutal killings is confronting for the viewer, as it was for the villagers who vividly took on the roles of murderers. And for two old men of opposite political persuasions remembering the past, trying to reach out, to meet and to reconcile, it is evident that time doesn’t heal all wounds nor soften all minds.
Then there is the painting in the town hall, which is referred to as ‘The Guernica of Frigiliana’. It depicts the bloody procession in blurry streaks and vivid colours, and represents the black spot on this beautiful village which is famous for its clean white houses.
And there is the local school janitor, Adolfo, whose left wing politics have determined that he will always be working in low status jobs, who risks much to put this divisive piece of history to rest.
Adolfo also embodies contemporary Spain, whose passionate wish it is to come to terms with the events from the past, to break the taboo about Franco’s heritage, to move on, and who reflects the government’s motivation to re–bury Franco’s remains in a different, less poignant location, with the hope of starting the process of reconciliation.
But reconciliation often involves opening old wounds, and often there is a great cost attached.