Landscape and identities in the Basque Country
Landscape and identities in the Basque Country
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter considers the relation of landscape to debate about the Basque situation in Julio Medem's La pelota vasca: la piel contra la piedra. It also analyses how terrorists fighting for Basque independence move across the Basque landscape by means of the rural road in Días contados and El viaje de Arián. Both of these films use the road as the place in which the central character identifies with the Basque Country. This chapter shows that the use of landscape, space and place offer distance, displacement, and denial.
If landscape, space and place can be used as a way of seeing past traumas and the way in which they haunt the present, they can also be used to see present traumas, too. One of the most enduring legacies of Franco's dictatorship is the sometimes violent struggle over the political position of the Basque Country, in the north of the Iberian peninsula: although the roots of the Basque nationalist movement promoting greater autonomy or outright independence from Spain go further back in time than the Franco period, the dictatorship added a new edge to calls for a recognition of the Basque Country as a nation, since Francoist ideology opposed any expression of regional identity that might presuppose a national identity separate from that of Spain. Franco believed that Spain should be kept whole, united and indivisible. The Basque Country was not alone in suffering political and cultural repression as a result – Catalonia and Galicia, the other familiar ‘historical nationalities’ of Spain, also saw their cultural and political freedoms severely curtailed – but only in the Basque Country did local reaction amount to a sustained campaign of violent rebellion, now commonly recognised in the democratic era as terrorist.
My purpose in this chapter is to consider Rose's call to care in the light not only of the ongoing political conflict but also of a well established landscape tradition in the Basque Country that itself is closely bound up with Basque nationalist ideas and ideologies, although not necessarily synonymous with them. Landscape, space and place can be redolent of nationalism as well as nation, as is exemplified by the link commonly made between rural and mountainous landscape and Basque nationalism. This chapter first explores how this link plays out in films that deal with the Basque nationalist struggle and the ways in which landscape, space and place are used. It begins by considering the relation of landscape to debate about the Basque situation in Julio Medem's La pelota vasca: la piel contra la piedra (Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone, 2003). It then moves on to consider how terrorists fighting for Basque independence move across the Basque landscape by means of the rural road in Días contados (Running Out of Time; Imanol Uribe, 1994) and El viaje de Arián (Arian's Journey; Eduard Bosch, 2000), (p.61) tracing out an oscillation between the rural, iconic of Basque nationalism, and the city and its problematisation of Basque national identity. It concludes by remaining in the city to discuss industrial landscape, a landscape also typical of the Basque Country and yet denied as indicative of it, seen by some film critics as mythical rather than real – and this despite recent efforts at co-optation of the industrial landscape, notably by film director Daniel Calparsoro, and by Frank Gehry through his Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. The Bilbao Guggenheim is our finishing point for the chapter, moving away from film to contemplate the ambiguities of this recent addition to the Basque landscape.
How does one express a desire for association with or to belong to Spain in a situation and in a landscape where ‘belonging to Spain’ is what is in question, and where a desire not to associate with Spain is one of the traces which haunts the landscape? As we shall see in the case of the Guggenheim museum, the apparently polarised desire for either the Basque nation or the Spanish nation can produce strikingly similar reactions: a reversion to preconceived ideas of the link between landscape and territory, so that the view of the Basque Country looks remarkably similar regardless of the point of view. Although landscape, space and place in the Basque Country are used as means through which to see a desire to belong, the same perceptions turn up regardless of the label (nation or region) applied to the place where belonging is desired. Clearly, some of those who move about Basque spaces and places actively desire to avoid invoking Spain, and yet Spain is invoked regardless of the form of desire to belong. Paul Julian Smith, in summarising the work of renowned Basque commentator Fernando Savater, observes, ‘The grand narrative of nationality is … founded on the little narratives of locality and subjectivity: we must consider the meaning of proximity with others; and understand the confrontation between inside and outside (self and other) on which political solidarity and exclusions are based’ (Smith 2000: 82–3). Not only is Spain made up of different areas that go to make up grand narratives of ‘Spain’, but these narratives also include and perhaps even embrace counter narratives that appear to undermine the invocation of Spain. But in fact Spain is inevitably invoked when the Basque Country is mentioned, uncannily, as Joseba Gabilondo would put it (Gabilondo 2002); it is itself a ghostly trace that inevitably haunts similar invocations of the Basque Country as precisely a thing opposed to the invocation of Spain. Spain and the Basque Country haunt each other whether or not they are separate territories. Gabilondo argues that Basque identity is often one of denial that renders them uncanny to themselves, an argument that I have found not without its problems (see Davies 2009: 27) but which resonates in the use of Basque landscape, space and place. Indeed, Spain and the Basque Country come to haunt each other. The spaces and places depicted in Basque cinema and beyond come to be spaces of distance, displacement and denial appropriate for uncanny identities.
to emphasize the folkloric, traditional, idyllically rural version of Basque life, disconnected from the outside world, a view which was largely out of step with political and social change in the region. Also, more widely, a politically radical Basque nationalism appeared to be somewhat in thrall to an essentialist vision of Basque culture and identity, predicated on just such a version of the Basque Country as an unchanging rural arcadia. (Jordan and Morgan-Tamosunas 1998: 184)
Although the history of Basque cinema goes back as far as the beginnings of the silent era, its seminal film – the first real landmark of Basque film-making-did not come until just before the 1970s and the resurgence of Basque filmmaking once the Franco regime had gone. Ama lur (Mother Earth; Néstor Baster-retxea and Fernando Larruquert, 1968) (Fig. 4) was a celebratory documentary montage of life in the Basque Country that emphasised the Basque rural heritage largely at the expense of its industrial history (although the latter is not totally ignored). This is not to say that film-makers could not use the landscape itself as part of a critique of Basque nationalism in particular and Basque society more generally: an example is Julio Medem's debut film Vacas (Cows, 1992), where we are offered landscape shots of a romantically wild beauty that perpetuate a sense of the Basque Country as an integral part of a timeless Basque national identity (and this despite Medem's effort to site this landscape within the passage of Basque/Spanish history). But Medem simultaneously offers the claustrophobia of the landscape as the cause of the violence – at the level of the family and the nation – that occurs within it. Medem also, (p.63) however, demonstrates the constant recourse to rural images in his controversial La pelota vasca. In this documentary people from various walks of public life offer their often contrasting views on the ‘Basque problem’, shot against a variety of landscapes, interspersed with sweeping aerial shots of craggy Basque coastlines while Basque music is played. Rob Stone is not unique in criticising the film for overdetermined reflections of the nationalist celebration of rural Basqueness that are contrasted with montages of urban spaces as violent – a use of landscape that matches the ‘stale rhetoric’ of many of the interviewees (Stone 2007: 202). The effect of Medem's aerial shots can be compared to Tom Gunning's concept of phantom rides derived from early cinema's depictions of train travel, which appear to allow an immediate experience of landscape but which in fact serves to distance us: ‘As film viewers, we seem to be there, to actually fulfil the desire for entrance into an illusionary landscape. Space streams right at us – yet it only invites our eyes to enter, our bodies remain seated, on the other side of the screen’ (Gunning 2010: 59). The notion of distance is borne out by Medem's own comments on his film, when he talks of
esas localizaciones (de los alrededores), parajes naturales en los que parece que toda tensión entre humanos está fuera de lugar. La suma aleatoria de fondos (en bosques, campas, montes, acantilados) que ayudan a retratar la geografía vasca más primigenia, calada de sentimientos tan antiguos como inamovibles, me vino bien para mantener el ojo de pájaro y así persuadirme de que puedo ver el odio sin odiarlo. (Medem 2005: 22)
the surrounding locales, natural places in which it seems any tension between people is out of place. The random collection of backdrops (woods, open spaces, mountains, cliffs) which go together to offer a picture of Basque geography at its most primordial, saturated with feelings as ancient as they are immovable, served me well in maintaining the bird's eye view and so convince me that I could see the hate without hating it.
The point of view of a bird flying through the landscape is crucial to Medem's conception of the Basque conflict. However, while it gives the illusion of entry into the Basque landscape for which Medem expresses such a passion both in the above quotation and in the loving care with which he ensures it is filmed, it is a view at a distance, and the distance is important for expressing Medem's own call to care for the Basque Country (the distance reminding us of Wylie's geography of love) and for being able to draw back and, as Medem hoped from his film, open up the Basque question to dialogue without hate. The concept of distance is implied further when Medem talks of ‘displacing’ his interviewees into these environments (Medem 2005: 22), suggesting in consequence that these spaces are not where they normally belong, that these are alien environments. Stone's comments on Medem's earlier film Los amantes del círculo polar (Lovers of the Arctic Circle, 1998) apply equally here:
(p.64) The isolation of characters in natural landscapes suggests both internal and external exile and relates to conflicting ideas of the Basque Country as being both within Spain and beyond it, as well as to the condition of a variety of Basques themselves, who may find themselves exiled physically from Spain or the Basque Country because of contrary political beliefs or fear (such as those fleeing extortion, harassment and violence in both directions) and at the same time exiled internally by their exclusion from the hegemony in the Basque Country or elsewhere. (Stone 2007: 128)
The isolation of interviewees in natural landscapes is what transpires in La pelota vasca, and Medem's concept of displacement underscores the awkward relationship to Basque spaces of those who are in some way qualified to talk about the Basque conflict. As Stone observes, ‘Basque cinema is concerned with physical space as the absence of something that is yearned for, which is often interpreted as independence or a separate identity’ (Stone 2007: 127). Such a statement coincides neatly if ironically with Wylie's geographies of love discussed in the opening chapter, in which distance, separation and loss are component parts of a possible desire for association through landscape. But the Basque landscape – the landscape with which we see the distance between a national ideal and the people commenting on it – does not necessarily have to be seen as part of a Basque nationalist project: not all of the interviewees in the film agree with such a project, but all are isolated in and distanced from the space in which Medem situates them.
This distancing effect chimes with Joseba Gabilondo's theory of uncanny identities in Basque cinema, which questions not only whether there can be such as thing as Basque cinema (Gabilondo 2002: 264) but to some extent whether there can be such a thing as a Basque identity, since the Spanish state and Spanish nationalism desire the repression of regional identities (ibid.: 267). Much of Basque cinema is produced elsewhere in Spain for Spanish audiences (ibid.: 268), while some prominent Basque film-makers have moved to Madrid: Medem himself has shown an intriguing oscillation between Madrid and the Basque Country, in the later stages of his career basing himself in the former while making a controversial film about the latter. And the controversy over La pelota vasca stemmed in part from where the money came from to make the film: there was a good deal of anger that Spanish public funds were used for a film in which supporters of ETA were interviewed and where the testimonies of a policeman's widow and the wife of a jailed ETA member were juxtaposed as if to give them equivalence. The justification or otherwise of these accusations have been addressed elsewhere (see, for instance, Barrenetxea Marañón 2006; Gómez López-Quiñones 2009): what concerns me here is the tense relationship between the Basque Country and the Spanish state as represented by its capital Madrid that implies the uncanny identity that Gabilondo is positing, and which (p.65) brings us closer to the matter of a desire for association visualised through the landscape, in the light of the distancing effect I have posited for La pelota vasca. Gabilondo observes that
In Spain, most new subject positions and identities, as soon as they are othered, become national noises and fractures that, nevertheless, are constitutive of the state order and its desire. This is the contradiction at the core of Basque cinema, but also of other subjects: queers, immigrants, and women, for example. (Gabilondo 2002: 276)
The concerns of some of these othered groups will arise in later chapters, but their position, along with the historical nationalities such as the Basque Country, as intricately imbricated with the Spanish state while nonetheless being denied recognition, is akin to Wylie's idea of the geography of love although here again love is not really the word for it. But the uncanny identities that we perceive through the Basque landscape of La pelota vasca suggests both the gulf that separates the Basque project from the Spanish one but also how closely the two are tied together, locked in an unwanted embrace. In one sense it is like two sides of the same coin: so much are the Basque and Spanish projects fused together – and yet those two sides can never perceive each other.
At the end of La pelota vasca the final testimony comes from the writer Bernardo Atxaga (Fig. 5) who points to the city as the hope for the Basque Country, playing on the assonance between Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) and euskal hiria (the Basque city). For Atxaga, the multiple identities of the communities who make up the city provide a model for the Basque Country to follow. But it then becomes all the more striking that Medem rarely offers us such city images as his backdrops: the city as a site of coexistence is absent from the film.
(p.66) We can see how the use of space and place figures the attempt of one group involved in the Basque struggle to come to terms with this distancing and displacement between land or nation and subject in those films which feature the road as a place of transition, self-discovery and movement away.
ETA and the rural road
The figuring of the rural landscape as symbol of an eternal Basque nation has obvious implications in relation to the figuring of a group of people fighting for that national identity as fully independent of another, colonising nation that is Spain. In this case the landscape comes to signify the interrelation between nationalist myth and contemporary history. Rosalind Galt has commented (in a discussion of the relation of landscape to Italian film),
The landscape image must not be seen as some kind of immanence, but rather is only able to signify as an abstraction when it is, already, part of a concrete history. Thus, the landscape images of the films could not produce such an effect of auratic loss if this structure of temporality did not also, and at the same time, involve a projected experience of an actual historical loss. (Galt 2002: 167–8)
In her use of the word ‘auratic’, Galt is referring to Walter Benjamin and his concept of the aura ‘as a projection of a social experience of people onto nature’ (Galt 2002: 168). In a similar manner the Basque landscape acts as a projection of Basque nationalist identity but one that is, despite its apparently physical presence, marked with loss. If the Basque landscape offers a timeless rural arcadia, as Jordan and Morgan-Tamosunas suggest, then the Basque separatist struggle to regain the Basque Country as an independent nation state implies that this arcadia has been previously lost. However, it is politically inadmissible to perceive the countryside as symbolic of a nation already lost in collective terms, if that collective is ETA: in this section, we shall see that the re-enactment of loss must be displaced from the collective to the individual, and the illustration of this argument is the section's focal point.
It is perhaps rather obvious to say that the landscape acts as a constant reminder of the mythical Basque Country which ETA is fighting to regain, but it is also crucial to notice that in many (though not all) cases of films featuring ETA violence, that violence is displaced away from the countryside as the repository of nationalist identity to a more anonymous urban environment – where identities may be more fluid – that forms the site of terrorist operations. André Gardies argues that, unlike the narrative novel, in narrative film and theatre there is no spectacle without space (Gardies 1993: 10). For the terrorist spectacle this is particularly true: while the relationship of terrorism to the media continues to be debated, terrorists require events – spectacles – to get the message across, and thus they need a space or place in which to carry these (p.67) out. This for the terrorist is the function of the city; while the rural landscape becomes a symbol of their cause and thus untouchable. All this presumes that the city cannot act as a locus of Basque national identity, a proposition that is debatable but which nonetheless recurs in many films about ETA, and which reinforces an urban/rural divide. In the films that provide the focus for my discussion below, this dichotomy is emphasised further by the location of the city as ultimately outside the Basque Country: the urban Madrid and Barcelona are placed in opposition to a rural Basque motherland. The contemporary city implies ambiguity through the different classes and groups who live there, with their own distinct and sometimes conflicting cultures, which may in turn give rise to a sense of moral ambiguity, too. But the value of the city for ETA terrorists gives rise to a further level of ambiguity. Through its actions in the city ETA seeks to gain power over this urban space as a step towards power over the rural space to which they lay a national claim, but, as we shall see, the city also becomes the place where individual ETA members seek to evade the organisation's control.
It is also notable that we do not see ETA terrorists immersed in this rural landscape as such: rather, they move through it. There is a preponderance of roads in films dealing with Basque terrorism. If many of the films concerned posit a contrast between the (often unnamed and thus anonymous) city as the actual site of ETA's terrorist operations, and the rural landscape that offers a lost arcadia which the terrorists wish to recuperate, then the two spaces, despite their distinctiveness, are not totally divorced from each other. Such films frequently also show the terrorist crossing between the two terrains on rural highways; and it this common motif of the road as a sign of transition and traversal that will be considered here. To do this I will make use of ideas to do with the road movie: although not all the films I mention here qualify as road movies, comments made by critics of the road movie nonetheless offer some illumination of the issues concerned with terrorist road travel in cinema, particularly given the common trajectory of the road movie road through a deserted and/or rural landscape, a road often used as a route out of the constraints of urban life. A particularly pertinent comment on this point is that of Bennet Schaber, who remarks: ‘With the return to the desert the road film returns to the scene of the origins of the people … the desert is the place of a people always already in exile’ (Schaber 1997: 40). In a similar way ETA terrorists continue to return to their own roots in a sort of Freudian fort-da movement, revisiting the land over which they are struggling to regain control, only to leave it for the exile of the urban, ‘foreign’ land of the city, wherein they actually carry out that struggle for the land to which they intend to return, and so on, in a circle. In the two films which form the focus of this discussion, it is noticeable that the landscape includes desert-like elements. In one case, at the beginning of Días (p.68) contados, the mise-en-scène offers cold and bleak mountains devoid of vegetation. In the other case, at the pivotal point of El viaje de Arián, which I will discuss in more detail below, we find craggy rock faces reminiscent of hideouts in some Western films. Also useful is the observation of Steve Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (1997: 3), that the road movie encompasses the interrelation of modernity and tradition, a concept also reflected in films dealing with ETA and roads, in which the road is the place of modern transportation employing that quintessential modern artefact, the car – but against the Basque landscape that has come to stand all too readily for a timeless (and thus not contemporary) Basqueness that is intricately bound up to questions of nationalism. This provides a link to the interrelation of myth and history in the landscape posited by Galt.
But the suggestion of exile points to another implication of the rural road. The city streets (particularly in the two films to be discussed here) seem remarkably self-contained: there is no sense that they lead anywhere. In Arián, an early scene shows a street protest in favour of ETA, in which activists block a police vehicle in an alley: the scene at first glance suggests the city as the place for effective action in support of ETA, but it also presents to us the city street as a place of potential entrapment and an inability to move away or escape. And this entrapment can overtake not only members of the police but of ETA as well, as the final scene of Días contados demonstrates: the violent and tragic denouement takes place in the confines of a side street in Madrid from which no character – including ETA members – can escape the consequences of the terrorist violence that occurs there. The rural road, however, like the road of the road movie, always contains the inherent possibility of elsewhere, of movement away, of escape and desertion; the desertion deriving from the sense of the desert, of exile. In that sense, the rural road, implying both exile and escape, is an affront to the Basque landscape through which it runs. It implies that there is always an alternative to the mother country.
Terrorists are not, of course, the only ones to use these roads, but Spanish cinema nonetheless offers a variety of examples of the road as the space and place in which different people come to terms with the implications of radical Basque nationalism. In the documentary Asesinato en febrero (Assassination in February; Eterio Ortega Santillana, 2001) we see those who have lost friends, relations or spouses drive through the solitary Basque landscape while we listen to their voice-overs detailing their feelings and their reactions to the effects of terrorism on their lives. Moving closer towards ETA, La muerte de Mikel (The Death of Mikel; Imanol Uribe, 1983) explores the inability of a Basque activist and ETA sympathiser, Mikel (Imanol Arias), to reconcile his political commitment to Basque nationalism with his increasingly overt homosexuality. The use Uribe makes here of the image of the road is compelling in this respect. After spending the night in Bilbao with a transvestite singer, Mikel begins to (p.69) drive back to his village along a road with the usual rural (and desert-like) backdrop. Suddenly he swerves and begins to drive on the wrong side of the road, running the risk of crashing into drivers coming in the opposite direction – until he pulls over on to the verge and collapses at the wheel. This sequence clearly implies not only the stress at trying to reconcile his two identities, political and sexual, but also the fact that his sexual orientation places him at odds with his community (suggested by the rural scenery, again desert-like and thus implying exile). Mikel is moving literally in a different direction from everyone else, and in so doing endangers the community cohesiveness that entails doing as everyone else does. His nationalist colleagues will subsequently withdraw the offer they previously made to him to be their candidate in forthcoming elections, underscoring Mikel's alienation from the Basque national community they claim to represent. In these cases, as well as with films focusing on actual ETA terrorists, the road features as a site of transition upon which characters negotiate the interrelation of personal desire (and suffering) with national identity and specifically ETA violence, and in driving across these roads through the Basque landscape they play out the tensions that arise from these conflicting pressures. Terrorists are not therefore unique in this particular relation of the road to national struggle, but the irony of the road as a potential force for exile has particular resonance in their case, given their insistence on reclaiming the Basque Country as a nation state. Bringing the Basque nation into full, independent realisation implies, as we shall see in more detail below, the possibility of exile and thus exclusion from it.
I would now like to explore in more detail the implication of the rural road for the terrorist in Días contados and El viaje de Arián. El viaje de Arián functions to a great extent as a road movie, as its title implies. Días contados does not function in this way, being a more general thriller, but its use of the road at key junctures of the film will also have significance for the current discussion. In these films rural roads act as the way of connection between two opposed sites – the rural countryside that seems iconic of Basque identity and thus Basque nationalism, and the city, the place and space of terrorist operations and also, ultimately, the place of exile. In both films the city street functions primarily as the site for shootings, car bombs and, in the case of Arián, abduction, as well as an attack on a police vehicle. These street scenes contrast to shots of the rural roads, the place where nothing is supposed to happen, the site of not-spectacle. These are for the terrorist places of transition rather than of action – although in both films they carry reminders of the terrorist's transgression of the law through checkpoints, an aspect I will discuss below. If the rural landscape is symbolic of the Basque nation, it is striking that this is for the most part an unpeopled landscape in both films, while most of the population are to be found in more ambiguous urban surroundings. In perhaps rather a crude manner, the (p.70) positioning of the terrorists in this landscape suggests that they are cut off from the rest of the population, a notion reinforced as they drive in the sealed-off isolation of the car.
As with the films previously mentioned, both of these films use the road as the place in which the central character's identification with the Basque Country, and the separatist struggle for that country, is called into question. The use of travel along a road as a metaphor for the exploration of some critical juncture in a character's life is hardly a new one – it forms the basis of the road movie genre. The road provides an opportunity to explore identities away from the demands and constraints of urban society: these identities are usually ones of marginalization or rebellion, as Cohan and Hark comment, and ‘the increasing hospitality of the road to the marginalized and alienated’ (Cohan and Hark 1997: 12) coincides to some degree with the use of the Basque rural road by terrorists attempting to evade the law. It might thus at first be thought that these roads would form the site of negotiation of a collective ETA identity. Katie Mills argues that ‘the road story offers marginalized communities a ready narratological structure to represent rebellion and collective transformation’ (Mills 1997: 307), and this hypothesis would in theory fit the Basque terrorist case quite well. This notion would reflect Cohan and Hark's positing (Cohan and Hark 1997: 2) of the road movie (and thus the road itself) as an embodiment of the tensions and crises of the historical moment – coinciding with Galt's comments on landscape as part of a concrete history, and reflecting an increasing questioning of ETA's role in an era where the repression of Basqueness that occurred in Spain's Francoist era is long gone (although abuse by Spanish forces may continue) and where the Basque Country has acquired greater autonomy than before. But what we in fact find in Arián and Días contados is not a collective transformation of the Basque community, which is arguably what ETA are working towards, but a rebellion and exile carried out at an individual level, through the protagonists Arián and Antonio. Both films emphasise the individual terrorist as distinct from the general ETA group, and the roads parallel their individual journey that ultimately leads to their deaths. If, generally, roads and road journeys signify a transgression against and an escape from an established social order, then here the road becomes the place where these individual terrorists carry out their own transgression against ETA itself, who thus ironically come to figure an established social order (see Davies 2003). If, as Cohan and Hark comment, the road is the place for the alienated, then here the terrorist individual is alienated twice over – alienated from ETA itself as well as Basque society in general, implying a (debatable) equation between the two. Cohan and Hark quote Michael Atkinson, who comments that ‘once you enter the open hinterlands between cities, you're on your own’ (quoted in Cohan and Hark 1997: 1). While this remark does not specifically (p.71) pinpoint the isolated individual, it nonetheless draws attention to the land outside the city as an isolated place that requires individual self-determination. Thus the terrorist use of the road suggests an individual rather than a collective transformation: the collective – ETA itself – remains unchanged.
In both films the protagonist turns away from ETA and from the Basque Country as a whole, undertaking both literal and spiritual journeys that take them on trajectories away from the rurality associated with Basque identity and towards the anonymity of a Spanish city. Arián (Ingrid Rubio) refuses to carry out the order to kill a hostage when a mission goes wrong: instead she kills the surviving members of her team and flees to Barcelona. Antonio (Carmelo Gómez) continues to participate in terrorist missions until the very end of the film, but his increasing disillusionment with ETA is paralleled by his growing involvement with a group of young junkie dropouts in Madrid and his subsequent love affair with Charo (Ruth Gabriel), one of their number. Both protagonists thus transgress against ETA and its dedication to radical Basque nationalism, and this transgression can be perceived in spatial terms as not only a shift from the Basque Country to the Spanish city but a move from the rural/mythical national to the urban/hybrid. At least part if not all of this trajectory from rural to urban involves the crossing of rural roads. As Tim Cresswell puts it, ‘Transgression … depends on the pre-existence of some form of spatial ordering. Forms of transgression owe their efficacy to types of space, place, and territory’ (Cresswell 1996: 166). But transgression implies not only the notion of spatial ordering but also of movement, divergence; and the road functions here as the space in which transgressive movement can occur. In these films, transgression becomes movement away from the fixed space of the Basque Country as an expression of disillusionment with the form of commitment to the Basque Country that is ETA. The rural landscape through which the road passes suggests the pre-existing spatial order that points to Basque national identity, but the road, while itself being a part of this rural space, transgresses it by facilitating an escape from this pre-existing spatial ordering.
The rural road is further marked as transgressive through the people we encounter on it. In contrast to the streets, the rural roads are mostly devoid of people other than the terrorists: only occasionally do we see other people moving across the landscape. These non-terrorists fall for the most part into two categories. The first and most obvious group are the police posted at checkpoints. The checkpoint demonstrates one way in which the Basque road differs from the road of the road movie, for while the latter suggests the potential for freedom and an escape from social constraint, in the two films discussed here such constraints are reintroduced through the checkpoints as a reminder of the law. This suggests a competition for control of this boundary space, but also posits this space as one to which the terrorist cannot lay an overt claim, (p.72) suggesting the road's distinction from the Basque landscape that surrounds it to which the terrorist does lay claim. For a terrorist to traverse these roads is in itself an act of transgression, as the checkpoint demonstrates. Both Arián and Antonio must pass through a checkpoint and submit themselves to the gaze of the law (and in both cases this occurs after their initial moment of transgression). The checkpoint thus serves to point up the fact that the two protagonists are doubly transgressive – not only against ETA (since both checkpoint scenes arise from a defiance of ETA orders) but against a law which they might not recognise as legitimate but which they nonetheless have to take into account and under whose scrutiny they have to pass.
The other group of people to be found on the roads are in fact those who unwittingly provide cover for the terrorist to get through these checkpoints, and they moreover imply a further, sexual level of transgression. Mario (Santi Ibáñez), who picks up Arián as she walks along the road, and takes her to Barcelona (and through the checkpoint), may indulge in a one-night stand with her. The matter is unclear, but the two share a room overnight, and when Mario and Arián part company in Barcelona he tries unsuccessfully to obtain a phone number from her. But the hint of this further indicates Arián's move away from terrorist involvement. Her original participation in ETA was intricately linked to her relationship with her boyfriend Vivaldi (Abel Folk: the character is nicknamed after the composer of the music he likes), a more seasoned ETA campaigner: it is his death that in part precipitates her rebellion against orders and the subsequent murder of the rest of her team that forms her primary and principal act of transgression. The possibility that she has moved on to a new sexual partner, fleeting though the relationship might be, parallels her move away from ETA, and her sexual transgression lies not so much in the fling itself – a sign of Arián's despair and in any case hardly a matter for great censure – but in the divergence (indeed, the deviation) of sexual expression from its parallel with political commitment that the relationship with Vivaldi formerly provided. The opening credit sequence of Días contados reveals Antonio apparently going to or from some ETA mission, since in his car he passes, turns and follows his colleagues Lourdes and Carlos who are in another car – suggesting coordination. But then Antonio picks up a hitchhiker, Clara (Marga Sánchez), who offers him a blow job. This crucial sequence in the film indicates transgression at different levels. Clara's presence in the car in one sense covers Antonio when he is stopped at the checkpoint; but the furious reaction of Antonio's colleague and former lover Lourdes (Elvira Mínguez), who has watched the checkpoint incident from afar, suggests that Antonio's use of Clara indicates his willingness to put the mission at risk. This fact becomes more obvious with his increasing involvement with Charo, whose discovery of his identity as a terrorist will lead to his betrayal to the police by Charo's friend Lisardo (Javier (p.73) Bardem). The incident also implies that Antonio's move away from ETA is paralleled from the very beginning by his sexual transgression. Antonio refuses to continue his sexual relationship with Lourdes, preferring to ‘slum it’ outside the confines of a bourgeois heterosexual monogamous relationship, which, as I have argued elsewhere (see Davies 2003), is in this film strongly equated to Basque separatism. Thus this incident with Clara suggests from the outset Antonio's willingness to betray Lourdes, and thus to transgress against both sexual monogamy and ETA itself, which sanctions the monogamous relationship between ETA members but which views as dangerous any sexual interest outside its own Basque circle. The incident will point to his subsequent relationship with Charo, from the ambiguous and non-Basque city, as a further form of transgression. It is worth noting that Antonio's transgression here takes place under the censorious gaze of Lourdes; but her gaze from afar as she looks down on the road and the checkpoint is set firmly against the backdrop of the rural Basque landscape that implies a normative Basque identity (equating the gaze of the terrorist with the landscape and thus the nation), so that Antonio transgresses against this as well. Thus Antonio's act of picking up the hitchhiker reveals the rural road as the place of transgression against the rural landscape as representative of the norm breached by the transgression.
This juxtaposition of the road as transgressive against a normative landscape recurs in El viaje de Arián. The title of the film overtly signals a form of road movie in which the protagonist Arián will undertake some sort of journey; and she moves from her Basque town through the Basque landscape until she leaves the Basque Country altogether, seeking refuge with a friend (not a member of ETA) in Barcelona. From there her terrorist colleague Maite (Silvia Munt) drives her to an unspecified location by the sea and there executes her for her primary transgression. This pivotal moment of transgression occurs halfway through the film. Arián forms part of an ETA operations team that also includes Vivaldi: this team kidnap a young girl and hold her hostage in the Basque countryside. Their hideout is discovered and Vivaldi dies in the resulting police shoot-out, while Arián and the rest of the team escape with the hostage. The leader José (Carlos Manuel Díaz) has previously decided that Arián is the team member who should kill the hostage if necessary, since he doubts her commitment to ETA and wants her to prove herself by carrying out the execution. He now insists that she carry this out, despite sympathising with her loss of Vivaldi. Their conversation takes place in a breathtakingly beautiful setting: they are perched high up on a cliff face (with the road nearby), with a picture-box blue sky – a landscape that underscores the idea of the Basque Country as a traditionally mountainous land (Fig. 6). The Basque mountain possesses a special symbolic resonance as a site of resistance: during the Second World War and the Franco regime Basque mountaineering groups provided a cover for resistance activity. The landscape (p.74) serves not only as a poignant contrast to Arián's sorrow and distress but also as a reminder of why conversations like this are going on at all, of the mythical Basque nation for which ETA is fighting. Arián subsequently fails in her attempt to kill the hostage, too distressed at the thought: José angrily steps in and carries out the shooting, and they and a third colleague get in their car to make their escape. Arián insists on driving. As they arrive at the spot where she and José held their earlier conversation, she wrenches the steering wheel and sends the car and its occupants over the cliff, while she jumps to safety.
This scene at the heart of the film explicitly associates the transgression of the individual terrorist both with the road and the Basque countryside, the road becoming a tool for Arián's transgression against ETA and against the Basque Country itself. It is notable that the place where the terrorists take cover in their flight from the police, and where the hostage victim is eventually shot, looks remarkably like a womb-shaped space that has been hollowed out in the heart of the rock that symbolises the mother country. This space is connected to the road by a tunnel that resembles a vaginal passage. (Does this consequently imply that the police, when they later enter the tunnel to retrieve the body of the hostage, are violating the mother (country)?) Arián's transgressive exit from the tunnel and on to the road, killing her colleagues in the process, might perhaps be read as a sort of birth to a new life, but it more particularly implies an expulsion not only from the car containing the rest of her team but also from the mother country itself – and it is at this point that Arián, stumbling away from the scene, starts to head for Barcelona, walking along the rural road in a dazed way until Mario picks her up. As the terrorists' car sails over the cliff, we see Arián transfixed for a moment against this rocky backdrop, as she stares into the sun – a
Both Arián and Antonio follow their paths/roads to exile and also escape. Their roads lead them away from the Basque Country to an elsewhere always implied by the rural road. For Antonio this elsewhere is Madrid, while for Arián it is Barcelona. The potential equation of the city at the end of the road with escape is underscored in Días contados. In a scene which harks back to the opening credit sequence of the Basque roads, we see Antonio driving along arterial roads once more – but this time the camera pulls away to offer a shot of the skyline of Madrid, towards which Antonio is driving. Madrid is the end of the road for Antonio: but, far from signifying the escape he hopes to find away from the claustrophobia of Lourdes and of ETA commitment, Madrid will come to signify his death. For the landscape is different: we are now in the urban streets that provide the locus for the terrorist acts performed in the film and which, we may remember, are places of no escape. Antonio in fact dies in just such a street. In an attempt to blow up a police station he sets in motion a booby-trapped car that enters the police station just as his lover Charo and friends arrive there for questioning. In a forlorn effort to save Charo – and thus his own hope of a new life – he then sprints after the car into the police station, just as the car bomb explodes. Antonio dies dislocated from the Basque Country that provided the original raison d'être for his actions, the conclusion of a trajectory that saw his increasing distance from his operations team (and particularly his former lover Lourdes) and immersion in the alternative dropout lifestyle of Madrid. This road has led away from the Basque Country to a death far from home. (It is significant that Lourdes and Carlos are present in the street and watch him die, just as they watched his double transgression at the beginning.)
Arián's journey does not even hold out the hope of Antonio's: there are no shots of the Barcelona skyline but simply a repetition of the void of the sky that she gazes into after the dispatch of her operations team. The road has taken her to Barcelona, but the city turns out to offer her no place of refuge. Barcelona, in the guise of her old college friend, rejects her so that she must turn to her colleague Maite for assistance. Maite's response, on learning of Arián's betrayal, is to take her back on the road and drive her to the ultimate place of exile, a deserted spot that we can only identify as coastal: this is where Maite carries out Arián's execution. It is not clear where we are at this point: the landscape is not necessarily that of the Basque Country, and the sense of disorientation that this induces serves to underscore further the sense of exile (Fig. 7). At this point the road has literally come to an end, and thus aptly – and perhaps rather obviously – signals the end of her journey. Arián's final sight as she waits to die is of the sea and the sky, a shot in which no landscape appears, as noted earlier. (p.76)
Both films thus have horizons – the Madrid skyline and an anonymous seascape – which at first glance signify both beauty and escape, but in both cases the promise of these open vistas is curtailed by Basque violence. If in Días contados the rural road merely leads to the city street, the site of entrapment and the theatre of violence – the place of displacement for ETA – then in El viaje de Arián the road simply leads to the sea and must perforce come to an end. These, then, are roads that, despite their promise of escape, ultimately lead to nowhere but death. They are literally dead ends. This final failure is reminiscent of many postwar road movies such as Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma and Louise, which, as Schaber argues, end in the deaths of the travellers, the exodus implied by the journey giving way to the apocalypse (Schaber 1997: 39). The Basque rural road thus comes to signify the transgression of the individual terrorist both against the Spanish law and against ETA itself, but in a way that leaves the question of terrorism, like the rural landscape, untouched. Just as the spectacle of violence is displaced from the rural space of national identity to the more ambiguous city, so the problematics of transgression are displaced from the ETA collective to the individual – thus leaving unexamined and uncritiqued the relation of ETA as a whole to the land for which they fight. Contrary to Mills' dictum quoted above, the collective is not transformed by the journey, but appears to remain a solid, impenetrable mass that belies ETA's actual history of fissures and splits within the organisation. Only the individual is transformed, but ultimately such transformation counts for nothing as the journey ends in death.
(p.77) Such a displacement of critique on to the individual may, of course, simply be a wise move given the very real dangers of overt critique of groups such as ETA. Such displacement has become frequent in films that deal with ETA (such as Daniel Calparsoro's A ciegas (Blindly, 1997), Helena Taberna's Yoyes (2000), Martínez-Lázaro's La voz de su amo (His Master's Voice, 2001), or Bernardo Atxaga's novels El hombre solo (The Lone Man, 1995) and Esos cielos (The Lone Woman, 1997)). Even Uribe himself, noted originally for his positive treatment of ETA members as a sympathetic and heterogeneous group in La fuga de Segovia (The Flight from Segovia, 1981), had turned to this move of displacement by 1983 with La muerte de Mikel. Nonetheless, with the constant displacement on to the individual and, as here, on to the road, on to the city, this sort of critique can, quite simply, never hit home. Indeed, it perpetuates the equation between Basque separatism and the Basque landscape as symbolic of an independent nation. If the landscape symbolises a sense of auratic loss, as Galt has indicated, then this loss can only be perceived by positing an elsewhere in opposition towards which the individual must perforce travel in a move of exile. But the place of exile is also the place of apocalypse, or at any rate the place in which bombs explode, shootings and kidnappings take place, and in the end people die indiscriminately, as in the police station of Días contados, where Antonio dies alongside the police and the dropouts. The collective refusal to recognise the Basque landscape as an always already lost arcadia ensures the continuing equation of opposition with elsewhere, and of exodus with apocalypse. The rural road thus facilitates displacement, but not communication; while Basque national identity continues to be figured, as Jordan and Morgan-Tamosunas suggested (1998: 184), as cut off from the outside world.
The industrial Basque Country and the Bilbao Guggenheim
If landscape is that with which we see, then the landscapes that are neglected or ignored also tell us something about the desire for association with a particular place. I mentioned briefly at the beginning of this chapter that the industrial landscapes of the Basque Country are much more rarely glimpsed in cultural production, despite the centrality of industry to the development of the Basque Country that made a strong nationalist movement possible, albeit one that was also ironically founded on the opposition to migrant workers from elsewhere in Spain that made such industrial development possible. In this section I will address more squarely both examples of industrial spaces and places but also how these places are not ‘seen’ as such: there is a wilful blindness that traces itself through both Spanish and Basque culture, an effort not to use the landscape to see. This does not simply occur within the Basque Country itself but in other cultural centres of Spain, particularly Madrid and the critical corpus (p.78) around Spanish cinema. I discovered one example of this when writing about the Basque director Daniel Calparsoro (see Davies 2009), and here I intend to gather together and recapitulate some examples of the ways in which Spanish film critics refuse to see the industrial landscape. Calparsoro's first three films form a trilogy about the Basque Country, and the first two, Salto al vacío (Jump into the Void, 1995) and Pasajes (Passages, 1996), are set prominently in urban landscapes, showing poor and desperate people in marginal situations, as a result of the decline in heavy industry and fishing that has meant that crucial jobs and opportunities have simply disappeared. Such films form part of a strong tradition of social realist cinema in Spain, but when it comes to social realism in the Basque Country critics seem to hit a blind spot, and it is this critical blind spot that I want to consider. As regards Salto al vacío, the response of the film critic Jesús Palacios is intriguing: throughout Calparsoro's career Palacios has been quite a fan and champion of the director. Calparsoro filmed Salto on location, and in particular he included a famous landmark of the area at that time, the factory of Los Altos Hornos (the factory has since been demolished). Despite this, Palacios states reductively that the rundown industrial Bilbao of the film, with its marginalised and criminal characters, does not exist. He goes on to compare the film's settings to Dante's Inferno:
Parece más bien algún círculo del Infierno que Dante se hubiera olvidado de enumerar, poblado por demonios y condenados que no pueden escapar a su destino. Que cuanto más intentan librarse de él más se ven arrastrados al centro mismo de la miseria y la muerte. (Palacios 2006: 379)
It seems more like a circle of hell that Dante forgot to describe, populated by demons and the damned who could not escape their fate. The more they try to escape, the more they are sucked into the centre of misery and death.
Palacios sees the landscape in timeless, mythical terms rather than redolent of a contemporary reality, and such mythification entails distance and denial. A similar process occurs as regards Pasajes, set in the Basque port of Pasajes/ Paiasa, filled with rusting boats, the mark of industrial decay. Ryan Prout has considered critic E. Rodríguez Marchante's perception of the landscape as manifesting a ‘desire to dress up the film in some kind of make-believe underworld’, with no clear location except in Calparsoro's imagination, a notion that Prout himself finds surprising (Prout 2000: 285). Prout also observes that Pasajes bears the imprint of a history of industrial decline, but a history often neglected through a preference for rural landscapes that represent a mythical Basque country (ibid.: 286–7). These denials of the reality of Calparsoro's landscapes by Palacios and Rodríguez Marchante arise from an unease at the destabilisation of cinematic depictions of the Basque Country, and this unease in turn is rooted in a denial of industrial landscape. As Kepa Sojo Gil observes, Calparsoro's sort of realism was not that originally envisaged by those who (p.79) earlier pursued a vision of Basque cinema more in tune with Basque nationalism (Sojo Gil 1997: 136).
Such a denial also comes into play when we consider the Guggenheim phenomenon. Built as a crucial part of Bilbao's regeneration from industrial wasteland to postmodern city, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum nonetheless overtly celebrated its industrial past, not only through its titanium walls but through the building's shape, that of a large ship. The Guggenheim phenomenon has already created plenty of academic critique in terms both of architecture and of the socio-political background to the museum's arrival in Bilbao, including the machinations of the regional Basque government (see Zulaika 1997). Joseba Zulaika has observed the integral role of the industrial aesthetic in Gehry's building: he talks of an ‘aesthetics of toughness’ (Zulaika 2001: 3) as discovered by sculptor Richard Serra and quotes the ‘aesthetics of reality’ (ibid.: 8) that Gehry himself saw in Bilbao. Zulaika's comments imply an emphasis on the industrial in the Guggenheim that is clear for all to see, suggested through the ship shape and the use of metal, themselves hints back to the Basque Country's past involvement in fishing and the steel industry. Anny Brooksbank Jones observes that the museum has blended into its surroundings to the extent that it has assumed ‘the colours of its surroundings under a new form: not the green hills and lowering skies envisaged by its makers, but the corrosive residue on its titanium plates of a polluting past that is not so easily displaced’ (Brooksbank Jones 2007: 108). However, the industrial may perhaps be made apparent only to become invisible again, ‘unseen’ because the surface of industrial aesthetic appears to be simply a screen for something else.
Zulaika draws on Benjamin's concept of beauty being veiled to see Bilbao as beautiful precisely because of her veil of industry (Zulaika 2001: 10). In a related move, Brooksbank Jones talks of the Guggenheim in terms of seduction: ‘The museum was designed to distract the attention of visitors and investors from “nuestra realidad – crisis económica, desempleo, violencia” [our reality – economic crisis, unemployment, violence], from eruptions of regional–national energy and other tensions within the local and regional body politic’ (Brooksbank Jones 2003: 160). I find this combined metaphor of the veil and seduction intriguing. Veils point to and emphasise a hidden reality simultaneous to their act of covering: they hint that the veil and the reality are not the same thing and, furthermore, that what is hidden is tantalising. It seduces us and draws us. We do not thus see a veil as a thing in its own right but simply as an indicator of something else that interests us more. If, as Zulaika posits, the industrial aesthetic merely acts as a veil, then we cannot see it for itself – indeed, we do not see it as such as at all. Jonathan Smith argues that an aestheticised landscape is ahistorical, a landscape from which both fear of the future and awareness of the past are absent: ‘it is precisely the ability of landscape to (p.80) outlive the past, its tenacious durability, which causes its objects to pile up in front of history, shielding it from our view and substituting a seemingly greater reality of spotless innocence for its guilty and gritty processes’ (Smith 1993: 80). Gehry's Guggenheim flaunts the link to an industrial past in such a manner that it detaches it from the more sordid industrial landscapes of Calparsoro, rendering it not only ahistorical but unreal.
Of course, this may have been precisely what the Bilbao authorities and the Basque politicians wanted. If we remember that the Basque conflict, still ongoing, arose in part from the insurgence of industry and thus immigrant workers, prompting the first stirrings of modern Basque nationalism, then the lack of history allows conflict to be glossed over, not insignificant when reinventing Bilbao as a possible tourist attraction. If the beauty of Bilbao for Gehry lay in its landscape of industrial ruins (Zulaika 2001: 4), then Gehry was not made happy by plans to surround the Guggenheim with parkland and shopping and conference complexes that cover over the landscape of industrial decay (ibid.: 10). Zulaika describes this possibility as ‘the harmonious pretensions of beauty orchestrated for the tourist voyeurism of visitors and locals alike’ (ibid.: 14). Part of the question that was debated was whether the new urbanisation project in the area would obstruct the view of the Guggenheim, so that for Zulaika decisions about buildings and landscape ‘hinge essentially on the politics of sight and spectacle’ (ibid.: 9). But they can also hinge on the question of veiling – the Guggenheim veiled once more by surrounding greenery and other buildings.
Justin Crumbaugh has proposed that the Guggenheim is a ‘useful metaphor’ for thinking about Calparsoro's Salto al vacío (Crumbaugh 2001: 41). He sees in both films the opportunity to make art out of an industrial landscape, and notes of the film: ‘Through a poetic stirring in the waste … the cinematic focus aims to weld new continuities by reappropriating discarded materials. The astonishing result is a tragic sensibility in the treatment of urban landscape’ (ibid.: 3). More controversially, Crumbaugh compares Salto's central character Alex to Gehry himself: they both create art out of chaos (ibid.: 46), a move which, as I have said elsewhere, seems to give Alex rather more power than she actually has (Davies 2009: 70, 71). But Crumbaugh also notes that
through a synthesis of historical elements, the museum rather represents Bilbao's present as a chic repackaging or wrapping of its past. And packaging, as a mode of historical representation, functions, not as a way to record history, but as a way to eliminate its real complexities and irreconcilable differences. (Crumbaugh 2001:49)
In a similar way, Eusebi Casanelles, director of Barcelona's Museum of Technology, insists on the industrial landscape as integral to the Basque region, but as Nerea Arruti suggests, from Casamelles' perspective, ‘the museum represents (p.81) a kitsch replica of an authentic historical heritage that should be preserved in its own right’ (Arruti 2003: 169). Similarly, by failing to perceive Calparsoro's aesthetic as in any way real, the Madrid critics perform the same ‘repackaging’ of Bilbao's past. What is intriguing is that the same process goes on both amongst the Madrid-based critics (who were to laud Calparsoro when he switched from a grey Basque country to a warm and colourful Madrid in his subsequent Asfalto (Asphalt) of 2000) and from attempts in Bilbao to revamp the city. I do not want to suggest that it is simply a case of drawing back an aesthetic veil in order to see ‘what is really there’, nor do I want to deny an impulse to find beauty in what can for the locals be an unpromising environment (though as in many regeneration projects, it is not always clear that such projects coincide neatly with the needs and desires of the local population). And yet the industrial traces are clear for all to see in both films and building – it is just that there is also a clear desire not to see, regardless of the position from which one views the Basque Country.
In all the examples discussed above we can see a use of landscape, space and place to offer distance, displacement and denial. Joseba Gabilondo comments of Basque cinema: ‘there is an element of enjoyment in negating one's own identity in order to break the state's monopoly on negation’ (Gabilondo 2002: 277). The landscapes and spaces we have considered here do not prove one way or the other that the Basque Country is or is not a part of Spain. They do, however, suggest how Spain can be evoked as a call to care even through distance and negation. Spain this time is evoked as an uncanny trace, as is the Basque Country itself. The positioning of this uncanny trace will depend on the personal desires and affiliations of the subject imbricated with their own specific standpoint towards the status of the Basque Country: and so the subject must perforce be brought back into the equation. These subjects use the spaces and places of the Basque Country in different ways that interact with their own subjectivity: but always there is a ‘geography of love’ that ensures that Spain and the Basque Country trace themselves uncannily across each other's landscape – love, not in the sense of affection or positive regard, but in the sense that each must implicitly take account of other while nonetheless keeping their distance.