Review: ‘The Basque Ball’

IN ONE of the most controversial and the highest-grossing Spanish films ever, ’The Basque Ball’, director Julio Medem examines the Basque question through hundreds of interviews.

The documentary cuts from one interviewee to another to the accompaniment of dramatic music. The talks are usually carried out with the backdrop of the awesomely beautiful Basque countryside. Historical footage, including an early documentary by Orson Welles, is weaved in between the talking heads. This will keep many viewers engrossed but others might find the ’multi-textured’ format of the film sometimes overwhelming.

The weight of testimonies adds up to a damning indictment of the political and cultural oppression of the Basque people – the denial of their right to genuine self-determination and the continuing repression by the Spanish state. The eyewitness account of a Basque woman who was sexually tortured by police is particularly powerful.

Renowned as a fictional film maker, Medem has certainly provoked strong responses. In language reminiscent of previous British governments’ attitude towards any serious examination of the conflict in Northern Ireland, The Basque Ball was accused of being ’pro-terrorist’ by the former Parotid Popular (PP) Spanish government on its release last year, in Spain.

When it was screened at the 2003 London Film Festival the Spanish Embassy in Britain went as far as withdrawing funds from the Festival.

The Basque Ball opens on general release this month in Britain, following the political earthquake in Spain that led to the downfall of the PP government. The right-wing administration that had expected to be re-elected in parliamentary elections, paid a heavy price for attempting to falsely blame ETA for the 11 March Madrid bombings that killed 192 people and which were subsequently claimed by a political Islamic group.

Given these dramatic events, which put the world’s spotlight on the PP and ETA, it is ironic and unfortunate that both the right-wing party and the separatist group declined to participate in Medem’s film.

This result is a large hole in the documentary, notwithstanding the best intentions of the director to show all sides to the Basque conflict. Pro-ETA politicians do speak on camera, although they were not given enough time. Also there are apologists for the repressive actions of the PP government. But it still does not make up for the absence of two of the key sides to the Basque Country conflict in recent years.

Despite this flaw, the documentary is an important tour-de-force that attempts to tackle this drawn-out conflict. Medem tries to cover all aspects of the Basque issue – political, linguistic, cultural, artistic and historical. He interviews a wide range of people, from academics, politicians, musicians and even an Irish priest, who was involved in the early stages of the Northern Ireland ’Peace Process’.

The director says he is "left wing but not nationalist". Medem seems to want to maintain a ’neutral’ position in the film, while clearly standing against injustice. There is no commentary in The Basque Ball.

An attempt is made to create "symmetry" out of the two sides of the conflict. The film juxtaposes the speeches of a widow of a policeman killed by ETA and that of a wife of an ETA member in prison.

The movie covers the history of the Basques in the 20th Century and up to the present day. They are a people with a distinct culture, and an ancient language, called Euskara. For centuries the Basques have resisted foreign conquest. Medem’s film shows how during the Spanish Civil War, in the 1930s, thousands died in the Basque town of Gernika, when it was bombed by Franco’s fascist German allies. The first European bombardment in European warfare was forever commemorated in Picasso’s famous ’Guernica’ painting.

ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuma), translated as ’Basque Homeland and Freedom’, was established in 1959, under Franco’s right-wing dictatorship, when the Basque language was banned and Basques faced severe repression.

The death of Franco, in the late 1970s, unleashed a revolutionary movement across Spain that terrified the ruling class. They were forced to concede to democratic demands from Spanish workers and to allow limited ’autonomous’ rights to the Basques and other nationalities. ETA, however, demanded more control for Basques over their own affairs.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the state used repressive methods against Basque people, including during the rule of the ’socialist’ government of Felip Gonzalez, which organised death squads (in the film, Gonzalez both denies the existence of the death squads and also tries to justify ’extra judicial’ actions).

Throughout these decades, ETA carried out a campaign of shootings and bombings. But recent years have seen the separatist group’s activities at an all-time low. As Medem’s film makes clear, most Basques want the right to self determination and oppose state repression but they are also weary of the armed campaign of ETA, that long ago proved unable to win national aspirations.

Socialists always opposed the individual terror methods of ETA. These methods cannot defeat the Spanish state and, in fact, strengthen the state and reactionaries. Only united working-class action, in a struggle for socialism, can win real self-determination for the Basque people.

Socialists struggle for a socialist Basque Country, as part of a voluntary and equal socialist confederation of the region.

Disregarding attempts by ETA to enter negotiations, the Parotid Popular government, elected in 1996, decided to try and smash ETA and bury all hopes of Basque self determination. The Aznar government banned ETA’s political wing, Batasuna, and imprisoned many ETA leaders. This won some temporary victories for the PP, as ETA’s operations were severely disrupted.

However, the Madrid bombings represented a watershed in Spanish politics and have had longer-term repercussions. Although not responsible for the train bombing massacres, ETA’s methods of individual terror became even more unpopular after 11 March. At the same time, many commentators expect that the newly elected ’socialist’ government of PSOE may restart negotiations with ETA and that it hopes to follow the Northern Ireland ’Peace Process’ model.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero recently gave the go ahead for Euskera to become an officially recognised European language, along with Catalan and Gallego, Spain’s other minority languages. The Basque regional Prime Minister, Juan Jose Ibarretxe, commented that Madrid’s new approach "accepted that you can’t fight terrorism with wars, but by examining and resolving the underlying causes."

As Medem’s timely and illuminating film makes clear, however, history shows that unless national rights and grievances are met, the Basque issue can re-erupt. The Zapatero government will only attempt a solution within the confines of capitalism. Given the vital economic and territorial importance of the Basque Country to the Spanish ruling class, the PSOE administration will not concede full democratic rights, including the right to genuine self determination, up to and including separation.

The Basque Ball, directed by Julio Medem.

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June 2004