An underground cinema is emerging in Spain and injecting the territory with a shot of vitality. Juan Sarda reports on the low-budget film-makers earning international plaudits.

There is a saying that from great adversity can come great things. Many of the films coming out of Spain prove this to be true.

Stripped of much of their public financing and struggling with low cinema attendances, innovative Spanish film-makers are working with ultra-low budgets to craft award-winning feature films.

Albert Serra’s $1.8m (€1.3m) budgeted costume drama Story Of My Death was the surprise but popular winner of the Golden Leopard at Locarno Film Festival in August.

A few months later, Juan Cavestany’s $30,000 genre-bending People In Places, impressed at Toronto International Film Festival, while Fernando Franco’s $1m Wounded was the toast of San Sebastian.

“Working with very tight budgets is the only way to produce challenging titles,” suggests Enrique Lopez Lavigne of leading Spanish outfit Apaches Entertainment, which produced People In Places. “We should focus on VoD platforms as the best future for these films.”

Spain’s new wave

The 47-year-old Cavestany is amused to be considered part of an emerging generation of Spanish film-makers — People In Places is his fourth feature
- but he agrees that change is in the air: “It’s becoming obvious something really new and exciting is happening.”

Spain’s film critics are raving. Carlos Reviriego, a film academic and reviewer for national daily newspaper El Mundo, has closely watched the rise of what he calls “the other” Spanish cinema.

“There have never been as many reasons to be proud of our cinema as there are today,” he says. “This is the most interesting turning point since the years after Franco’s death. While the mainstream Spanish industry is becoming more and more conservative, those ‘other’ film-makers are showing an astonishing vitality and free spirit.”

According to Reviriego, we can talk with confidence of a new generation: “They know each other and co-operate often,” he explains. “They have the same roots in masters of cinema such as Godard or Cassavetes and they share a fondness for Asian films of the 1990s and for auteurs like Kiarostami. They refuse to conform to conventions of genre and are influenced by documentary film-making.”

Some of the other film-makers beginning to make waves with few resources include Fernando Trueba’s son Jonas (Los Ilusos), Pedro Aguilera (La Influencia), Lois Patino (Costa Da Morte), Luis Lopez Carrasco (El Futuro) and Virginia Garcia del Pino (The Jury). 

Serra, Franco and Cavestany have made their low-budget films with established production companies. But many of the others are putting together the funding themselves.

Writer and director Carlos Vermut has become something of a figurehead for these film-makers since his $30,000 feature Diamond Flash, a twist on the superhero movie, became a VoD hit in 2011. “To attract people into cinemas you need a spectacular element,” he says. “I say, half-laughingly, half-seriously, that I want The Iliad in 3D to be my next project!”

Vermut’s next film, the $650,000 Magical Girl, is aimed firmly at a theatrical audience. He describes it as a “more conventional” film set during Spain’s economic crisis.

“It has been a big change for me as I didn’t have to prepare the catering myself,” Vermut says of the new film, to which he is now putting the finishing touches. 

For some of these film-makers, notably Vermut and Franco, avant-garde low-budget films may be a calling card to the mainstream industry. For others such as Cavestany, this is not the case.

“There is a sense of rebellion and also of frustration at not being able to work in a different scale,” Cavestany explains. “To be honest, I have been very surprised by the warm reception of People In Places, not only in Spain but also in Toronto. We have hit a moment in history in which people seem to have the same worries and references all over the world.”

All eyes are now on the Goya Awards, which take place in Spain on February 9. Wounded is nominated in the best film category.

“The Spanish mainstream industry has been too cautious with these new directors and they are forgotten year by year in the Goyas. The fact that Wounded might very well win will mark a turning point,” says Reviriego.