London Spanish Film Festival – Interview with Joana Granero




By Bess Twiston-Davies

Joana Granero Sánchez’s favourite cinema is the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington, London. She loves the “wide open entrance” and the broad sweep of the stairway up to the screening room. And she’s persuaded some of Spain’s biggest film stars and directors to march up its white-grey stairs – Marisa Paredes, Fernando Trueba and Carlos Saura, to name but a few.

Why? Or rather, how? Well, Joana is the Founder and Director of the London Spanish Film Festival, an annual film bonanza spanning a weekend in May, and 10 autumn days. The 5,000 strong audience – a mix of Brits, Spaniards, Latin Americans and other London-based foreigners – get to see on average around 35 – 40 Spanish films, mostly new, mostly made within the past year and a half. As well as a core programme, there’s a Basque Window and a Catalan Window, to reflect the growth of Basque and Catalan cinema, as well as shorts, and special features, and for the past two years, the programme has included a golden-oldie or ‘Treasure from the Archives’.

And that’s not all. Film-goers are treated to fascinating and thoughtful interviews and Q &A sessions with the stars – actors and directors – of the latest Spanish releases. The idea is to give the viewer “something extra,” Joana explains. Thus the audience will learn “either about the making of the film,  or perhaps why a particular story is being told, or else how an actor works in order to prepare to perform a particular character or perhaps how a film maker handles a particular, sometimes delicate, subject.” There is also an Acting Across Frontiers interview series, now in its third, and final year and devised by Joana and Maria Delgado, the author and Professor of  Theatre and Screen Arts at Queen Mary University of London. Past years have looked at the differences between acting on stage and screen, and on different sides of the Atlantic. This year, the series, featuring the actor Sergi López, will explore acting in different languages. López, the villain of El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) trained at the Jacques LeCoq theatre school in Paris and often works in French. “He’s an amazing actor” says Joana. Examples of López’ work in four languages – English, French, Spanish and Catalan – will be shown at this year’s festival.

It’s the 10th edition to date. “We have some very nice plans” laughs Joana when we met at the Ciné Lumière in early April. So far she isn’t giving away details for the autumn festival – this year running from 25th September to 5th October. But she’s just printed the programme for the Spring Weekend which is 15th – 18th May. Highlights will include the opening films Vivir es fácil con los ojos Cerrados (2013) about an English teacher in Spain who is obsessed with John Lennon. It stars Javier Cámara and Natalia de Molina, and won six Goyas (Spain’s equivalent to the Oscars) this year, including best picture, director, screenplay, actor, new actor, and soundtrack.

Visit the festival and you will also have the chance to see Todas Las Mujeres, starring Eduard Fernández: “a film about the weaknesses of a man” says Joana. Another treat for May is Los Ilusos, (The Wishful Thinkers, 2013) an unusual film made by Jonas Trueba, son of the director David, and nephew of director Fernando Trueba. “It is a beautiful film about Madrid and the love of film-making – really it’s an ode to Madrid.” Remarkably, it was made using discarded cuts of film, recycled by Trueba. And no one involved in the film was paid. Ingenious, yes, but this is also a reflection, says Joana, of the state of Spain’s struggling film industry, afflicted by subsidy cuts, and sharp falls in audience numbers: “All these cuts are definitely having a negative effect in the sector,” she says. “There are still many people in the sector who are really passionate about cinema and  almost with no money they manage to do great things, like for example Los Ilusos. The result is a beautiful film but, of course, this situation is not sustainable for the long term. The industry overall is very pessimistic and it’s a shame because there is so much talent there,” she adds.

When she founded the festival nearly a decade ago, Spain was actually producing more films than Britain. Now the reverse is true, but cinema goers in the UK now have access to a far wider range of Spanish films. “When the festival began it was difficult to find Spanish films on general release other than those of Pedro Almodóvar, Alejandro Amenábar and Julio Medem,” explains Joana. “In the last years we have seen many other films both on general cinema release if not with a high number of copies and on DVD, such as Fernando Trueba’s El artista y la modelo (The Artist and the Model, 2012) and Chico y Rita (2010), Juan Martínez Moreno’s Lobos de Raga, (Game of Werewolves, 2011), Daniel Monzón’s Cell 211, some of Jaume Balagueró’s films…”

What are the main differences in theme and style between films made in Spain and those produced in the UK? Joana thinks there is “definitely a different sense of humour and also the way to make drama is different. In Spanish films you can very often see a concern with death and sex.” Britain, she adds, has perhaps a longer trajectory in making films about social issues “There’s been more about this in the last few years in Spain,” says Joana. Asked which films have been a surprise hit with London film goers, she cites last year’s Treasure from the Archives, El último cuplé (The Last Torch Song, 1957): “It features Sara Montiel, who in Spain is an institution but here nobody knows her so we expected the film to be low impact. But it worked very well, perhaps because it contains a lot of music, with Sara Montiel singing.”

On the whole, London audiences react favourably to horror movies (a growing genre, especially in Catalan cinema), light comedies and dramas. “We have a lot of dramas,” laughs Joana. “With comedies you always have to be careful but the differences between sense of humour are getting less evident, for example, a couple of years ago we screened Carmina O Revienta (Carmina or Blow Up, 2012). This is very Andalusian with a Sevillian type of humour and it was a great success. The English audience really laughed, as much as the Spaniards.”

Does she think cinema has a role in dissolving barriers of culture or language? “Yes, generally films are a window to another country. One can get a grasp not only of its landscape, its cities, its aesthetics but also of the people’s sense of humour, their concerns. One can get a good idea of the relevance of family ties in Spain by watching some of Carlos Saura’s films from the 60s and 70s as well as some more recent films such La isla interior (Dunia Ayaso and Felix Sabroso, 2009), Demonios en el jardin (Manuel Gutierrez Aragon, 1982), La mosquitera (Agusti Vila, 2010) or in most of Pedro Almodóvar’s films. Or you can learn about Spaniards’ appreciation of food, their preoccupation with saving historical memory related to the Civil War, social concerns… or their sense of the absurd (Almodóvar, Bunuel!).”

Which three films would she recommend to a Brit who knew nothing of Spain, and wanted to see some cinema to gain insight? “Something by Almodóvar” she says, suggesting either Todo Sobre mi Madre (All About My Mother, 1999) or her personal favourite, Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios (Women on the verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1988): “I watched it again and again and again and I laughed so much and was thinking ‘it is just great how a man how this man sees all these women!,’ It’s hilarious but at the same time even if you see some crazy stuff that you don’t see happening in real life, like the danza del fuego, the fire in the bed. I found the film very real. You see Carmen Maura embrujada, and you say ‘yes I believe it, I buy it’”.

Also on Joana’s list of recommendations would be Tristana (1970). She’s impressed by Luis Buñuel’s brilliance in asking a French actress – Catherine Deneuve – to play a Spanish woman in this “portrait of provincial Spain.”

“I find it genius” she says, explaining that she took the name ‘Tristana’ for her own company, Tristana Media, which as well as the London Spanish film festival, organises other events to do with film. The day we meet Joana is organising a week on Italian fashion and cinema to tie in with the Glamour of Italian Fashion exhibition at the V&A. Past Tristana Media programmes include work for the BFI (British Film Institute) and for the American Film Institute, one on Spanish cinema and the Civil War, and another called Good Morning Freedom, about the films made immediately post-Franco.”

Going back to the fictional film goer, Joana’s other recommendations would include: “Carmen (1983) by Saura and perhaps also Amantes by Vicente Aranda (1991). There you have much about this obsession with sex and death, with Victoria Abril and Maribel Verdú. I think with this they would have a bit of everything.”

Her own top 3 film list, as well as Mujeres and Tristana, would include the post-Franco classic, Cría Cuervos (Raising Ravens, 1976): “I found Geraldine Chaplin’s performance sublime and also Ana Torrent’s: her innocence really made a mark on me and also the way the relationship with her mother and father, and between her mother and the father, the way it is portrayed – it’s from the eyes of a child,” Joana explains.

What of British films? Does she have any favourites? “I am a big fan of the Merchant and Ivory films,” she confesses. “They really move me. I loved Heat and Dust (1983) which is set in India and stars Greta Scacchi as the wife of a British official who leaves him to live with an Indian.” What appeals to Joana in a film? “The story and some kind of connection with the characters. To me personally photography is very important, because I am a very visual person. At the end of the day the image is the first thing you see,” says Joana.

She grew up in Tarragona watching Spencer Tracy, Audrey Hepburn and Joan Crawford seasons, screened on la Segunda Cadena. Were her parents big cinema-goers? “Not particularly, but as a child I was often sent to bed early because of the time and I would come out my bedroom and hide behind the sofa while my parents were watching tv. Did they catch her? “Sometimes yes,” she laughs. “But I became expert at not moving, or moving slowly so I wasn’t making a noise, and waiting for noise in the films before I moved.”

A law graduate, Joana arrived in London 15 years ago, on a mission to improve her English and then migrated for work to Hong Kong. Then came the economic downturn in the Far East “and then my English wasn’t improving that quickly and at the same time I was finding London more and more fascinating, and seeing that somehow the system here was more open, more meritocratic [than in Spain] at the moment of finding a job was very helpful.” Work came – initially as a researcher in a French insurance company, later in a publishing house, as a researcher, then commissioning editor. Within eight years of arriving in London, Joana had set up Tristana Media.

Was the London Spanish Film Festival easy to get off the ground? “Not very, it took a year and a half from conception to launch. First we found the support of the Cervantes Institute and then we soon found Ciné Lumière as a venue; because they are members of Europa Cinema and they are committed to show European Cinema, they just welcomed the idea with wide open arms. Then we got the support of the Spanish embassy.”

Joana and her team, Patricia Pérez (programming) Maria Ugarte (the Basque Window, dealing with guests) have long been signed up to industry newsletters for Spanish film producers and distributors. Up to date with the latest releases, they usually ask for Spanish films to be sent to them in London, although occasionally, on a trip to Spain, Joana will spend two days in a row viewing movies at the Institute of Cinematography. Initially the main festival lasted a week – now it is 10 days long. As well as a core programme, and the  Basque and Catalan Windows (films that are usually supported economically by Basque and Catalan culture groups, such as Extepare in the Basque Country or the Ramon Llull institute in Barcelona), another key element is the special feature – a close up on the work of a particular director or actor, which will include an hour-long interview with film clips. “We started with Carmen Maura, then we looked at Basilio Martín Patino’s work, Ángela Molina’s, and then Luis Tosar, Jordi Mollá.”

As five o’clock strikes and the tables of the cafe at the Ciné Lumière clear, I ask one final question – which Spanish actors and directors should be looking out for, now and in the years to come? “For directors, definitely Jonas Trueba, and Paco Baños. He’s been working in film for many years and the first feature film he directed, Ali, came out in 2012. He’s Andalusian from Seville, and it’s really well made, a little jewel and with that sense of humour from the south”

And which actors should we watch out for? “Miguel Ángel Silvestre who stars in Almodovar’s Los amantes pasajeros (2013) and Aura Garrido (who stars in El Cuerpo (2012). Definitely these are two but again there are many more”.

The London Spanish Film Festival is taking place on the following dates:

Spring Weekend: 15th – 18th May
Festival: 25th September – 5th October