A “hippy Quaker” in Zinemaldia
The New American Cinema (1968) series, targeted by Franco’s regime. 
Historiak, 6 
Customs report issued by the Gipuzkoa Provincial Delegation of the Ministry of Information and Tourism (26 July 1968)

García Escudero’s censorship, while being more tolerant than that of Arias Salgado in the Ministry of the Interior, continued to get the scissors out despite claiming that a prohibited film was more worthy than a mutilated one.[1]

As Román Gubern and Domènec Font point out in their classic study on censorship, the tolerance shown by the censor José María García Escudero (Director-General of Cinematography between 1962 and 1969) was nevertheless paradoxical. Towards the end of the 1960s, Franco’s regime was immersed in its developmental phase, so it ‘facilitated’ small windows of a false openness. It was what Gubern called, in another context, “controlled opposition”: i.e. allow guided criticism, mainly to project an image of modernity to the world, while censorship continued to be carried out inside the country.[2] The small ‘bits of opportunity’ took the form of the creation of Art cinemas in 1967[3] to show films, and the relative openness granted to the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Official poster of the 16th edition

In the sixteenth edition of the Festival in 1968 a series of significant events took place that would never have taken place without the false openness that the regime aspired to: the international premiere of the Basque film Ama Lur by Néstor Basterretxea and Fernando Larruquert, and the inclusion of a series of films dedicated to US avant-garde cinema (New American Cinema), programmed in the Retrospective Section.

The politically revolutionary and agitated 1968 had seen the suspension of the Cannes Festival on May 13th after pressure caused by the strikes that united university students and filmmakers. In Europe, the movement spread and caused great disturbance to other festivals such as Pesaro and Venice in Italy or Knokke-Le Zoute in Belgium, where the itinerant New American Cinema programme was also scheduled to be shown. While the struggles of ’68 affected other international festivals, in the case of Spain the official discourse -backed up by the media and the organisers of the San Sebastian Festi

Mr. Belvedere, "Un final conformista para un Festival apacible", Fotogramas (26 July 1968). Press Dossier P.1968.BCN.B-T, San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive
Salvador Corberó, "Las aguas tranquilas del Festival no han sido movidas por los vientos rusos o suecos", Diario de Barcelona (8 July 1968). Press dossier P.1968.BCN.B-T, San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive
Pascual Cebollada, "San Sebastián: un Festival de cine en paz", Periódico Ya (7 July 1968). Press dossier P.1968.MAD.S-Y, San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive

Nevertheless, behind the calm image of normality, the edition was plagued by a series of events that belied the official narrative. After suffering modifications imposed by the ordinary censorship of Franco’s regime, the film Ama Lurwas shown out of competition in the Official Section; it was a documentary that tried to portray Basque folklore in images in a context of strong Spanish nationalism. Some of the articles in the press, but only by foreign media such as La Depêche du Midi or Corriere della Sera, were very revealing about the protests that took place outside the Teatro Victoria Eugenia after the screening of the North American film The Legend of Lylah Clare (Robert Aldrich, 1968), with young Basques throwing pro-Vietnam pamphlets and shouting “Yankees go home”. 

In the midst of the supposed calm another chink in the armour appeared, portraying the previously mentioned slogan by García Escudero (“a prohibited film was more worthy than a mutilated one”): the censorship applied to the retrospective on New American Cinema.

Paul Adams Sitney was a 24-year-old at the time, a copywriter and critic of the specialised magazine in experimental filmmaking Film Culture, created by Jonas and Adolfas Mekas, and the curator and creative force behind the itinerant New American Cinema Group programme. 

He had previously completed an initial tour with the series in 1963 and 1964, but on his second trip to Europe he organised the screening of the programme in the 16th edition of the San Sebastian Film Festival. He would also finish the second European tour there before returning to the United States. The link between the representatives of new avant-garde American cinema and the San Sebastian Film Festival was a member of the Selection Committee, José López Clemente. His experiences, immortalised in an article in Festival magazine under the title of “Nuevo Cine Americano” published on 12 June 1968, confirms his direct links for the conceptualisation of the retrospective programme. 

Journal, 12 July 1968 – No.: 7, page 10

López Clemente was an ambiguous figure, to say the least, as he was part of the regime’s structure as head of the department that produced the NO-DO, the official newscast of Francoism, but he had Left-leaning tendencies.[4] A few years earlier, together with others who later created the Institute of Research and Cinematographic Experience [Instituto de Investigaciones y Experiencias Cinematográficas (IIEC)], López Clemente was a critic on the first avant-garde film magazine Cine Experimental, founded in the early 1940s. He taught classes on documentary filmmaking in the renamed EOC and was also a copywriter in several editions of Film Culture. The multifaceted Clemente ended up proposing to the Selection Committee of the Festival that they should bring the series curated by P. Adams Sitney.

José López Clemente in the center of the picture wearing glasses, accompanied by the Festival Director Miguel de Echarri and the Provincial Delegate Felipe de Ugarte, among others. San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive

In January 1968 López Clemente joined the Selection Committee of the San Sebastian Film Festival for the first time, invited by the Director at the time Miguel de Echarri. The first correspondence between the two is reproduced below.

Letter from Festival Director Miguel de Echarri to José López Clemente (19 January 1968). San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive
Letter of reply from José López Clemente to the Festival director Miguel de Echarri (26 January 1968). San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive

Three months after López Clemente joined the Selection Committee, the Minutes of one of the meetings of the Executive Committee that conserves the archive reflect the first signs of potential problems with the series proposed for the Retrospective Section.

First page of the minutes of the San Sebastian Festival Executive Committee (16 April 1968). San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive
Second page of the minutes of the San Sebastian Festival Executive Committee (16 April 1968). San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive

Before arriving in San Sebastian on July 6th, the first day of the 16th edition of the Festival, P. Adams Sitney had travelled -with cans of film in around a dozen suitcases- to Italy, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Austria, West Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and England, and had attended some of the most important experimental cinema festivals on the continent such as Turin, Pesaro or Knokke-Le Zoute. Sitney wrote a series of articles in a kind of logbook that were published in issue no. 46 of Film Culture that included his theoretical reflections, ideas and personal opinions on each of the stops on his European tour.

Based on this series of articles, Festival magazine and the press archives, we have made a detailed reconstruction of his second European tour. What emerges is a clear imbalance between the number of films that travelled across the continent with Sitney and the small number -after passing through Franco’s censors- that were programmed in the San Sebastian Film Festival. 

San Sebastian ’68 was clearly important on that European map because it was the last stop on the tour before Adams Sitney decided to return to New York. From the literature consulted, his stay in San Sebastian did not arouse any particular interest in the small number of international studies found on his European tour. Nevertheless, the role that San Sebastian played as an ‘exit door’ is striking.

According to Adams Sitney himself, the selection of films he planned to show the audience in the city -as he usually changed the programme from place to place- was confiscated as soon as he arrived in San Sebastian on the orders of the Spanish Government office in the city. 

There was a small office near the festival hall where all the films were kept. Uniformed police maintained the office — I believed they were armed but my memory is unsecure on that point. I had to retrieve all films from that office for any screening. They would not release censored films to me. I always assumed the government censored them, but I had only minimal contact with Film Festival authorities who were preoccupied with celebrities (such as Sidney Poitier).[5]

Based on the press archives consulted, it seems that (after the confiscation) the Selection Committee -represented by López Clemente and the military journalist Félix Martialay– viewed the footage selected by Sitney.[6] For its part, the Executive Committee -which had previously warned of the problems the series might encounter- also took part in the viewing with a clear aim: to decide what could be shown to the audience and what not. As Sitney said:

In San Sebastian we were just a decoration at the edge of a festival and the Franco government insisted on pre-screening every film first. Wouldn’t allow Brakhage’s films to be shown because of nudity, so this was pretty awful.[7]  

During the Festival, the retrospective section films were shown without subtitles or dubbing, so the end result was quite disappointing for some spectators. A few journalists highlight the fact that, although the first sessions were full of young people, the audience gradually lost interest in the series. 

Most of the correspondents attending that edition of the Festival hardly offered coverage of the New American Cinema programme. References to the series were very rare, and the media often restricted themselves to reproducing the newsletter issued by the Festival. Nevertheless, some articles explicitly mentioned the censorship that the series suffered, both before its presentation and during it. 

Luis Gasca, "Cine Underground", Fotogramas (9 August 1968). Press dossier P.1968.BCN.B-T, San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive
Luis Gasca, "Cine Underground", Fotogramas (9 August 1968). Press dossier P.1968.BCN.B-T, San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive
Luis Mamerto, "El festival cinematogfráfico de San Sebastián", Sur (28 July 1968). Press dossier P.1968.ESP.A-M, San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive
Mr. Belvedere, "Un final conformista para un festival apacible", Fotogramas (26 July 1968). Dosier de prensa P.1968.BCN.B-T, San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive

Adams Sitney confirmed that he took the initiative to interrupt the retrospective before all the planned sessions took place, and that the person responsible for referring to the censor’s cuts to the programme prior to each session (described by the journalist Luis Mamerto in an article published in Sur as a “hippy Quaker”) was Sitney himself. He added:

I may have had to preselect films when I was told what would never pass censorship. Had I known of it in advance, I never would have agreed to appear in San Sebastian. They sprung that on me after I arrived with the films.[8]

All the films included in the chronograph (above) travelled all over Europe with Sitney. Given that San Sebastian was the last stop before leaving the continent, a hypothesis emerges: Sitney brought the films that would potentially be more problematic for screening to San Sebastian in his personal luggage. Some of them had been previously censored, not only in other European cities but even in New York.

At least, some administrative documents conserved in the Festival archive such as insurance certificates, invoices or customs papers reveal an imbalance in the numbers. In San Sebastian there were more films than were actually screened, more than those that officially passed through Customs. 

Insurance certificate from La Polar, Sociedad Anónima de Seguros (2 July 1968). San International Film Festival Archive
Invoice sent from Madrid to Pilar Olascoaga, Head of Administrative Services and Accommodation at the San Sebastian International Film Festival (4 July 1968). San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive
Customs report on New American Cinema films issued by the Gipuzkoa Provincial Delegation of the Ministry of Information and Tourism (26 July 1968). San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive
Telegram from the international transport company Ferrer y Compañía (9 September 1968). San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive

In his articles published in Film Culture, Adams Sitney reveals that he organised clandestine sessions in hotel rooms with other trustworthy colleagues when he visited other European cities, during which he showed some of the ‘problematic’ films that were not screened on the circuit. Indeed, it would not be too far-fetched to imagine that, with San Sebastian as his last stop, Sitney may have asked the Festival for more cargo capacity to send his films back to New York. At the same time, it is difficult not to imagine a possible scenario: Did Adams Sitney organise some of these clandestine sessions during his stay in San Sebastian? Were those prohibited images seen in places off the Festival premises to escape checks by Franco’s officials?

Whatever, the crucial role played by San Sebastian as the departure point of all the films that Adams Sitney carried with him on his second European tour is very clear. Below we reproduce a letter from Sitney in which, just a few hours before leaving San Sebastian, he asks the transport company contracted by the Festival to change the title of one of the films, with the aim of getting it out of the country and allowing it to enter New York unnoticed. The case in point is Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963), a film that not only caused him problems in Europe but was also censored in the United States right from the date of its premiere. In his instructions, Sitney asked for the name of the film to be replaced by the title of another one he had lost when travelling in Sweden.[9]

Handwritten note by P. Adams Sitney with instructions for the international transport company Ferrer y Compañía (1968). San Sebastian International Film Festival Archive

This jinxed film of the New American Cinema series is a paradigm of the ethical-political positions in the context of avant-garde cinema in the United States. Smith’s film was produced for just 300 dollars and was premiered in Bleecker Street Cinema in New York on 29 April 1963. After the film started to achieve a certain visibility, the organisers were arrested by the police in later screenings, alleging immoral conduct. The film was screened in Europe by Adams Sitney in Belgium, during the controversial 1963 edition of the Knokke-Le-Zoute experimental film festival (EXPRMNTL). After a number of violent scuffles in the screening of Flaming Creatures in an attempt to censor it, with the Belgian Justice Minister taking sides in the dispute, the film was only shown clandestinely in a hotel room for the real enthusiasts of the series. This episode was put into context by Jonas Mekas in his Movie Journal

Our actions (when I say ‘our’ I mean those of Barbara Rubin, Paul Adams Sitney and mines) in Knokke-Le-Zoute were due to our feelings about the suppression of any film or aesthetic expression. During our press conference, and on other occasions, we made it very clear that we were not fighting for this film in particular, but for the principle of free expression.[10]

Flaming Creatures thus embodies the censorship suffered by all the films that made up the New American Cinema Group series. Although one of the strong points of the group’s manifesto (dated summer 1961) flatly rejected censorship, their call for radical cinematographic practice was affected by all kinds of mutilations: Smith’s film was a front-line witness of moral censorship in the USA, it was surrounded by scandal in Belgium and ended up leaving Europe via San Sebastian, camouflaged in a clandestine operation that was organised in a Festival in which the series was crippled from the moment the films arrived in the city.

After leaving San Sebastian, Sitney returned to New York to start the Anthology Film Archives project.[11] It was inaugurated two years later, on 1 December 1970.

Different hypotheses suggest reasons for the way in which the second European tour ended. On one hand, Sitney refers to the low profitability the series represented for the filmmakers, who did not receive any fees for the screening of their work. The limited budget was used for travel expenses, enabling the curator to cross the continent to present the series and open it up to other countries. On the other hand, there is another -much more interesting- version by the Swiss researcher Faye Corthésy that perhaps draws a wider map of political interest: the end of the tour was marked by ideological tension between the more individualistic and less politicised North American avant-garde and the European one, linked to the revolutionary Left that sabotaged a number of screenings in the series, alleging that these films were an American imperialist imposition on the new European cinema[12].

The Official Section of the 1968 edition of the San Sebastian Film Festival offered a programme that fulfilled people’s expectations in a non-problematic way. There was no ostensible intention to be innovative, apart from the complexity that surrounded the premiere of Ama Lur. Furthermore, as we can see from the Minutes of the Executive Committee meeting reproduced above, the New American Cinema series was initially defined by its organisers as an “issue of pulsating interest in the world.” The retrospective thus immediately became a cosmetic attempt by Franco’s regime to project an image of modernity that would give the country an aura of openness on the international stage. Nevertheless, the images screened represented an unsustainable clash for the structures of the dictatorship. The paradox of “controlled opposition” was blown to smithereens. The New American Cinema was mutilated and censored in the name of the national Catholic ideology of Francoism. 

[1] Román Gubern & Domènec Font. Un cine para el cadalso (Barcelona: Euros, 1975).

[2] Román Gubern. La censura. Función política y ordenamiento jurídico bajo el franquismo (1936-1975) (Barcelona: Península, 1981), 211.

[3] The Art cinema founded in San Sebastian in 1968 was called Inesa de Gaxen and was located in the old Kursaal. Its 500 seats were inaugurated with a screening of Hiroshima, mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959).

[4] As the historian Vicente Sánchez-Biosca, who knew him personally, said, “(…) given that [Clemente] was a man of the Left, that kind of person was not often seen in the NO-DO.” Personal communication with Pablo La Parra Pérez (28 October 2020).

[5] P. Adams Sitney, personal communication with Irati Crespo and Diego Ginartes (26 October 2020).

[6] In the words of the journalist Alfonso Sánchez: “More than thirty hours of film have been viewed by the members of the Selection Committee Martialay and Clemente”. El Diario Vasco, 9 July 1968.

[7] P. Adams Sitney, personal communication with Mark Webber (3 December 2007).

[8] P. Adams Sitney, personal communication with Mark Webber (13 February 2020).

[9] In Sitney’s words: “While I was touring the universities of Uppsala, Lund and Gothenburg the most outrageous accident of the course of this exposition occurred: our copy of Where did our love go was lost. I am not paranoid enough to believe that someone actually stole the film, but somehow it disappeared while on shipment and several eager searches have produced no trace of it” Film Culture no. 46 (October 1968), p. 30.

[10] Jonas Mekas, Diario de Cine. El nacimiento del Nuevo Cine Norteamericano (Mexico City: Mangos de Hacha, 2013), 136.

[11] “Anthology Film Archives is the first film museum exclusively devoted to the film as an art.” This is the second sentence of the manifesto published by Anthology Film Archives to coincide with its inauguration on 1 December 1970.

[12] Faye Corthésy, “Marginal Circulation of Marginal Films: The “Travelling Exhibitions” of New American Cinema in the 1960s” (University of Lausanne, 2018).