Interview with Begoña del Teso: A giant, nomadic and bohemian film forum
Historiak, 5 
Poster of the office of the Neighbourhoods and Villages section, installed on the left side façade of the Victoria Eugenia Theatre.

Looking back to the early 70s and imagining you as a young woman already drawn to films, what did the San Sebastian Festival mean to you and what was your relationship with it?

My relationship is very simple. In ’72 I fall in love with Katharine Hepburn and it turns out that in ’72 there’s a Howard Hawks season at the Festival. They’re showing Bringing Up Baby, [1938] and despite still being underage, as I was used to slipping into certain cinemas helped by my mother, I decide that I wanted to go to the Festival to see it. I still have the ticket for that screening. I also liked Barbra Streisand and I think the second film I saw was The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman [1973]. It’s not like I was a mad film buff setting out to watch a film by Pasolini. Katharine Hepburn and Elliott Gould, who was Barbra Streisand’s husband at that time. 

1976 was a turning point in this model of “happy Festival” that turned its back on the tense political and social reality of the last years of the dictatorship: the murder of Jesús María Zabala in Hondarribia moved the Festival into the sights of the social movements.

I remember how those of us who had tickets refused to go to the Festival that year; we gave them away in protest. Nobody wanted to go to that Festival. I remember myself, in the Paseo República Argentina, giving away a couple of tickets to some women. We didn’t want to go, but on the other hand we understood people’s passion. At that time having tickets to the Festival was marvellous, our commitment wasn’t so great that we’d rip up the ticket at the door [laughter]. But it was very tense: Zabala was killed just before the start of the Festival.

Barrios y Pueblos [Neighbourhoods and Municipalities], an initiative in which you directly participated, is perhaps one of the most obvious examples of the transformations undergone by the Festival from 1977 onwards, but its early days date back to a few years earlier.

By then I had connections to the Gros film club, in the Residents’ Association. It was all very closely tied in and connected: the Residents’ Association, the film club, the films on the white screen. The film club was in Padre Larroca, across from the taxi rank; it was your typical perfect space for smaller or larger meetings and for film forums. I think it was from that “association-based” film club conglomerate that the possibility of participating in Barrios y Pueblos came about.

Barrios y Pueblos was what was needed to strip the Festival of its glamorous side, the stars, Hollywood. It needed to have a political slant, it had to be taken out to the people. Those at the top of the Festival wanted to maintain a glamorous and institutional Festival, but they had to somehow pander to those who were asking for participation.

I’m not saying this to break down preconceptions or with ironic intent, but for many of us it [participating in Barrios y Pueblos] was a way of getting our hands on a pass, even if it was rather precarious, for the Festival. Logically you didn’t get access to the Victoria Eugenia, but at that time we weren’t that fond of the Victoria Eugenia anyway: we preferred the Astoria [for the reason that] “a united people will never be beaten”. I think that all movie buffs or film lovers from San Sebastian have wanted to go to the Festival at one time or another.

What films would be shown on the Barrios y Pueblos screens?

The problem at that time, and still today, is that there are usually rules: the competing films can only be screened once or twice, at that time in the Victoria Eugenia or in the Astoria. So, given that they couldn’t screen the competing films [which is at the end of the day what we would have liked to have seen, logically, in the neighbourhoods and municipalities too] the initiative turned into a giant film forum, nomadic and bohemian, with films that would come with the Festival stamp.

To be honest, the films that were taken out there could have made it there by any other channel. And we all knew that. Unless I’m mistaken, I don’t think anyone really saw a Festival film that wasn’t a copy from the parallel sections. I’m sure they didn’t put on Alien [Ridley Scott, 1979] the year it was here. However, these were films that had a rebel, revolutionary touch or whatever you want to call it. 

You said that was the first time you had had the opportunity to present films. That was something rather unheard of at the Festival: at the traditional Festival there were neither presentations nor post-film discussions.

It’s not as if I felt that I was a major part of the Festival. The Festival, for everyone I think, was something else. But in any case it wasn’t a waste of time. Speaking personally, I can say that it was the start of everything: if I present films now in Tabakalera and I’m with you here today, it’s because my first presentations were at the Gros Residents’ Association and at Barrios y Pueblos.

Right from its first year, Barrios y Pueblos saw the screening of some iconic movies, such as the showing of Novecento in Intxaurrondo, attended by Bernardo Bertolucci and Laura Betti. Were you there?

No, I remember the more everyday part of the section. What happened with Novecento is a bit like this year [2019] when Ken Loach joined the women [strikers] at homes for the elderly. I imagine it was very powerful, making the most of the fact that Bertolucci is Bertolucci, just like Loach is Loach. I thought it was a masterstroke. Today it sounds magnificent: Bertolucci and Laura Betti [in Intxaurrondo]. But the thing is that I think they saw us as a fighting land: they were attending a film festival, surrounded by glamour, but they would go out to join the revolution, even if it was small. When that happened I must have been away presenting in a town. But hey, I’m not complaining, it’s what you had to do! I thought it was great: you’d go to places that you didn’t really know; you’d have a sandwich and you’d come home. There was nothing institutional about it, they’d neither bring you back nor take you there: you’d go there with the others. The Festival didn’t put on a bus, but we had to present a film and we’d get there. It was the moment: there were so many movements, the EMK [the Basque Communist Movement] the ORT (Revolutionary Workers Organisation], Residents’ Associations. The Festival knew that it couldn’t fight that huge momentum.

Were the screenings [of Barrios y Pueblos] full? You’d imagine that the audience would be very different to what you’d been used to seeing at the Festival until then.

Yes. Those initiatives we remember today with certain nostalgia (ORT and the like) had enormous drawing power. Plus the screenings were held in the small spaces of film clubs or residents’ associations and would fill up in no time. The audience was what we’d call “borroka” or urban guerrilla today (although I think they used to have more of a cultural and ideological background) and all those people for whom going to a film club was a way of supporting a movement. Even the film screenings at the Jesuit school were liberal, so imagine a Residents’ Association in Elgeta or in working districts and towns like Intxaurrondo, Alza, Ermua and Eibar. The atmosphere was so powerful that even those lured by the Film Festival knew that almost everything that wasn’t [institutional/official] was revolutionary and anti-establishment.

According to the stories we’ve reconstructed, often the Barrios and Pueblos screenings would become real guerrilla screenings organised by the Women’s Assembly or EHGAM, with gay activists like Mikel Martín Conde presenting films by Fassbinder.

Many of us have survived in parallel. Mikel is a born survivor of all kinds of bashings. We all came from Barrios y Pueblos to share the Human Rights [Film Festival] stage in the Victoria Eugenia. That’s how it came about. At that time it was all so difficult and it [Barrios y Pueblos] was the only space available to EHGAM or the Women’s Assembly. I understood that too, of course, but there were also disagreements. I would say: “if we’re at the Zinemaldi we’re going to talk about films: I want to screen Cabaret [Bob Fosse, 1972], West Side Story [Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins, 1961], Alien [Ridley Scott, 1979] or a bit of horror”. And they’d say no, because they offered no debate. Since then we’ve realised the debate that could have been held around Cabaret or West Side Story, but they wanted nothing to do with musicals.

Was the emphasis on a highly activist programme?

Yes, of course.

And were there discussions?

Yes, but usually what happened and continues to happen: they were more interested in the subject matter than in actually watching the film and that would make me, and continues to make me very angry. It’s as if there were films that are “for discussion” and films that are not. At that time I had huge limitations and shortfalls both in the cinematic and revolutionary fields and sometimes I couldn’t maintain the level of the discussions. The topic-related discussions were sometimes very powerful. We had, inside heaps of inverted commas, political commissars, in the best sense of the word. People who were very involved in a much deeper ideology and who would spend hours discussing the difference between the PCE [Spanish Communist Party] and the Italian PCI or Carrillo. Or the hatred between EMK and ORT. The films were very strongly focussed on the moment and on the message they carried. For example, in a film with a traitor the debate would be very profound: “What right do they have to betray the cause?”, “Remember that at the end of the day he’s a guerrilla fighter”, “What was the attitude of the Communist Party in World War II?” To be honest, I was either very stupid or too young. It’s also where I had my first experience not of the masses but of horror. I remember presenting General della Rovere [Roberto Rossellini, 1960] and I had no better idea than to say that it wasn’t a Hollywood film of the kind we were used to seeing. They almost threw me out! Of course the audience already knew that Rossellini didn’t make films Hollywood style. The reason I’m telling you about my personal experience is to explain my limitations at that time. In the mid-70s I hadn’t seen all of Rossellini’s films, and there was no way of lending films to one another. I was also discovering that there was cinema other than AlienBringing up Baby and The Long Goodbye.   

And how did you prepare the discussions?

Any way I could, reading anything I could find. You didn’t know most of the films until after you’d seen them. In the presentations you had to give people an idea of the film and that’s why you’d look for information. I had friends who were huge film buffs whom I’d ask for help and after seeing the film everything was easier. Plus, you weren’t alone in the discussion, there were always more members of the organisation, from the Barrios y Pueblos Committee. I did prepare them, but there was neither the Internet nor the wide selection of books about the cinema you find today. They were presentations coming from exchanges with people or from the books you’d had the chance to get your hands on. If it came from a parallel section, from reading those little books brought out by the Festival itself.

Would you say that your participation in Barrios y Pueblos had something of an apprenticeship about it?

Yes. That’s why I told you from the beginning that if I can present films today in all the places I present them it’s because it all started there. But, without knocking it, let me put you in the picture. The sensation was a sort of lack of control and improvisation: the spectators, the Festival, we ourselves, the movements, the idea of what a film club was. At least that’s the way I lived it. We know that Kresala existed, but Kresala was in the centre of San Sebastián, in the Caja de Ahorros Municipal savings bank building, it wasn’t in the basement of a Residents’ Association. And Intxaurrondo was Intxaurrondo and Alza was Alza.

We’re very surprised at how this initiative, which had enjoyed great thrust with the electric climate of the 70s, gradually lost its strength until fading out in the mid-80s, just as many Utopian initiatives from this period disappeared.

When those who are doing all the donkey work lose strength, the others fall by the wayside. These are highly people-centric initiatives, with no infrastructure: only the film reels and a car so that the people who have to screen the film will do it themselves if there’s no projectionist at the place it’s to be screened. That’s the bottom line. As is the case with all of these grassroots movements, when those with the greatest initiative disappear those higher up the line couldn’t give a hoot. What a relief! On the other hand, as soon as things started to change, the Festival couldn’t have cared less. Barrios y Pueblos was a revolutionary tax. And if it wasn’t a revolutionary tax it’s because directors like Chillida and Larrandia weren’t about to say no to something that came from the people. But with the passing of the years [and I know that some people were still killing, as was the other side and that there were still beatings], the negotiations to prevent conflicts during the Festival were carried out through other channels. We know that too. But, as you can see, it had no continuity, nobody took up the idea that exists in Berlin, for example. The “Berlinale goes Kiez” section takes films from the official selection to very different neighbourhood cinemas. Barrios y Pueblos may have been madness, but at the end of the day all festivals have understood that they can’t restrict themselves to the official hubs alone.