Spanish auteur Julio Medem goes politico-provocative with the "The Basque Game, Skin Against Stone," a multi-perspective docu study of the Basque region and its complex web of often bloody problems rooted in nationalist terrorism. Subject matter and treatment make it unlikely to catch on offshore much beyond the docu fest circuit.

Spanish auteur Julio Medem goes politico-provocative with the “The Basque Game, Skin Against Stone,” a multi-perspective docu study of the Basque region and its complex web of often bloody problems rooted in nationalist terrorism. Like any cultural statement on this particular subject, pic is either courageous or foolhardy, right or wrong, depending on where you stand. Though it should go over big theatrically at home (for a docu), both subject matter and treatment make it unlikely to catch on offshore much beyond the documentary fest circuit, even given helmer’s rep.

Prior to and following its screening at San Sebastian, controversial film generated plenty of column inches both at home and abroad. Hullabaloo was partly due to the refusal of both Spain’s governing Popular Party and terrorist group ETA — the two poles of the Basque nationalism debate — to participate in the project, and the wish of two interviewees to be excised after seeing the final result. (Latter has not happened.)

Mostly consisting of some 70 smartly edited interviews, “Game” is rarely less than thought provoking. But inward-looking pic offers little new for those familiar with the Basque problem, while not offering clear enough exposition to hook novitiates (read: foreign auds). However, tube pick-ups of the three-part TV series of which “Game” is part look likely. (A five-hour DVD will also be released later in 2003.)

“Game’s” supporters value pic’s respect for the Basque nationalist movement in its non-violent form, its stress on the importance of dialogue, and its implicit condemnation of violence.

Those against the film accuse it of not being objective, of not reflecting the anger of innocent victims and their families, and of fence-sitting.

Pic is essentially a rapid trawl through recent Basque history, with interviewees offering comments along the way. But despite their wide range of opinions, those interviewed are predominantly drawn from the worlds of politics and culture.

Many interviewees are familiar to Spanish auds, including writer Bernardo Atxaga, who looks tired of the whole question; academic Javier Elzo, who is filmed with his bodyguard; Arnaldo Otegi, spokesman for outlawed Basque separatist party Batasuna; socialist ex-president Felipe Gonzalez; Xabier Arzalluz, the president of the Basque Nationalist Party; philosopher Javier Sadaba; and Eduardo Medina, who lost a leg to an ETA bomb.

There’s also Daniel Mugica, son of a politician killed by ETA; Julen Madariaga, the terrorist group’s co-founder; so-called “Father of the Spanish Constitution” Gregorio Peces Barba; and Aneka Gil, who claims to have been tortured by police after being falsely accused of being a terrorist.

Only two are neither Spanish nor Basque, both offering valuable outsider views. They are Father Alec Reid, who was instrumental to the Northern Irish peace process, and Harry Barnes, director of Conflict Resolution & Human Rights Programs of the Carter Center. Notable by their absence are any extreme views condemning the whole project of Basque nationalism or supporting the use of violence to achieve it.

Speech has been edited down so that hesitations and pauses for reflection are gone, which sometimes makes things rather breathless. Interviews are punctuated with scenes repping Basque culture: high-speed games of pelota; views of the stunning land and seascapes; clips from films dealing with the region, predominantly “Around the World with Orson Welles”; and politically loaded footage of bomb aftermaths and the 1937 Spanish Civil War bombing of the town of Gernika, in which 654 people died.

Often affecting pieces from Basque musician Mikel Laboa’s recent work and the wildly abstract oil-paintings of Vicente Amestoy are also used as thematic backdrop.

The Basque Game, Skin Against Stone

Spain

Production

A Golem Distribucion release of an Alicia Produce production, in association with EITB, Canal Plus. (International sales: Golem, Pamplona.) Executive producers, Koldo Zuazua, Julio Medem. Directed, edited by Julio Medem.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Javier Aguirre, Jon Elicegui, Ricardo de Gracia ; editor, Angel Hernandez Zoido; music, Mikel Laboa; sound (Dolby Digital), Pablo Bueno. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Open Zone), Sept. 21, 2003. Running time: 115 MIN. (Spanish, Basque dialogue)

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