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Asier Altuna on ‘Grandma,’ Basque Farmsteads, a Paradigm Shift

‘Grandma’ becomes second Basque-language competition player at San Sebastian

A multi-level drama of reconciliation between tradition and modernity, worked out through the conflict of a farming father and Amaia, his rebel city-dwelling video-artist daughter in the shamanic presence of the grandmother, Asier Altuna’s “Grandma” (“Amama”) is the second Basque-language movie to play in competition at the San Sebastian Festival, after 2014’s “Loreak.” Plushly lensed, set on a gorgeous Basque farmstead in a verdant valley, it is also a celebration of the Basque Country’s rural legacy. Opposed to her father Tomas’ economically irrational desire for his children to keep the farm going as a passed-down-the-generations ancestral Basque practice – Amaia flees to the city, but finds she cannot continue with her next project when severed from her roots. Reconciliation – with her parents and her heritage becomes a vital necessity.

In such a context, her own homestead, a mix of family photos, ancient beams, flower-details on the tables, where she has a broadband connection in the loft and an outhouse was used for sheep, emerges not only as a location but the heart of the film, a symbol of inter-generational harmony that its inhabitants – at least temporarily – lack.

Co-directed with Telmo Esnal, and skewering the Basque – and Spanish – status symbol of summer holidays, whatever the cost, screwball satire “Aupa Extebeste!” touched a popular nerve, winning San Sebastian’s 2005 Youth Jury Award. Demonstrating Altuna’s range, “Grandma” – following on a memorable documentary, 2011’s “Bertsolari,” about the Basque tradition of improvised song” – is Altuna’s first solo fiction feature. A key part of the technical team – cinematographer Javi Agirre, a.d. Esnal, production designer Mikel Serrano – also worked on “Loreak.” Produced by Txintxua Films and distributed in Spain by Golem Distribucion, “Grandma” world premiered at San Sebastian on Sept. 21, the hit the fest trail, including Rome and Mar del Plata.

Migration in some countries brings about a “ruralization” of cities, as Locarno winner “Siembra” suggested about Bogota “Grandma” posits in its mid-stretch a rupture, between an ageing generation of Basques maintaining customs dating back to Neolithic times and a young urban-based generation.  That at least is what Amaia claims. Yet that break, worked out through family relations, symbolism and montage, finally yields to what seems a far more a natural evolution between two generations. Would you agree?

Amaia, the protagonist of “Grandma,” represents the transformation of the Basque farm; she lives out the contradiction of renouncing her father’s legacy while still respecting the inheritance of her forebears, leaving the farm without losing its wisdom. Her father, especially at the beginning of the film, cannot understand this. The seeds that have been passed on for generations will be lost forever if the new generation does not plant them. This is a reality. The farm as her father understands it will die, yes. But the ancient wisdom, the way of being, the way of seeing the world, will any of these live on in the next generation? That is the question I pose with this film.

As a visual artist, Amaia draws on her rural roots. When that relationship is annulled – in an archly symbolic act of her father – cutting herself off from her parents and grandma in the city, she cannot create, conceive happily her place in the world. Would you agree with this interpretation?

For Amaia being an artist isn’t a whim; it is a vital need. Her crisis in the middle of the film helps her to create. Although her sadness prevents her from working at first, Amaia needed the rupture with her father – as an artist – so that she could complete her project. This is why she displays her pieces at the farm, and not at a gallery in the city. Behind all this is an idea: “Art must serve man, help him grow and evolve; art must serve life”.

To shape your themes, I sense you looked to the natural possibilities yielded by setting, looking for suggestions of restriction/freedom, severance, growth, the inhabitation of the human space by nature. Or maybe I’m wrong.

I lived in a rural environment for many years, surrounded by nature.  Until I was 20 years old I lived on a farm, and my head was constantly full of images and situations that I needed to bring to life. “Grandma” was born from a personal need to pay homage to the rural world in which I was raised. It is a complex world, with aspects both good and bad; I don’t mean to idealize it, but now this world (as I knew it) is disappearing.

In a tale or rupture and reconciliation, how in other ways did you approach directing “Grandma”? Setting and season seem vital, for example.

On the farm – in the rural world – humans and nature live together and complement one another; they cannot be understood as anything other than a complex whole. Eighty grandmothers ago we lived in the Neolithic. This is what the artist Jorge Oteiza said. And Amaia picks it up in the film. It disturbs me how close we are to this primitive world. I like to think that something of what we are today comes from the wisdom of our forebears 5,000 years ago, who knew how to transmit it across 80 generations. There are still people living on farms today who have very little contact with the modern world. These people are much closer to primitive reality, and this fascinates me; it is perhaps a characteristic Basque contrast, people living in separate worlds even under the same roof.

This is not an anti-rural film. In the last sequence where a vision of nature and where the protagonist has come from segues to an almost film-framed image through the back window of Amaia’s car, nature, origins nurtures art, you seem to be saying, in a personal endnote. To what extent, was the film inspired by your own life and a celebration of parts of rural life, the caserio for example?

I know traditional Basque farms very well. I lived on one until I was 20. I am part of the farm. I am part of the chain reaching back into the past, and of the brutal changes that have transformed the rural world; I am part of the first Basque generation for which the farmhouse is not the center of the universe. Nothing in the film is an actual occurrence. It is a total fiction, and yet at the same time it is an effort to return to my childhood. Memories from my youth, both real and imagined, are very present in this film. For example, my grandmother was very similar to Amama in her attitude, her way of being in the kitchen – present but at the same time absent – or at least that’s how I remember it. The scenes of the whole family together collecting the hay bring me straight back to my childhood.

“Grandma” seems light years away from “Aupa Extebeste!” but nearer perhaps to other films you’ve directed.

I’ve changed in my narrative style; there has been an evolution in language. I think I’m relying more on images, on the gaze of the characters, rather than on dialogue. I still feel like I can go further; I want to look for new languages, experiment. Every time I approach a new project I try to do something new, live a new experience, grow with each film. This is why I try not to repeat myself. I think the only thing that has never changed is my approach to each project. Cinema for me has always been intimately connected to life. Making films is a vital need, something that comes out from somewhere inside me…stories live inside me for years and suddenly flower.

Could you talk about the production company behind “Grandma”?

Txintxua Films is a company that the producer Marian Fernandez Pascal and I created in 2008. It was born of the need to create a personal cinema, between friends; without external pressures. It is a small company and it allows us to make films in our own way with complete freedom.

Your film is the second Basque-language title in competition in two years after “Loreak,” which Jay Weissberg in Variety called an “elegantly lensed, heartwarming drama.” Can one talk in any way about a renaissance in Basque Cinema?

I would say that Basque film has matured. We are part of a generation of filmmakers that has a lot of shared experiences. We share a language, we are friends, we make film, we go to festivals. For us it is a natural evolution, and what we started doing in shorts we are now doing in feature-length films. They are films with personality; simple, quality films that can be programmed at international festivals, which opens the doors to international distribution.

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