Spain’s Carlos Saura on Recovering the Song and Dance of his Childhood

Saura’s latest musical, “J: Beyond Flamenco” world premieres in Toronto Masters

Beyond Flamenco
Courtesy of Latido Films

“In my own village, where I was born, the Middle Ages lasted until World War I,” Luis Buñuel wrote at the beginning of his autobiography “My Last Breath,” referring to Calanda, in Aragon, northern Spain. 40 years or so after Buñuel wrote these words, his friend Carlos Saura, also from Aragon and the leading light of the 1960s New Spanish Cinema (“La Caza,” “Peppermint Frappe”), returns to his homeland in “J: Beyond Flamenco,” which plays in Toronto’s Masters section. It presents very often modern high-art performances of its ancient regional strain song and dance, the jota.

Saura is a man on a mission. Catching attention with his debut, “Los Golfos” (1959), over a near-50 year career span, he has portrayed the suffering and dreams of youth living on the big city margins (“Deprisa, Deprisa,” 1980), the hurt and confusion of childhood traumas (“Raise Ravens, 1975”), the merits of filmmaking (“Elisa, My Love,” 1977) and Spain’s halting attempts to emerge from its past (“MamaTurns One Hundred,” 1978).

Not all of the past has to be discarded, however. And the past is still much more present in Spain, in many ways for good, than in most countries. When Imperio Argentina sang and danced jotas in Florian Rey’s 1935 love story “Nobleza Baturra,” she rated as the biggest star the Spanish cinema has ever seen. Since then, the popularity of the jota and its status as art form have sagged. From 1980’s “Blood Wedding,” a filmed dance adaptation of the classic Lorca stage play, Saura has developed an aesthetic arsenal to film dance and song: Split and video screens, mirrors, silhouetted figures behind giant transparent backdrops, primary colors. He brings all this to play – incorporating his own paintings as backdrops at times – to record and argue the artistic potential of the jota and its closeness to other music in Spain, such as flamenco: In one highlight of the film, flamenco star Sara Barras struts flamenco as Miguel Angel Berna, jota’s best known performer, weaves towards and around her, dancing jota. Above all, Saura aims to suggest the inclusiveness of jota as popular art. Adopting the format of choreographed tableaux, “J: Beyond Flamenco” runs an extraordinary gamut in the age, origin and expertise of its multifarious performers and performances, climaxing in a village fiesta scene in a country which knows how to fiesta like no other.

In Toronto for the world premiere of “J: Beyond Flamenco,” Carlos Saura fielded questions on his forty-first feature film.

Jota is part of a whole film lineage  – “Flamenco,” “Tango,” and “Fados.” But it sets itself apart. There’s an emphasis is on inclusiveness. It’s permed by a specialist, Miguel Angel Bernal, his eight-year-old-or-so students, a elderly couple, young pro dancers, a while village. Could you comment?

I’m trying to move forward along an enriching path in musicals. Every film is a new gamble, though made with a style that began developing years ago. These movies have no plot nor story, though they are linked via a variety of performance, scenery and lighting. But there is also an attempt to renovate and update jota. To do this, I have had the best artists in every one of its specialities.

One of the film’s highlights for me is the dance between Sara Baras and Miguel Angel Berna. It is not fusion: She dances flamenco, he dances jota. But they are compatible. Flamenco for a long time has been accepted as an art form. One of the goals of “J: Beyond Flamenco” appears to be to show that jota has little to envy compared to flamenco, except perhaps in terms of that recognition.

The jota, like so many other things in Spain, has been forgotten, although it is still present in popular celebrations and especially in Aragon. It is known for its influence on some aspects of flamenco. The most important thing for me was to open up new pathways for traditional jota, and construct bridges between jota and other dances and music better known outside of Spain.

Another facet of the film is the amazing variety of performances, in styles, tempos, artists, and  instruments. Does that reflect on the flexibility of the jota and its influence on other dances?

It plumbs the similarities between jota and other musical cultures, the influences of the East and especially the Arab world that occupied Spain for more than seven centuries. Also there are French and Italian influences as well as other Spanish schools of dance, not only flamenco, but the classical Spanish school of dance, boleros, and the old fandangos (Bocherinni, Scarlatti, Soler…).

As someone born in Aragon, was the choice of some songs influenced by jotas you had heard as a child? And has it been a more emotional experience going back to the songs and dances of your native region to some extent, than when you documented and staged music other countries and regions?

For me doing something in and about Aragon was always something I had pending after having made seven musicals with no narrative. Since childhood, I have seen people dancing the jota, my mother and sister at home, for instance. Every year there are gatherings and dances in Aragon. I have always admired the jota. And, yes, it’s very emotional to recover rhythms that you have lived since your childhood and discover new possibilities that the jota has to offer.

Today, people seem to want to sense their roots in an increasingly globalized world. Governments are increasingly recognising creative industries as an engine of economic growth. Has there been a revival in the jota in Aragon?

I hope the film will show that the jota doesn’t just still exist but is in good health. The jota has always been danced in Aragon. When Imperio Argentina recorded “Nobleza Baturra” the jota was at its peak. It is true that little-by-little the jota has been disappearing, though it’s still alive. With this film, as with my musicals about flamenco, tango, or fados, we wanted jota to be more and better known.

Do you think this celebration of culture is all the more necessary and vital, one of the battle lines of modern Spanish cinema? 

I don’t know, it could be one line for Spanish cinema to follow. recovering culture from the past. At least, that’s what I’m doing. I feel more comfortable working with materials that I understand best. It’s an accepted limit, to continue to make these musical films with the maximum control of costs. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be making fresh and modern and more creative and imaginative films.