Directed with Asier Aituna, Telmo Esnal’s 2005 film “Aupa Etxebeste!” was a founding stone of modern Basque cinema, a pertinent social comedy spoken in Basque, it won the Youth Award at San Sebastian and proved a major hit in the Basque Country. It opened the door to a Basque-language industry that Basques would embrace and, if made in a more arthouse vein, sell abroad. Thirteen years later, Esnal is back with a Basque musical. It begins with a laborer, seemingly centuries ago, hacking at barren desert. Others join him, their movements turning into a choral dance. With rain, a tree begins to grow, which is attacked by termites, saved by farmers, yields apples which, turned into cider, sparks a dance at a village, now in the early 20th century, where two young dancers meet, escape and finally celebrate their wedding. Celebrating a natural cycle – people’s, nature’s seasons – but looping this over several centuries, “Dantza” shows the Basque cinema not only scaling up in budget but broadening its range. Winning San Sebastian’s inaugural Glocal in Progress pix-in-post showcase last year, “Dantza” world premiered as a Special Screening at the festival, and screens at Rome’s MIA market. Variety talked to Esnal about a film that yokes ancient dance and stylistic innovation:
“Dantza” is a musical that celebrates a natural cycle. Has research shown that the dances seen in the film symbolize broader phenomena – the fire dance to ward off enemies? the apple dances a celebration of harvest? – or is this part of the filmmakers’ imagination?
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Many of the film’s dances are charged with symbolism, which Juan Antonio Urbeltz has been researching for years, and which I gave my own reading. The film reflects these working hypotheses. We’ve ordered the dances to tell a story. Some dances appear as they are in the film, others have been modified to help the narration. One example: the dance with the torches is a variation of the Ezpata Joko Nagusia sword dance, sword against sword. When creating two opposing sides, we decided to use torches. Torch (hachón) dances existed in the 17th century, but have fallen out of use lamentably. The apple dance in the loft has also been modified.
We’re talking about the almute dantza (the almud). This dance reinterprets an ancient Almute dantza which we unfortunately don’t know. Juan Antonio Urbeltz recreated it some 10-15 years ago. After dancing on the wooden boxes (almudes), the dancers performed on a wooden cup as a final challenge. We replaced this with an apple to help the film’s narrative.
Also, “Dantza” is a musical with context. It shares the taste for modulated primary color and sheer aesthetics of Carlos Saura’s dance films – but it’s a musical with context. The dances are set against spectacular settings: the cliff buffs of the Bardenas bad lands, Txindoki and other limestone buttresses for the first apple dance, a pristine village for the fiesta. The camera often cuts from closer shots of the dancers to wider shots. Why this interest in a broader context?
It’s all a consequence of the narrative. We needed to set the film in real spaces, giving a veracity to our story, which is very much linked to nature and the life cycle. We needed to see this nature, show the different seasons, but decontextualize the settings, so that they stood for not just our geography but were universal. We were also looking for a sense of atemporality, though showing an evolution. Not just in the costumes and props but milieus. We start in a desert, and end in an early 20th century village.
To what extent are the dances representations of real dances, or have they been choreographed a lot for a cinematographic performance? And do the dances come from different time periods. One has women wearing stylized rather eighteenth century brimmed bonnets, for example….
They’re all real dances, though adapted to the story. That adaptation varies. Usually, we’ve just made changes to help the story, though in some cases, we’ve reshaped the dance totally, but always based in a prior dance which existed.
“Dantza” and “Deer,” which you also produce and world premieres at San Sebastian, both broaden the range of a modern Basque cinema. Do you feel that, as leading auteurs such as Telmo shape the contours of this cinema – now making a sequel to a “Aupa Etxebeste!” a broad comedy, though with bang on social point – that this range is important.
As a producer, I need to explore ways of making films, working with directors who are exploring different questions and proposals, creating new challenges for Basque cinema. By way of new challenges, I don’t mean films of ever larger budgets and technical complexity but new issues and different and original ways of addressing them. As an industry, Basque cinema is relatively small and “young”: But we’ve already shown that technically we can face complex challenges, and do so with considerable quality. I’m working with cineastes I admire very much, who have a lot of talent, and are exploring new terrain. We’re seeing a great creative moment.
The film was part produced via an AIE. Was this a 30% Gipuzkoa tax credit? And how is the system of tax credits working now in Gipuzkoa?
Yes. The film completed its financing thanks to an investor using an AIE. The credit was highly necessary and worked very well indeed. Over the last few years, we’ve been producing in Gipuzkoa in a pretty stable fashion using the 30% tax credits. Producers and investors would still like a legal framework which allows us to maximize the tax credits and the creation of a tax rebate on local spend by international shoots which come here. We know Basque culture and tax authorities are working on this. We hope this can advance fast and we’ll soon have news.