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Rural Andalucia in the 1930s: La Memoria de los Olivos

November 21, 2013 – 12:41 pm
Memory of the olive trees is a moving film about an Andalucian family in the Civil War.

The Memory of the Olive Trees is a moving film about a humble Andalucian family at the outset of the Civil War.

As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, I am very interested in Spanish history. I’ve reviewed books for Books4Spain, watched films, and am always seeking to learn more about what happened during the terrible years of Civil War, and the decades of dictatorship which followed.

Memoria de los Olivos, film, movie, Andalucia, Civil War, Guerra Civil

Landscape where the La Memoria de los Olivos was shot - the Sierra Norte de Sevilla, with its fields of olive trees visible in the distance. Photo: Javier Polo.

Last week I saw a movie screened as part of the Seville Film Festival, now finished, which gave an insight into what life was like for rural Andalucians at that time – the 1930s. La Memoria de los Olivos tells the story of a man, his daughter and his son who live together in a simple cortijo (farmhouse) outside a small provincial town in the Sierra of Seville, to the north of the city. The girl works in a sewing workshop, and her father and brother are labourers, tending olive trees.

The father confronts his brother outside the house which is the subject of family conflict.

A still from on location: the father (centre) confronts his brother (right) outside the house which is the subject of family conflict. Photo: Javier Polo

Their house is typical for poor Andalucian farm workers in those days: one room where food is cooked in a pot over the fire, and eaten sitting at a table – they would have slept on the floor, on mattresses or beds put away during the day. There is no electricity or plumbing, and the only means of contact with the outside world – a radio – is in a bar in town. The first time we see a car is at the end of the film, being driven by some Falanguists.

The plot is straightforward and the dialoque unadorned, but the film’s impact lies in its simple but powerful black and white visuals: the father leaving for a day in the fields, carrying his hoe on his shoulder and a basket of provisions, with his son, who is a deaf-mute, holding the bucaro (traditional clay pot with two spouts) of water.

Guardia Civil arrive at the house. Photo: Javier Polo

Guardia Civil arrive at the house. Photo: Javier Polo

Into this quiet life, in the summer of 1936, come crashing the Falangist troops. Those with “red” connections are victimised, humiliated and summarily sacked from their jobs; people are denounced by neighbours and family, whether correctly or not, sometimes to settle a grudge, and often detained without confirming their whereabouts to the family. This is the fate of their father, the victim of a family feud over who rightfully owns house where they live.

A group of townspeople wait at the train station.

A group of townspeople wait at the train station. Photo: Javier Polo

The movie was filmed in various locations around Seville and Huelva provinces, with the same steep, windy cobbled streets and aged wooden front doors appearing again and again. Technically, the film relies heavily on close-ups of the protagonists’ faces – this is a personal story, about how the war affects the lives of a small group of people, and what happens to them. Its feel is old-fashioned, intentionally, thanks to the use of black and white; there are no flashy technical effects. Similarly, the script is straightforward and with no frills. The shoot took place over a period of just two weeks, in Seville and Huelva provinces, using mostly theatre actors, many with no film experience. This explains why some of the gestures are a little stagey and melodramatic, reminiscent of 1920s silent black-and-white movies. But it works.

The realism and visual starkness are a striking, and welcome, contrast to the high-tech optical feasts we’re usually treated to at the cinema these days. This is pared-down story-telling. The scenes are interspersed, and neatly book-ended, by real footage from the Civil War showing soldiers advancing across fields, trucks evacuating civilians, and planes flying over towns. Astonishingly, the budget for shooting La Memoria de los Olivos – without the archive footage or post-production – was less than 5,000 euros, as director Raul Romera told me.

If you get the chance, I urge you to see this film – for those who live in Spain, Canal Sur will be airing it in the next few months, so look out for trailers. It’s difficult to explain just how moving it is – but if you live in, or love Andalucia, it will grab you by the heart.

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