Javier Fernández Vázquez • Director of A Storm Was Coming
“For me, film direction is a political thing”
- BERLINALE 2020: With his first feature-length documentary directed solo A Storm Was Coming, Javier Fernández Vázquez questions the official version of Spanish colonial history in Africa
The director, researcher and university lecturer Javier Fernández Vázquez (Bilbao, 1980), who’s also a member of the Los Hijos collective, is presenting A Storm Was Coming [+see also:
interview: Javier Fernández Vázquez
film profile] in the Forum section of the 2020 Berlinale, a documentary which challenges the official Spanish version of colonial history, in particular that relating to Equatorial Guinea. We chatted with the filmmaker ahead of his trip to the German capital.
Cineuropa: Were there any personal reasons for your journey to Guinea or was it purely for scientific purposes?
Javier Fernández Vázquez: There weren’t any personal reasons, in the sense that my family and I don’t have any links with Equatorial Guinea. I first became interested in the country around ten years ago, while I was studying History of Cultural Anthropology. I’d started to read about the research which many anthropologists had carried out on the collusion between discipline and colonialism, usually English or French authors. But when I tried to find similar information in writings about Equatorial Guinea - the only sub-Saharan African territory controlled by the Spanish - I found little to no records of what happened in that period. This increased my interest in the problem Spain seems to have with remembering history. I realised that colonial history was no exception to this rule. My first journey there was with the Los Hijos collective, to film one part of Árboles. After that experience, and the connection I felt with the place, I thought I should go back and carry on investigating this lack of memory, or indifference, which prevails in Spain.
How did the filming process go? What difficulties did you face?
Although some of the footage does come from that trip with Los Hijos in 2012, we also had a further two periods of filming in Equatorial Guinea once the project was underway. The first was in 2014, where I obtained most of the footage of a few of the places shown in the film, and was able to check whether the facts we cover – the death of Esáasi Eweera – were part of some kind of longstanding historical memory. I had the support of the Malabo Spanish Cultural Centre for the trip, and I obtained filming authorisation, which is a very complicated thing given that this is a regime which doesn’t allow freedom of movement, and obtaining a visa there is complicated if you don’t have Spanish institutional support. The second trip was in 2018 and, thanks to the writer Justo Bolekia Boleká, who appears in the film with his daughter, I was able to make contact with some very kind people who told me everything they’d heard about Eweera from previous generations. At this point, I knew we already had enough material. But this journey was more complicated because I only obtained a filming permit for the capital. It was also in 2018, during two days of shooting in Madrid, that we filmed the Spanish actors and readings of the texts in a studio. But the main difficulty was funding the film, an issue which I was only able to resolve once I’d obtained an artistic creation grant from Madrid City Council in 2017.
There are many directors who challenge official versions of history. Do you consider yours to be a political film? Is it, now, more important than ever to question what we’ve always believed to be true?
I think so. We took a stand in favour of oral histories and discussions that challenge power; in this case, the colonial power which produced those official documents (which are, by the way, full of huge contradictions, some of them almost laughable). And the way in which I positioned the camera and framed the subjects as they read (from behind, through profile shots or face-on) depending on the origin of each text, for example, was just one other method of taking a stand. For me, film direction is a political thing. It’s always important to question established “fact”, but now, with the wave of reactionary nationalism that’s sweeping across Europe, it’s more important than ever. The discourse peddled by the right, who talk about how “good” the Spanish empire was, for example, dismissing and forgetting the atrocities that were committed… it’s dangerous. It’s a two-pronged attack on the dignity of those who were colonised.
As a teacher, do you pass on the importance of film as a social instrument to your students?
I try to do so, as much as possible, by making the connection between techniques and audiovisual language and the effect they can have on the viewer and, in the case of documentaries, on the subjects who appear in them. But I don’t just focus on film; I focus on all kinds of audiovisual products, because I think this enriches the learning experience.
(Translated from Spanish)
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