Isona Passola “What distinguishes Barcelona is respect for freedom”

L’endemà [The Next Day], Isona Passola’s second political film, was a micro-sponsorship phenomenon that grossed €350,000. Passola was the producer of Pa negre [Black Bread] and is currently preparing the cinematic adaptation of Joan Sales’ Incerta glòria [Uncertain Glory]. She considers Barcelona a powerful centre of cinematographic experimentation, even though Catalan cinema has yet to find its mass audience.

© Pere Virgili

In view of your career as a film producer, it is hardly incidental to mention that you have a degree in contemporary history.

I have such good memories of studying history! It has helped me in my life, and in my profession, to choose themes, to focus not only on political documentaries but on fiction as well. I have always been a compulsive reader and I thought about studying literature, but there were such good history professors at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in the seventies – Reglà, Termes, Balcells, Riquer, Nadal, Fontana – that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity! During my career as a film producer, history always comes up; it seems I can’t escape it.

Cinema makes it possible to turn history into reality. One day, while shooting Pa negre, the spinning mills in Manlleu started up, and I again heard the sound of the machines, and realised that wisps of cotton were flying through the air, over the heads of the workers, and a wave of excitement swept over me… I told myself that you can make history happen suddenly, you can place it right before your eyes. Afterwards, when we made smoke billow from the chimneys, and mist was rising from the river, and the workers with bicycles and carbide lamps were out and about at five in the morning, it was beautiful! History is always with me; I have never left it behind.

Something else that is always with you is your ideological commitment. How has it influenced you professionally?

Having an ideological commitment – if it can be called that, as it has always been so natural for me that it forms part of my life – makes it possible to change the things I don’t like. I think being involved in the problems of society and this far-from-perfect country is positive: it makes you feel useful. I can’t stand passivity in the face of injustice, so for me it is very stimulating. People speak ill of politics, but they would do well to remember that if you do not do politics, others will do it for you.

At home, I saw a strong resistance to Francoism through cultural outlets, which gave great meaning to the lives of my father and my grandparents. So for me it is very natural, and that is not a merit: when people on the street thank me, I think, What for? Is it so fantastic? The good thing about this country, amid so many bad things, is that it can still be transformed.

How did you become interested in film?

When I was very young I was involved in theatre. Consequently, fiction has always interested me greatly. After studying history I started working at the University of Vic. There, we had the students debate among themselves as if they were historical figures, and we filmed them, which added some appeal. Then I signed up for an Introduction to Image course at the Institut del Teatre (Theatre Institute), and from there I made the leap to becoming a producer.

You created your own production company, Massa d’Or Produccions, in 1992. That was an important year for Barcelona.

Yes, I had done Despertaferro, one of the first animated films made here, which also had a historical theme. However, I was interested in fiction, and I found a French partner in Cannes who fell in love with that film and suggested we make a series of co-productions with Arte. So we formed Massa d’Or and made Els de davant [Those in Front] with Jesús Garay. The film is set in the Soviet Union and addresses Stalinism.

Almost all the films I have made have a historic element: El pianista [The Pianist], based on the novel by Vázquez Montalbán, about Barcelona’s historic district, El mar [The Sea], based on Blai Bonet’s novel about post-war Mallorca; Mirant al cel [Eyes on the Sky], about the bombardments during the Spanish Civil War; Pa negre [Black Bread], based on the novel by Emili Teixidor, about life in the factory. Producing requires a lot of energy, fundraising, going to markets, designing the equipment, supervising the shooting, being there for the editing… You put in many hours, sleepless nights, and weekends. You must believe in what you are doing; otherwise, it gives you no reward. That’s why I have to produce themes that interest me.

One of your characteristics as a producer is your use of Catalan literary texts as a basis for your films: El pianista, El mar, Pa negre and now Incerta glòria [Uncertain Glory].

I am very interested in the literature of this country, and moreover, I know it well. I have studied it and I love it. Also, it’s so difficult to come up with a well-written script. When you reflect on the psychological creation of the characters and the narrative structures for a novel, you already have a lot of clues as to how the film could be, right? When you read a novel, you can see if there is a cinematic structure or where you have to make adjustments to create one, and I like this a lot; in fact, at university I took classes in cinematic adaptation of literature, which ended up becoming my speciality.

Another of your characteristics has been working with directors who are not known for being commercial: for ex­ample, you made one of the last documentaries by Joaquim Jordà, De nens [About Children].

I risked a lot here, because Jordà wanted to talk about the “Raval case”, but until we went into the court and we saw how poorly one of the pillars of democracy functions, I didn’t see it turning into a film about justice in our country. How the judges scorned the accused, how they nodded off in the courtroom…

Anyway, I am obsessed with the idea that you must seek out your audience. Economic conditions have resulted in Catalan cinema specialising in low-budget and therefore very creative films. This has presented a good brand image abroad, and now Barcelona is a very important centre for cinematographic experimentation, but, on the other hand, we have not found the mass audience that other cinema has, such as French cinema. In France, 35% of revenue comes from French films, because the state provides a lot of support. In Spain, an average of 13% of viewers go to see Spanish films, and in Catalonia… I don’t even want to say it out loud!

We have to bring people closer to our cinema; closeness is a means of attraction that works everywhere. We have only solved this problem in television, with serials, which have satisfied this demand for closeness, but not in cinema. I don’t want to talk about Pa negre, because it is always put forward as an exception, but it demonstrated that we had an audience.

© Pere Virgili

You have been President of the Acadèmia del Cinema Català [Catalan Film Academy] for almost two years. Among the Academy’s priorities is the spread of Catalan cinema abroad, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the need to support it at home so that it can find its natural audience.

Cinema is a tool of cohesion for the country, of self-respect and self-knowledge; it is also the most important tool for getting known abroad. It’s incredible to go around the world screening a film like Pa negre, and you have all the press with you from a country as far away as Hong Kong, and you can tell them about your country, what your life is like, which language you speak…

In Catalonia, we have not been able to have a cinema with the same creative potential that the country gives to the other arts, such as fine arts and theatre… This is a pressing matter, and it’s why I am leading the Acadèmia: to contribute to putting the cultural centrality of cinema within the political centrality that culture should have. The cultural budget of the Catalan Regional Government does not even reach 1%, and that is a disgrace. We should have at least 2%, in accord with culture’s economic return, which is something no government has understood. I can’t understand how, knowing the role that culture can have in a country with no state, it has been so abandoned. And I would like to stress that cinema is an industry, but it is also culture.

Culture must therefore be seen not as a luxury but as an indispensable element of society.

At home, culture is not taken seriously even though it forms part of the welfare state. Culture is education for adults: when you leave school you continue to nurture a critical spirit, a thirst for information and excitement. Culture is a mainstay of the welfare state, like health and education. We have to fight for it so that institutions understand and propose a solution. The more culture there is, the more wealth there is; not the contrary. It is not “Now we are rich, so we can pay for culture”. This is the lesson Spain has not understood, and Catalonia has not done well to learn it either.

What role does Barcelona have in the spread of Catalan cinema abroad?

Our image is one of a very open city, very respectful, very diverse, and I think that this is one of the country’s identifying traits. Sometimes people think that identifying traits are language, etc., but the trait that really distinguishes us, makes us modern and makes us believe that we are an incubator for how testing out a future society should be, is our great respect for freedom. That’s Barcelona, and I think it’s a fantastic brand image. And this can be shown through cinema.

Barcelona has been a very important production centre for advertising, although this has now partly shifted to Madrid; we did it very well and it was highly valued. This means that we have solid production infrastructure, although it has been affected by the economic crisis. This is something we should not let go of. We also have very good professionals, very creative people, and universities that are preparing their students very well. Consequently, we have everything that any capital requires for films to be shot here: structures, logistical support, technicians, etc., and lighting, which is very important, because if you have to shoot during the day and at five it’s already dark…

So there is a base for the industry, albeit affected by the crisis, and furthermore, we have university faculties that train good professionals, but these young people cannot find work!

At the moment we have a considerable brain drain. The good people leave. I hope they treat it as practical experience and bring back what they have learned, because the country is bleeding talent. I don’t want to compare it to the exile of 1939, but… We have to make a state that works, to get back the best so that they can occupy the positions they should be occupying.

Aren’t we making too many films? Shouldn’t we be making fewer and concentrating our efforts?

We are producing a lot, with very high quality standards, but with very low budget standards, which does not make us competitive. La plaga [The Plague] is one example: it is a great film, very creative, but made with very little money. Thus it is difficult to go out and compete. However, I am sure its director, Neus Ballús, will be given a good budget and, with the talent she has, make a film that is absolutely competitive.

Consequently, certain normalised budget standards are required that would allow competition under equal conditions. In the last edition of the Gaudí awards, the average budget of the films chosen was well below the European average; this is something that must be resolved; we need to have normal budgets again in order to sustain the diversity and thus, obviously, to also stimulate cinema filmed in Catalan. But we should also be able to film in English and in whatever language is appropriate. We should not forget that cinema is also an industry.

As a director, you have made two films with a clear political intention, Cataluña-Espanya [Catalonia-Spain] and, now, L’endemà [The Next Day]. What sets each one apart?

In L’endemà it was wonderful to be able to explain what you would want your country to be like, but Cataluña-Espanya was also important, because never before has the issue been discussed directly, putting thinkers from both sides face to face and without fear. It was an absolutely dedramatising film. I presented it throughout Catalonia, and it was very well received by the intelligentsia, as it was much more intellectualised than L’endemà, a film made for a much wider audience. While Cataluña-Espanya placed all the emphasis on the discourse, in L’endemà the discourse remained in the hands of the thinkers, and the emotion –and there is a lot because I made it epic – is in the hands of the actors and the crowd and choral sequences, etc. Cataluña-Espanya aimed directly at the head, and in L’endemà we take a step further and aim at the head and heart to target a wider audience so that the film is for all of society and not just for the elite.

The film was possible thanks to crowdfunding.

It was a pleasure making it with the freedom given to me by the sponsors… 8,163 people who say, “We’ll put the money in; do what you want,” and only one of them told me that he didn’t like it! Thus the film was made not for the sponsors, but rather with a very open-minded vision. It was a fantastic experience.

So, crowdfunding is the future that we must adapt to?

It is for small projects. It allows you to escape from the banks, but it has a clear limit. A medium-size European film has a budget of around €4 million, and with L’endemà I managed a European record of €350,000. It is excellent for music and for books because the people end up producing what they want. Also, it can almost be taken for granted that the final product will do well in the market, if enough people want to pay. Those in the know say that in order for micro-sponsorship to work, there must be three elements: that it follows a very cross-cutting theme, that there is a person behind it whose career will give it credibility and that there is a good connection with the social networks and the media. In Catalonia, where there is a very structured society that has become unbeatable with the internet, micro-sponsorship has a great future.

You appear very excited about the Incerta glòria project.

Yes, I think it will be a great film.

Why did you choose that work?

I had it in my head for a long time. When I was taking a course in directing actors in New York, I met David Rosenthal, who had just finished translating Tirant lo Blanc [The White Knight] into English – which became a mediaeval bestseller that you can find in supermarkets –, and I remember that we talked a lot about Incerta glòria. What’s more, it is a producible concept: as with Pa negre, I can produce it with the budgets we have here. It wasn’t hard to convince Agustí Villaronga to direct it. He is also a good reader and became hooked immediately. I think we have a great script that is very rounded. And the script is everything!

Josep M. Muñoz

Director of L’Avenç

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *