“Sometimes Directing is Not Saying Anything and Just Putting Vodka Shots in Front of People”: Luis López Carrasco on El Año del Descubrimiento at Rotterdam 2020
At a festival as big as the International Film Festival Rotterdam, early screenings are essentially shots in the dark. There is no buzz yet, and most films have little written about them or are by filmmakers whose previous works have received relatively little exposure. I opted on the second day to give Luis López Carrasco’s El Año del Descubrimiento a shot partly because I had heard of his previous feature, El Futuro, but mostly because its 200-minute runtime helped it to stand out amid a slate of films I knew next to nothing about. From the very beginning, its use of split-screen gave me flashbacks to watching—of all things—Chelsea Girls, and I felt confident I had a made good decision. When I exited the theater 3.5 hours later, I knew I had seen something special and was pleased to hear others raving. For the rest of the festival, almost every conversation with a new acquaintance turned toward it, and the thrill of discovery reminded me why I had always wanted to attend a festival like Rotterdam.
El Año del Descubrimiento provocatively blends past and present, portraying Spain after the deindustrialization of the 1980s and early 1990s and after the 2008 global financial crisis through the eyes of working-class subjects in bars and cafes in the city of Cartagena. López Carrasco gives his subjects ample screen time to state their views and argue with one another, but they are made to look and sound like they could be referring to either period. TV and radio audio from the past bleeds into conversations, and patrons smoke indoors—outlawed in 2011—even while discussing the present. The split-screen technique, on display through most of the film, further lends a sense of multiplicity and interconnectedness to the film, but if the El Año del Descubrimiento’s subject initially seems impossibly large, patience is rewarded. Its duration allows its editing patterns to emerge, the formal and political parallels between past and present to announce themselves, and the thesis to took shape.
Just prior to his flight back to Spain, López Carrasco was kind enough to make time to discuss filming and structuring such an ambitious film, his influences and when to simply buy drinks for your performers and let them be.
Filmmaker: Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of the project?
López Carrasco: This film is really connected to my first feature film, El Futuro, which was a new vision of the ugly ’80s. It was about a party of young people, supposed to be 1982, and when I finished, this film looked like found footage or home movies somebody could take at one of those parties in the ’80s. I had the feeling in the end that I was portraying the ’80s in the usual way—as a moment of freedom, happiness, celebration of the middle class—even though I was trying to criticize that way of considering democracy. It was really connected to the end of the dictatorship and beginning of democracy.
I thought, at the beginning of my new project, it should look to the same period but from a very different place. I decided to research the deindustrialization, because that affected a lot of people in Spain. Then I remembered, when I was 11, I watched on TV as the Parliament of my region was burning. I’m from Murcia, and the parliament is in Cartagena. When I asked my family and parents in Murcia what happened in 1992 with Parliament, they didn’t remember it at all. They thought I was inventing it. So, I decided to make a film about it because nobody remembered it. For me, that was a good reason to start.
Filmmaker: Why do you think everyone forgot?
López Carrasco: There are many factors. The principle factor is that everyone—the public, the majority of Spanish society—were really, really concerned and worried about wanting to make the Olympic games work really well. We had this feeling in Spain, about being underdeveloped, arriving late all the time to wealth, to modernity…it was an important moment of hope. I think that’s the idea. The whole society was just looking to an international event and nothing could spoil it. If there was some labor conflict, it was “let’s solve that, okay, but the important aspect is to give this good impression for the international community.”
At the same time, there were so many conflicts, so many protests, that they were in the back of the mind, [on] the television, all the time. In the end, the middle class, even though they consider themselves leftist, really maybe don’t care very much about the working-class programs. So for me, that would be the two main aspects.
Filmmaker: You wanted to make a film about what happened in 1992, but you also made a film about what’s happening today. When did you realize that was the case? Were you always aware you were making a film about the present?
López Carrasco: In the conception of the film we had this idea to connect two crises in time: The 1992 crisis, and the current crisis that comes from the 2008 crisis but is still happening in Spain. The idea was linking these two crises with the social class that suffered from both the most. I, with my team, designed something that could be from 1992 but at the same time could look like the current time with their hair, their dress, the video format, I was trying to give this ambiguity so the spectator is not sure at the beginning which time it is. Because at the same time, I was completely sure the film was going to happen in closed space. This closed space is also a kind of limbo that this social class is not able to escape.
Filmmaker: You have these really striking scenes, where you see something that looks like it is happening in the present but you hear TV or radio audio from the early ’90s. Is that the same idea?
López Carrasco: Yes, I wanted to give this feeling, this atmosphere, that this bar could be in 1992 or today. The main idea is that it’s interesting that some of the characters say, maybe, “my dad lost a lot of things because of the crisis”—it’s very hard to know which crisis this person is referring to. Of course, with the TV and the radio I wanted to give some information about the general feeling of the 1992 events. And those commercials, for me, are very expressive, they evoke that time.
Filmmaker: The other immediately striking device of the film is the split screen. When did that come about, and were you thinking at all of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, which particularly the beginning reminded me of?
López Carrasco: I always think of Chelsea Girls, every time I am starting a project. It’s a film that I watch very often and it’s an important film for me also in terms of length, of mise-en-scene, of framing. I was completely sure the film was only going to have close-ups, that the voice and the faces were going to be the main point of the film, because I was really interested in a lot of Fred Wiseman’s films. Then we had a lot of sequences shot with two cameras, and the way we watched this footage was with two screens at the same time, for synchronicity. The first day we watched it with this split screen, my editor and I decided to build the whole film with this device.
I had a feeling that it expanded the space. I feel like I’ve been thinking of having breakfast every morning in a cafeteria in my neighborhood, with this experience of being in a closed space listening to one conversation but at the same time looking to another customer, then shifting to another conversation by sound and then looking elsewhere. This immersive experience of having different focuses in the screen was, for me, achieved more closely with the split screen.
Filmmaker: Near the end of the film, or the last hour or so, we get less of that. We get long interviews with the different union leaders. When did the structure of the film and the choice to end with very declarative political readings begin to take shape?
López Carrasco: We found the 45 characters of the film in many different ways. Some of the people that appear in that third part were the original people that participated in the events and we were interviewing them just to understand what happened. At the beginning they were just a source of information. I was trying to do a more fictional reenactment, but when I met all these people that hadn’t been listened to, ever, me and my screenwriter decided they should appear in the film, not just be sources of information.
At the same time, we were trying to cast workers and unemployed people of the present-day in Cartagena. We made open casting [calls] looking for stories of how they experienced work and how they live. My screenwriter was in the streets, asking some friends also to be a part of the movie. Most of the relationships with them during shooting was speaking to them in a very informal way—a conversation you could have with a waiter—and then starting to make them interact with each other.
But with these original leaders, even though we also asked them about personal experiences, the way I portrayed them was more than an interview alone. I wasn’t so interested in making them interact but to instead fully understand what happened. It is very complex because there were a lot of sectors, a lot of companies, many many things going on. In the end, after the riot—the original footage of the protests that you see—the bar is empty. These voices are appearing, but you don’t really have the feeling that this is open to the public. That’s also the reason we decided to let them go on, as if they were voices that belonged to that kind of closed space, not really connected to the streets. We were trying to work this limbo idea.
Filmmaker: You mentioned working with a screenwriter—there’s also a disclaimer at the end of the film stating that the opinions people express might not correspond to those they actually hold. How much of what we hear is scripted?
López Carrasco: There were some fiction sequences that were not included in the final edit, but some of the characters—the young characters—tried to develop certain roles and, at the same time, were representing an aspect of themselves. None of the speeches that appear in the film have been already written. Not at all. But at the same time, I have the feeling that as they were performing—in the end—certain aspects of their life, they might not necessarily agree now with what they expressed in the film because they were fighting with someone else. You may agree with the other people who are speaking or disagree, but the dynamic of the conversation is so long—we worked with them for two or three hours—that I considered they may not agree with that version of themselves. I always remember the end of Chronicle of a Summer, where the people of the film see themselves on the screen. I decided that could be a necessary disclaimer.
Filmmaker: How much footage did you shoot?
López Carrasco: 60 hours.
Filmmaker: And El Futuro was only 67 minutes. This one pushes three-and-a-half hours. Were there any significant differences in production that relate to those lengths, or was that again a decision made in the editing room?
López Carrasco: El Futuro was shot in 16mm, so we only had 4 hours of footage, of negative. It was shot in two days. It was conceived to portray these parties. This new film was much bigger: we had a bigger budget, we were able to pay all these salaries, even though both are independent films.
I was completely sure that this film was going to three, four, five hours, just because of the amount of characters. And there are references I have—for example, films with many characters like La Commune by Peter Watkins, or the films of Wiseman that are three hours long, and also Spanish documentaries from the ’70s, films by Joaquin Jardà like De Nens, which is also very long, or Después de by Cecilia Bartolomé, or Informe General by Pere Portabella. These films are long because they are trying to portray certain social realities with detail. The details are important in these films, they go deep into certain aspects. They also have this wide collective portrait. So I knew the film was going to be long, it was going to have four chapters. There was one chapter we took out because it was describing more specifically the dictatorship of Franco and the struggle of the dissidents in the Franco dictatorship and other dissident political stories—but we decided to leave that part for a new project. But it’s already shot.
Filmmaker: Oh, that’s great.
López Carrasco: Yes, I made three or four films in one strike! Also important was El Sopar, with people having dinner and speaking about their time in jail. It was shot the same day that some of the last people were executed, one of the last political executions. El Sopar was a big influence. And the Joaquin Jardà work De Nens and other movies were also very interesting because they tried to mix documentary with more-or-less fiction mise-en-scene.
Filmmaker: I know one of the primary reasons for shooting this time on digital and previously on 16mm for El Futuro was about capturing the time period, but what limitations and freedoms did each enable for you?
López Carrasco: Well, I think both films have the same meaning for me in the way. I used to write also, short stories and narrative science-fiction. Literature is much cheaper and I enjoy it very much. For me, making movies is very connected to the material aspect of filmmaking and working with actual people, so the idea of both films was creating a collective environment and then not controlling the situation too much.I like to make films because in the shooting the characters of the films become rich points that my imagination cannot reach. That, for me, is the main idea of my filmmaking. The other directors can do whatever, but for me that’s the main point. Otherwise, I prefer to write quietly in my home.
At the same time, in this film there was something new that I didn’t really develop in El Futuro, which was the spoken word. The spoken word was the main vehicle of this film. In El Futuro I was speaking with the middle-class. I was speaking, in the end, about my family and friends. In fact, the people in El Futuro are my friends. With this film, I had to discover a world that I really didn’t know, even though my grandparents were living in the ’80s in Cartagena and I have very good memories of my childhood in Cartagena visiting my grandparents. I was going into an industrial, working-class Cartagena world which was really far away from me.
My screenwriter is the son of one of those workers, so it was really important to me that he was bringing things to the film from his own life. In fact, many of the characters of the film are his friends from his school or his neighborhood. He is the guy at the beginning of the film, the waiter. That is one of the differences. And in the end, El Futuro is a night film and El Año del Descubrimiento is a daylight film. So we had to work with the people in a little different way. It was inviting them to a lot of drinks and letting them do whatever they want to do. There is one thing I discovered in El Futuro: sometimes directing is not saying anything and just putting vodka shots in front of people. It’s important to understand when you don’t have to do anything.