Tuesday, February 14, 2017 at 7:30pm
Joris Ivens's The Spanish Earth + Frontier Films's Heart of Spain
155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn
Heart of Spain, Frontier Films, 1937, 16mm, 30 mins
The Spanish Earth, Joris Ivens, 1937, 16mm, 53 mins
This week, Light Industry presents two powerful anti-fascist films produced during the Spanish Civil War: Frontier Films’s Heart of Spain and Joris Ivens’s The Spanish Earth.
Frontier Films was founded in 1937 by members of leftist groups the New York Film and Photo League and Nykino, including artist Paul Strand, producer Leo Hurwitz, and writer Jay Leyda. Named after Alexander Dovzhenko's Siberian adventure picture Frontier, the new organization came together to create aesthetically advanced documentaries that could promote American progressivism and social justice. Heart of Spain was Frontier's first completed project, made with an eye towards encouraging American blood donations for Spanish Loyalists then fighting against insurgent right-wing Nationalists. The film played for nearly two months in New York following a successful Hollywood premiere, and later toured North America as part of a road show promoting aid for the Republican cause, featuring two specially-decorated military ambulances that transported the film, a projection crew, and a nurse from town to town. In this way, the film was seen by some two million viewers in the 1930s, at the height of American support for the Popular Front.
In order to make its case, Heart of Spain employs a dialectical structure of ”opposition, conflict, and contradiction," Hurwitz explained:
“The film opens with bombed buildings, Madrid in ruins—‘Blood has been spilled here.’ The war is treated in its effect on people, the spilling of blood. Then a sequence of normal living in the midst of war—people walking around, carts going by. This creates a need for life to go in spite of the torn city. Then there is an explosion and the first scenes of the fascist attack on Madrid—people running through the smoke-filled streets, children dug out of bomb craters. Again you return to a scene of a ‘normal’ city during war—recruits being trained, children playing at defense. Positive and negative needs are created in the audience....Such feelings derive from the actual experience of life in a city during war. In this way, as when you have a plot which actuates needs and empathy, one moves through the film identifying with the needs of the Spanish people to renew life in their fight against the fascists. When the actual blood transfusion sequence begins, a thematic basis for the film has already been constructed, which weaves together the specifics of medical aid with the social struggle. From this point on, the detailed events—what happens to the blood from donor to wounded soldier—carry with them the larger metaphor...And when you have defined that, then the relation of people in the blood episode becomes much more meaningful, because the nature of working together, of comradeship, becomes symbolized by the blood transfusion service.”
Complementing Heart of Spain is the contemporaneous Spanish Earth. Ivens’s project was backed by a group of prominent American literary figures—among them Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway—and its goal was to stir up support for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which included hundreds of volunteer fighters from the US. Otis Ferguson, one of the most enduring film critics of his moment, movingly described the film’s American debut in a column from September, 1937:
“Top place in importance for the week goes to the set of pictures Joris Ivens brought back from the Madrid area and has finally got edited, scored for music, and ready to go. His camera was in the fields, the rocking streets of the city, behind redoubts and with the tanks, sometimes in the advancing front line. He got as much of it as he could under such difficulties, sizing up not only perspective, sufficiency of lighting, the best points of shelter and focus, sizing up as well how each thing would fit with his idea. Then he took what he had and worked out his idea through it...
Though the camera never seems to get near enough the business end of things to catch the fearful symbol of the enemy or telltale thinning of the line (one figure falls; for the rest we get a particular group, the scream of a shell on the sound-track, and cut to a stock explosion), the picture is definitely on the side of the harsh truth, for there are plenty of close-ups of violent death after the fact, and the comment is beautifully explicit on the price men will pay—that advance in echelons of six, the six becoming five and the four three, and this is the way they go into action, not with trumpets. Yet one of the most convincing things about it is its abstention from bombast and sloganism...
It isn’t so much in the outward drama of the attack, the rattling trucks and tanks, breastworks and machine-gun placements and range-finders. These things are here but subordinated to a purpose, which is recorded in this camera simply because it is there in Ivens’ and Hemingway’s people—the serene grim cast of feature or carriage of the body, the fine figure of a man who comes up to address his brigade or parliamentary body. Men for the most part whose clouds of doubt and petty worry have burned off before a confident power imposing its symmetry from within. Relaxed, haggard, or plain dirty, one after another is seen on the screen going through his heavy job as though in very token of the fact that a million or ten thousand or even fifty such cannot be wrong. There is no need for vilification and babble of glory here; showing the Spanish land and the people related to it, the film does not have to raise its voice to be undeniable, its report a plain testimonial to the way men can be lifted clear beyond themselves by the conception of and full response to the epic demand of their time.”
Tickets - $8, available at door.
Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.