Spanish film festival in Islamabad

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Dec 7, 2013.

Islamabad – When the grey-haired Alvarez sings, he seems to channel an inner lived suffering that transcends the barriers of language. The voice that leaves his throat is a melodious, haunting cry, filled with pain and passion.

Alvarez, a “cantaor” or singer, is one of the main subjects of the 2011 Spanish documentary “Flamenco de Raiz” (literally “Flamenco from the Roots”), which was screened on the first day of the first-ever “Festival of Spanish Cinema in Islamabad” on Thursday. The festival is being held at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA).

The documentary by Spanish director Vicente Perez Herrero explores the dark and gritty reality of the culture of flamenco — a Spanish folk music-and-dance form that consists of singing, dancing, guitar playing and handclaps. The film also charts the exploitation and struggles of the artists who try to make a living off flamenco, which is often famous outside Spain for its dance component.

With a straw hat perched on his head and deep bags under his eyes, the goateed Alvarez, who has left professional singing and works as a street cleaner in Malaga, recounts for the documentary, with some bitterness, his own experiences as a child singer and the exploitation he and others faced on the streets.

Alvarez’s singing performances shown in the documentary familiarize the viewers with one of the two popular settings of a flamenco performance: the juerga, or an informal gathering that resembles a jam session. Alvarez is seen singing passionately — the verses almost always dark, his voice sometimes almost a wail — with an accompanying guitar player and people marveling at his song appearing in the frame.

Throughout the film, Alvarez tries to make it a point that even though he has not quit singing entirely, he would neither never return to it professionally nor wish his children to do it.

The other popular setting for the flamenco, the tablao or an establishment where people can go to watch flamenco performances, is explained through interviews with singer, guitar players, dancers, other musicians and experts.

Through these interviews, the documentary also establishes an anthropological view of flamenco, the way its culture thrived in Spain in the mid- and late-20th Century and the form in which it exists now.

The filmmakers juxtapose the anguish of now-retired artists with the excitement of young people who want to learn the art form: one scene shows an aging singer, Talegon De Cordoba, talking about memories of not getting paid and police crackdowns on flamenco artists from decades ago while another scene shows young girls from different Spanish-speaking countries, who have travelled to Spain to train as flamenco dancers, introducing themselves with earnest animation on their faces.

The role of aristocracy, which patronized flamenco private parties similar to private mehfils in Pakistan, is also scrutinized.

Prior to the screening, the Ambassador of Spain to Pakistan, Javier Carbajosa Sanchez, welcomed Pakistani and foreign guests to the opening ceremony of the festival, which is organised by the Embassy of Spain.

Sanchez said the Spanish Embassy was excited to showcase Spanish culture in Islamabad through films.

“We are delighted to bring the Spanish cinema festival to Islamabad,” Sanchez said. “It is a part of our attempts to have cultural exchanges with Pakistan and make elements of Spanish culture more accessible to Pakistanis.”

The festival will continue at the PNCA till Sunday, with one film to be shown each day.

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