Doc on a scandalous court decision in the Basque city of Altsasu.
Hi Eoin, thanks for talking to TNC, how is your 2020 going?
Hi. Lovely to chat to you. The year's going well so far. I'm back in Scotland for a while, and will be in Berlin this weekend for the festival, so that's very exciting. After that I'll head back to Mexico City, where I'm working on some new documentary projects which I hope to develop over the next year.
Congratulations on having Altsasu selected to British Shorts, what does it mean to you to be part of such a great showcase for British Films?
It's a real honour to be selected alongside such talents, and screen alongside films from Hannah Currie, Ross McClean and Inma de Reyes, three friends and colleagues who came through the Scottish Documentary Institute's Bridging the Gap documentary filmmaking scheme with me. Most importantly, though, the festival is a chance for people to see a film which I hope will raise awareness about the Altsasu case, and which I hope will move people to action.
Altsasu has its World Premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival, what was that experience like for you?
The World Premiere in Edinburgh was a fantastic, though slightly surreal experience. I was brought up just outside Edinburgh, so it meant a lot to screen my first ever film there. As well as sharing the day with my friends and family, the most moving aspect was having my protagonist Igone, her husband Epe, sister Idoia and brother-in-law Fernando over from Altsasu for the screening. To have them there with me was an honour and a privilege, though certainly increased my nerves.
Do you ever get nervous ahead of a festival screening?
This was my first ever festival screening as a director and I had the nerve-wracking prospect of a bilingual, English and Spanish Q&A after the films were shown, so aye, my heart was pounding! Added to that was the fact that this was the first time I'd seen my film on a cinema screen, but thankfully it was very well received. The Q&A went very well, with Igone joining me on stage. In the end a good dose of adrenaline and a friendly crowd made it a very enjoyable experience.
What are the biggest challenges that face an independent filmmaker?
An obvious challenge is securing funding for projects. I've been very fortunate in that I've received support, financial and practical, from the Scottish Documentary Institute and Creative Scotland/Screen Scotland. While such support is available, for a new, independent filmmaker it can be daunting to negotiate the vital business of networking, pitching, developing and realising projects. So much time is spent by filmmakers on aspects of the process which are often far removed from the creative side of documentary, but these are necessary skills to learn.
Can you tell me a little bit about Altsasu, how did this film come about?
I first read about the Altsasu case in an article in Private Eye, a British magazine most well-known for its satire, but with some great investigative journalism. It was an article about repression in the Spanish state and attacks on political and social movements, from what I can remember. In the text were a few brief lines about the Altsasu case in the Basque Country, and my interest was immediately piqued. To summarise the case: there was an altercation in a bar in the small town of Altsasu in October 2016, involving two off-duty paramilitary Guardia Civil officers, their two girlfriends, and some young people of the town. One of the cops broke his ankle during the fracas, but there were no other significant injuries. There's a bit too much to get into here, but essentially the young people were picked up, charged with terrorism offences, hate crimes and faced a collective sentence of 375 years in prison. The state argued that the bar fight was part of an organised campaign of “low-intensity terrorism” linked to the now-defunct armed Basque separatist ETA, a claim which the young people and their families vehemently deny. There are many elements which point to a politicised miscarriage of justice. In the end, eight people were convicted and seven imprisoned, for between two and 13 years. Some of the longer sentences were reduced after a series of appeals, but the families and their supporters obviously continue to fight for the release of their children and the overturning of their convictions. It's likely to be a long fight ahead.
"I went to the town as soon as I could, initially with the idea to write about the case."
What was it about this case that interested you as a filmmaker?
I've long been interested in the Basque Country, partly because I am half Irish and there are strong links between the Irish and Basques, but also because I spent a number of summers there when I was a teenager. In fact, the majority of these summers were spent only about 20 minutes south of Altsasu, over the Urbasa range. It's strange to think that ten years ago I was spending summers in the Basque Country, so close to a town that now plays such an important part in my life, without having head of Altsasu. But apart from my personal connections to and affection for the Basque Country, the case immediately interested me, partly because of the hugely disproportionate charges and sentences. I went to the town as soon as I could, initially with the idea to write about the case. While in Altsasu, however, I realised their story would make a powerful film and I set out to make it happen. Through the Bridging the Gap scheme, I managed to pull it off, which was a great relief.
Did you have any apprehensions about making a film based on a true story?
I have become very close to many people in Altsasu, many of the parents of the imprisoned young people, and especially to Igone and her husband Epe. My main apprehensions were firstly whether I could actually manage to make this film, both in terms of securing a commission and my own technical and directorial ability to bring my ideas to the screen. Secondly, I was very conscious of whether my own vision would feel true and accurate to the subjects, especially Igone. Happily, I feel it did.
During your research did you discover anything new about this case that you hadn't known about before?
I had a pretty good knowledge of the case even before being commissioned by Creative Scotland and the Scottish Documentary Institute. That said, the story of the imprisonment of the young people of Altsasu is a case which is at both times simple in its disproportionality, but also exceedingly complex when the historical and political context is considered, and when you start to dig down into the legal machinations which allowed them to be imprisoned for so long. In the end the film eschews a lot of the legal detail, but instead focusses on the emotional and psychological toll on Igone, one of the mothers of the young men, Jokin Unamuno, and on the rest of the families and the community at large.
"You'll find support, friends and potential collaborators, and it's also a great way to find out about schemes, grants and other opportunities."
What would you say have been the biggest lessons you've taken from making Altsasu?
As a first-time director, the biggest lesson I took from making Altsasu was to be clear in what I wanted and to actually “direct”, whether that's team members, subjects or action unfolding around me. I initially felt an awkwardness about my role as director, as being the “boss” didn't sit well with me. But I soon realised that to direct isn't to abandon a sense of creative collaboration. Instead, it made everyone else's work so much easier when I could go to my team, my cinematographer Sendoa Cardoso, my producers Irune Gurtubai and Ben Sharrock, and my editor Ania Urbanowska, and give them a clear idea of my vision. This probably sounds obvious to many established directors, but the act of instructing others often doesn't come naturally to many.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
To be honest, my passion for filmmaking really only took hold over the last few years. I'm a freelance journalist and I worked in Jordan and elsewhere, and now in Mexico, and I always preferred more immersive, narrative reporting, so documentary was an obvious progression. My first serious foray into documentary was as a participant on the Scottish Documentary Institute's Bridging the Gap scheme several years ago, where I developed an idea for a documentary on the death of Sheku Bayoh, a Sierra Leoneon-Scottish man who died in police custody in Scotland in 2015, and whose death continues to raise serious questions about institutional racism in Scotland. Though I was unsuccessful in securing a commission back then, the process taught me a lot, not least about the huge sensitivities and ethical questions around documenting the grief of others, especially in a situation of such raw pain and injustice. These are definitely lessons I applied to 'Altsasu', which in many ways deals with the grief parents feel for children who have lost their youths due to incarceration, again in unjust circumstances.
What has been the best piece of advice you've been given?
Over the years many people have been extremely generous with me in giving their time and advice, which is the beautiful thing about documentary: it's a very supportive world and tends to attract thoughtful, empathetic people. One piece of advice which stands out, and which may seem obvious but really helped me, was given to me by the director Mila Turajlić. I had been struggling to progress an idea from a collection of disparate scenes and themes, to a coherent narrative. She put it this way: each of the elements of a film (characters, scenes, moments, themes, etc.) are like pearls. By finding the right narrative structure, you also find the thread to string these pearls together into something balanced and complimentary. It could be a cheap, simple thread, but there must be something which binds and holds these individual elements together and gives them sense. I found this analogy very helpful to appreciate the importance of narrative. Like the thread, I found this advice so simple yet so helpful.
Is there any advice you would offer an aspiring filmmaker?
Not to sound too self-deprecating, but it's strange to be asked to offer advice to new filmmakers, as I'm still very much finding my own feet and certainly don't feel qualified to impart wisdom. But perhaps hearing from someone like me, at the early stages of my career, might be helpful. Speaking to and meeting other filmmakers is essential. You'll find support, friends and potential collaborators, and it's also a great way to find out about schemes, grants and other opportunities. Filmmaking can be a lonely and frustrating craft, so it's really important for the mental health to have good people around you, especially if they can offer some perspective, moral support and practical advice.
Part of my feeling unqualified to give advice probably stems from the fact I've been almost entirely self-taught and have no formal filmmaking education, save for a short course with documentary filmmaker Alastair Cole several years ago. I remember he really emphasised the importance of sound. As he put it to me, an audience will much more readily view poor-quality images with well-captured sound, but will quickly tire of well-shot pictures with crap sound. This may be obvious advice for many established filmmakers, but neglecting the importance of sound is a mistake which can really scupper an otherwise successful shoot. Again, simple but incredibly helpful advice.
What are you currently working on?
I'm working on a few projects at the moment, in Scotland, Ireland and Mexico, though they are all at development stages. The Irish and Scottish projects are, at this very early stage, possible a trilogy of films looking at the incredible stories of three strong, powerful women in my life. Interestingly, all of the films I've worked on up until now have had strong, dignified women as central characters. And in Mexico I'm working on two projects, one an “anti-romantic” portrait of firefighters in Mexico City which looks at the many challenges of this work in one of the world's megacities – violence, poverty, poor urban planning, poor pay, dangerous working conditions, earthquakes, volcanoes and flooding to name a few. But from the time I've spent filming with them, there's unsurprisingly a huge warmth, affection and compassion, as well as great humour and lots of creative swearing. The second project is following a group of human rights defenders, from violent confrontations with police in Mexico City, to the somber, heartbreaking work of searching for the bodies of the over 60,000 disappeared in some of Mexico's most violent states. It's early days for all of these projects, but it's a huge privilege to be granted access to worlds which I would normally not see. This really is the joy of both documentary and journalism: to enter hidden or rarely seen worlds. But with this access comes a great responsibility to tell these stories with empathy and accuracy.
And finally, what message do you want your audiences to take away from Altsasu?
I hope audiences can feel the warmth, dignity and strength of Igone in particular, but of all of the other parents of the imprisoned young people of Altsasu and the solidarity shown by many people. And I hope seeing and hearing her pain and her resilience will move people to read and research the case, and to take some form of action. And aside from the particularly pained relationship between many in the Basque Country and the Spanish state, I hope audiences can relate to the universality of the situation and the subjects. I often think it could easily have been me sitting in that prison cell instead of Jokin, and my mother dealing with this grief and seeing her son's youth slip away, instead of Igone. A heavy note to end on, but it's a heavy subject. That said, I also hope that audiences are not left feeling despondent at the end. It's a horrible situation of injustice, but I really want people to feel the strength and defiance of the people of Altsasu and the wider Basque Country.