Basque Ball Review

During the audio commentary which accompanies this release, one of many fascinating nuggets is revealed. Apparently director Julio Medem never intended to make Basque Ball as it exists today; rather, in preparation for a fiction piece, he collated a whole series of interviews as he attempted to explore the Basque situation. Of course, the project grew beyond these inauspicious beginnings, but in this respect we are led to fully believe his opening disclaimer: “This film is intended to be an invitation to dialogue. This film is based on a respect for all opinions. This film is independent, entirely the result of a personal initiative.”

What we have then is something of an anomaly in Medem’s career. Of course, this is his first documentary, but more importantly it’s also the first of his features not to profess his voice. Whereas all of his films from directorial debut Vacas through to Sex and Lucìa have been unmistakably the work of Julio Medem, here his presence isn’t felt. Indeed, not once do we hear him as interviewer, rather he’s replaced by a whole series of individual voices from academics to activists, musicians to journalists, politicians to philosophers. According to some sources the number of participants amounts to seventy, to others it tops to one hundred mark – either way, there’s no denying the depth and range this allows for.

Not that Medem is unimportant, however. Indeed, he may be the very reason as to why we are being afforded the opportunity to watch Basque Ball in the first place. When it premiered at the San Sebastian festival and then went on to a wider release throughout Spain, the film provoked a huge amount of controversy, yet it’s not the kind which translates to elsewhere. The subject matter is so specific to Spain (and, to a degree, France) that not only does it barely makes the news over here – the initial speculation over the Madrid bombings being a rare exception – but it also means that this documentary is unlikely to attract wide audiences. Rather it is Medem’s comparative arthouse celebrity which is being played on here – after all, the disc even comes with a trailer reel for each of his productions.

As such Basque Ball shouldn’t be considered an introduction. There are concessions to audiences less well-versed in Basque culture, history and politics courtesy of an array of archive clips (ranging from excerpts from an Orson Welles BBC travelogue to Gillo Pontecorvo’s Ogro). But for the most part the film simply offers a bewildering melange of voices which are blended into one massive whole as they combine and contradict each other, either with some startling subtlety or some extreme triteness. Indeed, the only voices not to be heard are that of the Spanish government and the ETA – though as is noted in the commentary, the lack of both opposing sides does allow for some balance, even if it creates a noticeable gap.

Moreover, the sheer weight of Basque Ball also serves to counteract this. It’s a film with absolutely no filler, so much so that even slight pauses have been edited out via brisk jump cuts. As such we have a work that is incredibly demanding of its viewers, especially on an initial viewing. Remarkably, there exists a seven-hour cut on Spanish DVD, though it must be said that the version found here offers more than enough food for thought.

So what will a UK audience get out of the film? Speaking for those who aren’t especially knowledgeable on the subject, Basque Ball can be taken in one of two ways. We can either go out of the film and look at it from the point of view of its bigger themes – questions of identity, of language, of violence, of “tragedy on a collection level” – or we can go inside it towards the small narratives and minor details – the remarkable little moments when we learn of a cleaner who had to go to work accompanied by two bodyguards. In both respects Basque Ball remains a fascinating work. Certainly, it perhaps isn’t as rewarding in this manner, but then this only serves to demonstrate just how rich Medem’s film proves to be.

The Disc

Tartan have released Basque Ball in the UK as a Region 0 PAL disc. Moreover, it’s been given a presentation which is decidedly fine. The film has been anamorphically transferred at a ratio of 1.78:1 and comes with a choice of soundtracks ranging from DD2.0 to DTS. With regards to the former, the image is as should be expected from a piece shot solely on digital video. There are no technical flaws to speak of, whilst the archive footage as looks as good as could expected. The only niggle is the fact that some of these excerpts have been squashed from their original 1.33:1 ratio to fit the wider screen – though the fact that this is only true of some of the clips would suggest that the fault lies with Medem and not the disc’s manufacture.

As for the soundtrack, we get the original Spanish DD5.1 mix (with optional subtitles) plus the aforementioned choices of Stereo and DTS. Understandably, then the former is of little interest especially as it takes much away from Medem’s intricate sound design, whilst the latter doesn’t really add a great deal. Indeed, it is likely to be personal preferences which dictate the choice the viewer goes for. After all, in all three cases there are no technical problems to speak of.

With regards to the extras these amount to the trailer reel mentioned in the main review plus a commentary by film historian Rob Stone (who at the time of recording this piece was working on an analytical biography of Medem) and journalist Paddy Woodworth who has covered Spanish politics for almost thirty years. Of course, the trailers are of little importance and are more likely present to promote Tartan’s other Medem releases than anything else. The commentary, however, is a wonderful piece and more than makes up for the lack of extras elsewhere. Indeed, given their different backgrounds Stone and Woodworth offer up a piece which is tremendously wide-ranging. Whether you’re after a discussion of the film’s placing within Medem’s oeuvre, its controversy in its home country, the furore it caused at other festival screenings, or a more grounded look at its politics then it can all be found here. Indeed, those who come to the film with little knowledge of its subject matter would do well to give this an attentive listen as it most definitely enhances an appreciation of Medem’s efforts.

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