The Pain of Separation - an interview with Julio Medem

Native of San Sebastián (b. 1958) and settled in Madrid, Julio Medem is one of Spain’s most acclaimed directors. Famous for ‘Sex and Lucia’, ‘Lovers of the Arctic Circle’, and also for 'La Pelota Vasca' a film about Basque separatism, he talks about the (very topical) issues of separatism as well as his latest film Ma Ma, starring Penelope Cruz
Santiago Oyarzabal

Medem was entering the Spanish Society of Authors and Publishers (SGAE), in Madrid’s Palacio Longoria when we call. “They are remastering my old fims, he says ‘I came to hear how they’re doing’.

Julio Medem is very friendly and generous with his time. He has half an hour to talk to us before his appointment, but he stays longer. He tells us that Enrique Cerezo, the Atletico Madrid’s president, has been buying master copies of Spanish cinema and works to promote it. Cerezo has also opened a space in Antena 2 channel where they show Spanish films daily. Medem is now working with him to remaster his most recent films up to 2007’s Caótica Ana/'Chaotic Ana', including the world famous Los amantes del Círculo Polar/ 'Lovers of the Arctic Circle' (1998) and Lucía y el sexo/'Sex and Lucía' (2001) which gained Medem international recognition and a few awards.

I've rung to talk about Ma Ma, his latest film. However the film that keeps us talking the longest is an improbable and necessary documentary he made after Lucía y el sexo.

La pelota vasca: La piel contra la piedra/The Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone (2003) is arguably the most uncomfortable of Medem’s films. This is a lot to say for someone whose stories deal with strong, existential subjects that keep returning to your mind days after watching them: from death, loss, illness and depression to irrepressible passion, love and fate.

Those unfamiliar with Spain’s history and current affairs will read La pelota vasca as a classic documentary addressing something obvious  - a 21st-century’s approach to questions of national identity - in an open, sensible, and measured way. However, nothing is straight forward when it comes to Spain and questions of identity, as is visible today in the strong disagreements between Catalonia and the central government based in Madrid. As the Catalans, the Basque have grown for generations, for centuries, more and more wearisome of their relation with Madrid and with Spain.

The night La pelota vasca was released, in the 2003 San Sebastian Film Festival, Medem’s daughter was also born, probably out of the same tension Medem and his family had had to endure until then. The standing ovation Medem received that night in his homeland was a relief. He had put forward a simple message: there was a ‘political conflict’ taking place in relation to Basque independence, and acknowledging it was by no means the same as supporting the Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna). But that was not how things were seen in Madrid.

“I was accused of giving the right to ETA just for addressing the obvious. We did have a political conflict. We obviously also had another conflict, moral and human, which was the existence of ETA. I had wanted to make a polyphony based on a script I had written and then I realised that what the media were telling in Madrid about the Basque conflict, in general, was creating a monolithic thinking that did not represent what was happening. The question was far more complex. There exists nationalisms of different kinds. I’m not a nationalist, but even if I were one, I would have made the same film, respecting different opinions and creating the polyphony I wanted without judging.”


Medem explains he has two commitments: nonviolence – whether its ETA or the Spanish police – and political dialogue.

“The problem is, things have been for long about radicalisms in Spain. Before there was Ibarretxe and Aznar, and today Mariano Rajoy persists and persists in saying the Catalan Statute is against the constitution (although it is very similar to the Castilla-La Mancha one). Rajoy campaigning against the Catalans has only increased independentism in Catalonia from 9 percent years ago to about 50 percent now. There are also other reasons, obviously, it is complex, but the right wing in Madrid keeps always finding enemies to confront: first it was the Basque; when ETA disappeared they started it with Catalonia.”

It was from that sector that he was attacked.

“When ETA disappeared the tension dropped, but there’s still a conflict in as much as many people, for generations and centuries, don’t want to be part of Spain. That is a feeling shared by many people and it needs to be respected and addressed. How this is done is another question.”

Medem’s main reson for talking to us, however, is the UK release of Ma Ma on the 24 June. Ma Ma is Medem’s most linear film. With a minimal display of narrative resources – for a Medem film – Ma Ma lends itself to a Penélope Cruz’s extraordinary performance as a mother who, diagnosed with breast cancer, is struggling to keep afloat.

“What is common to my films, I feel, is the question of death, in particular the eminent possibility for life to cease to exist. Although tragedy always surrounds them, my characters are strong. They are on the run but as the story unfolds, light starts to appear, and they find a new meaning in life. In Ma Ma the important question is what can happen to your life when death is probably about to come soon. Penélope and I were clear we did not want to go deeper into the tragedy but on the contrary. Tragedy was a fact from the opening scene, so Penélope’s wonderful magnetism and her presence, her humour, and the way she doesn’t act as a victim helped us make a movie about life rather than death. The movie talks about life, her life, which Magda, her character lives to the end, and we witness it.”

“When we put death in the horizon, the life that is in between is worth more than ever. I think that’s another thing my films talk about more in general: moments of life when it is very intense because life itself – one’s own existence – is at stake in the presence of death. Sex has also an important role because is linked to that intensity… but I don’t know if I’m very good analysing my own films…

Seeing Penélope Cruz in Ma Ma is truly captivating. One would think Medem had her in mind from the very beginning. Truth is, the script had remained in a drawer for some years. Medem had invited her for other projects that could not be for different reasons. This time, however, it was Penélpe who called asking if he had something written, something simple they could shoot in Spain. When she read the script she decided to also co-produce the film with Medem.

“Once Penélope told me she wanted to play Magda, I was euphoric, and as Magda became Penélope in my imagination I re-wrote the character for her, she would then read the script and give her input… and we went on like that many times, I re-wrote it maybe about five or six times! I also brought in the situation in Spain at the moment, which wasn’t there in the original version. By now we were in the summer of 2012 when Spain was on the verge of the bailout, however football-wise the country was thriving, at the top, having won already the World Cup and that summer winning the Euro 4-0 against Italy. So in such a critical moment there was a very positive energy that football brought to life and we wanted to reflect it…”



Besides the historical context, the film has also doses of humour. How did you work to balance that with the drama?

“We looked into those moments together with Penélope and searched for them because we wanted the film to be a song to life. Religions do have an answer for the passage of the soul when someone dies, so when someone is religious, she or he finds a solution to this problem in a way. In our case it was different though. Penélope doesn’t believe in the passage of the soul, or in any god, so if there is something that remains it has to be somewhere else. In our case, and I think this is very interesting, the message is the soul goes to where the survivors want, I mean the people who loved her and who were around her. And his is part of the final scene.”

Ma Ma is in cinemas from today