I completed Death in El Valle in early March of 1996. I remember the way I felt so vividly: I was on top of the world because I had achieved what seemed impossible and in spite of wanting to give up SO many times I had persevered.
Nearly 5 years had gone by since I had started the making of this film. It was without a doubt the most challenging project I had ever undertaken – and considering what kind of projects I took on back then (riding with ambulances in the heart of Bed-Stuy and traveling to war torn Sudan to document famine) that was saying a lot.
I had assumed that once completed the rest of the process would be a piece of cake. The film would air in the UK, do well and then begin to sell at various key markets: the US (Channel 4 was already in talks with HBO) Spain, of course, France and other countries like Mexico, Chile, Argentina…etc.
I was very excited and hopeful. I felt strongly that people needed to see my film and that sharing my experience would make a difference in a world that still hadn’t processed the impact of the brutality of the Franco dictatorship.
Screening the film for my family was the very first order of business, since I’d kept them waiting so long on the sidelines. That day is completely etched in my mind. Matthew Yeomans, my then boyfriend and producing partner, and I invited the whole family over to our cozy one bedroom apartment on the Upper West side one weekend afternoon: Uncle Pablo and his wife, my aunt Esperanza, their kids Pablo and Melanie, my grandmother, Josefa, whom we’ve all affectionately nicknamed, Yaya, and my mother Anuncia. The air was thick with anticipation, and the knots in my stomach were intense. It was a very emotional day. They all watched in silence…and when it was over all of the women were in tears. My aunt got up first and congratulated me and gave me a kiss on the cheek, as did my cousin, and then my mother. My grandmother sat in shock. I wasn’t sure if she had understood every thing because her English is not so good and I hadn’t yet translated the film. My uncle then started arguing about something or other with my grandmother – a quite typical scene for my family.
It was over. The anticipation had been far worse than the actual experience of screening it for them. The rest of the afternoon was very lively, emotional, therapeutic, profound, liberating, exhausting, and all in all memorable and truly extraordinary!
My uncle didn’t talk to me at all though. He spent 2 hours in a heated conversation with Matthew instead. I was just curious about what he felt, but he neither scolded me, as he had done so often while I made the film, nor did he acknowledge the work I had done in any way. My cousin Melanie later told me that he had watched the VHS I gave them nearly every day for two weeks straight! Knowing that it had impacted him and that he was curious about the film made me feel better, even if he himself couldn’t share that with me. My uncle Pablo has never ceased to surprise me. When I was sure that he would be willing to help me make this film, he completely refused instead, and when I was sure that he would be very critical about the actual finished product, he in fact never said a thing to me.
Death in El Valle premiered in the United Kingdom on December 8 1996 and there the film did very well. It was critics’ pick of the day in all the major newspapers including The Sunday Times, The Independent and The Observer. The Guardian interviewed me for a half page feature about the making of the film. Viewing figures were well over a million and we were up against Dragnet! Not bad for an independent doc! I was really pleased and perhaps that was what led me to have even higher expectations; my own people - the Americans and Spaniards - would surely outdo that!
With regards to distribution, my lawyer advised me not to stay with Channel 4 and I followed his advice. In hindsight, not the greatest idea, but I don’t think it would have made any difference with Spain. I honestly thought distributors would be lining up to represent Death in El Valle, but instead I struggled to find a good one. Jan Rofekamp, whose company Film Transit is a leading distributor - warned me of the challenges I’d face in selling this film in Spain: “It’s like trying to sell a holocaust movie in Germany.” I finally settled with Forefront Films, a small distributor, who initially really went to bat for the film.
Try as they may, though, Forefront had no luck. The feedback they got from programmers around the world was that the film didn’t fit in to an easy category because it was historical, personal, political and intergenerational, plus the guerrilla style filmmaking quality wasn’t helping either. (Oh, how times have changed… I always say the Brits are well ahead of the rest of the world!) In Spain, they got rejection after rejection, which really surprised them as much as it did me. We thought the subject matter was so pertinent that it would be an obvious and easy sell, despite its controversial nature. I personally wrote to Pedro Erquicia – one of TVE’s (the largest public TV network in Spain) most well known and respected producer’s imploring him to consider airing the film as part of his series. While he was kind enough to view the film and write back congratulating me on “the magnificent realization” of this project, he also added quite mysteriously “they had received it far too late to air!” Too late for what I wondered. At that point I knew Jan Rofekamp was right and that the media in Spain was afraid of my film.
As disappointed as I was, I didn’t want to give up. I decided to take a break and shift my focus on the US. I did the festival circuit. The positive feedback was so encouraging; audiences who did not fear its subject were finally seeing Death in El Valle. It was a relief that the film always did so well at screenings, resonating with Spanish expatriates, but also with immigrants who had experienced political turmoil in their own countries. Death in El Valle screened at the AFI Festival in LA, The Margaret Mead Film Festival in NY, the Taos Talking Picture Festival in New Mexico, The Vermount Film Festival and at the USA Film Festival where it was a finalist. In New York, my hometown, we got some nice press in The Village Voice and New York magazine. The festivals kept my spirits up. People were warm and supportive of what I had done, and some even had similar stories of their own to share. Connecting with people in this way was one of the most rewarding aspects of the filmmaking process. It made me realize what was truly important to me as a filmmaker was touching, moving and inspiring people.
I was ready to take my film to a broader audience. HBO, who liked the provocative nature of the film, ended up turning it down because as Sheila Nevins put it: “We’re pay TV and we don’t do subtitles very often.” POV turned it down as well, but then asked me to resubmit the following year; one of program directors assured me the project belonged there and was a perfect fit. Another year went by and the film got turned down again. Why they asked me to re-submit, I will never know. I was pretty bummed.
Another year went by and the film got turned down again. Why they asked me to re-submit, I will never know. I was pretty bummed. Luckily, shortly thereafter, I was consoled when WNET, the local public station became interested in Death in El Valle and offered a deal. (Just to put things in perspective for you film buffs, what you make in one sale to POV or even HBO – which isn’t that much - you would have to make 50 - 60 sales to public stations to come close to even matching!) The film premiered on U.S television for the first time on WNET September 27, 1998 as part of series called Cantos Latinos.
Meanwhile, I had not given up on Spain. I knew that for me that was going to be the big payoff emotionally and there could be no closure until that happened. I also felt like I owed it to my grandmother. Forefront, my distributor, had pretty much put Death in El Valle on the back burner, after learning how much fear and resistance there was to such a controversial subject. But I continued in my spare time, talking to anyone I thought might be able to help me with the project. I made contact with some really cool people like Ricky Posner, who was Pedro Almodovar’s producer at that time, and got him enlisted in trying to help me get the film sold in France and Spain. He had some major connections, but no one was biting. One Spanish TV Exec cut to the chase: “This subject is just too sensitive and no one will air this film in Spain.” We were both pretty shocked! I found it incredible that the whole country was scared to talk about this topic and not just the people of El Valle.
I decided to focus on something else. This topic was depressing me and I obviously wasn’t going to even come close to making a living selling this film so I concentrated instead on finding work in the “business”. I had decided that I was ultimately more interested in the collaborative nature of production, and that juggling both photography and filmmaking was too overwhelming. The “starting-over” aspect of a new career was scary, especially when I had already made a name for myself as a photojournalist in New York, but I figured that Death in El Valle might help open some doors for me. It did. I got a job at the Emmy award winning City Arts series (now EGG) doing segment producing. Then through a contact I made there, I got hired on Taxicab Confessions as a field director and through another contact I made there I got on MTV’s Road Rules to field/segment produce on their Latin America series. I decided to move to Los Angeles in order to pursue production full time.
In 2000, I decided that it couldn’t hurt to approach a number of the PBS stations and see if any were interested in airing Death El Valle. It was a lot work, but it would be worth the effort if anyone snapped it up. More sales (however meager), meant more publicity and more publicity might lead to the possibility of it airing in Spain. In 2001, there was a bite from WGBH in Boston and a flagship among PBS stations.
I contacted a few more people in Spain. A VP at Universal Music I had met through my work at MTV was Spanish and liked Death in El Valle. He personally contacted his friend and the director of Canal Plus but never heard back. I tried Pedro Erquicia at TVE one more time with no luck yet again. I decided I was done. I let go. I had done what I could for this film. I continued to believe that one day the film would find a way of airing in Spain, but for now, I had to stop banging my head against a brick wall.
Then a funny thing happened! The film slowly but surely started to take on a life of its own…strange how you have to be ready to give up sometimes before things take a turn for the better.
My cousin Melanie, (Uncle Pablo’s daughter) emailed me Bringing Franco's Crimes To Light, a Guardian article about the mass graves being uncovered in Spain. The article made mention of an organization called the Associacion para la recuperacion de la Memoria Historica The Association for the recuperation of Historical Memory) that had been co-founded by a fellow named Emilio Silva whose grandfather had also been killed during the Franco years. I really connected with the piece for the obvious reasons, but also because it gave me hope that this movement might grow into something bigger. Silva was at the head of a movement demanding that the UN force Spain to face its past with a list of over 80 graves and 800 bodies in just the Castilla-Leon region.
Shortly after I read the article about Emilio Silva’s work, Emilio himself got in touch with me to request a copy of Death in El Valle. That’s synchronicity for you! After viewing it he asked if he could hold a special screening of it in September in Madrid for the anniversary of the founding of the left wing resistance and if I would please attend and participate in a Q&A afterwards. As exciting as it sounded, my schedule at the time didn’t permit me to be there. I also wasn’t about to get hopeful all over again, just to get disappointed 2 minutes later. I was being cautious.
September 14, 2002
The film screened and I received a few emails from participants, including Emilio Silva, and French director Gilles Gasser telling me how moving the screening had been: “During the presentation the room was really full (250+/- persons) and at the end, after a short pensive silence, your film was welcomed by enthusiastic applauses. Most of the spectators were members of families of missing persons in a situation very similar to yours when you decided to make your film. I could see that your film helped them a lot to go ahead in their research of the truth.”
A couple of months later, Peter Carroll from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (ALBA) contacted me about organizing a possible screening and Q& A. It seemed that someone at the screening in Madrid had seen the film and recommended it to him.
April 25, 2003
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade held a screening at NYU with special guest speaker Emilio Cassinello, the Spanish consulate of New York, whose family was also a victim of the Franco Regime. It was a great event. NYU was to officially house ALBA’s archives and this was the official inauguration. They had chosen Death in El Valle to be the centerpiece of the evening. I was truly honored. Many of the New York charter members of ALBA attended the screening. They had been really helpful to me when I had started researching the film. Even though I had sent them copies of the film when I completed it, it was nice for them to see it on the big screen. Both my cousins, Melanie and Pablo Redondo Jr. (Uncle Pablo’s kids) attended, as well as my mom, Anouk Hardt and my associate producer Matthew Yeomans. NYU flew me out to New York to attend the screening and do the Q& A afterwards. I was thrilled! (see picture above).
At the beginning of 2004, Santiago Macias, the co-founder of the Associacion para la recuperacion de la Memoria Historica got in touch with me about including an account of the Death in El Valle in a book he was working on about other stories similar to mine in the El Bierzo region. He and Emilio Silva had published a book Las Fosas de Franco (2003) about the mass graves that could be found across Spain on roadsides and it was a bestseller.
Peter Carroll from ALBA invited me to do another screening at the University of California at Berkeley with a Q& A afterwards. I tried to get my act together and spent endless nights after work burning DVD’s on my new Mac G4. I sold a few - or better said - my darling boyfriend Steve Barkan, who staffed the tables, sold them. Many people asked me if there was a website where they could buy the film or read about it and I was starting to think that maybe I should get serious about marketing Death in El Valle myself. The Internet technology was starting to make it really possible and I hate to disappoint people and say no, if you know what I mean.
July – August 2004
I finally met Emilio Silva and Santiago Macias in Spain. It was incredible to connect with each other. We had so much to talk about. Santiago was kind enough to drive my mother and I to the military archives in the town of Ferrol in the Northwestern coast of Spain. There he’d found the police report on the events of El Valle and had gotten special permission to view them at leisure. He’d made friends amongst the Guardia Civil who supported what he was doing. It seemed things in Spain were really getting far more relaxed about this subject.
The police report turned out to be the exact same one I had discovered 12 years earlier while making Death in El Valle in the Leon Military Government archives. They had apparently been transferred, as all of these historical Franco era documents were now being centralized in one location. But times sure had changed and at least on this occasion, while going over the report, I wasn’t shaking with fear at the thought of being caught and thrown in jail. When I had stumbled on the report years earlier, I knew I was forbidden to look it over for journalistic purposes, but I was also determined to get my hands on it. I played dumb and flirted with the archivist in Leon and convinced him somehow that it was okay for me to glance at it. He sat me in his office, where he could keep an eye on me, but when he wasn’t looking, I would photo copy everything I could relating to the El Valle story and stuffed it down my pant legs. It was thrilling and terrifying all at the same time. And that is how I found the names of the actual “Guardia Civiles” who had pulled the trigger on my grandfather.
Looking through the report slowly and carefully this time, we concluded that there was no mention anywhere of a “snitch” or police confident in the El Valle incident. However, with the time we had I was able to photograph the testimonies in some detail and I have posted some of these pictures on this site. The ludicrous inconsistencies are fascinating and worth sharing. Most glaring is how the guards testify that they managed to pump 10 gunshot wounds into my grandfather’s chest and 2 in his head, (if we are to believe their official autopsy report) at a distance of 100 meters where he fell dead at 7:30PM on a cold February night alongside his friend Florentino Fernandez.
Such a feat is simply not humanly possible. Additionally, these Civil Guards testified that the prisoners were NOT HANDCUFFED because the terrain was uneven and difficult to walk on, so how could they or the guards even get at distance of 100 meters from each other. (About 110 yards – longer than the length of a football field!!!!) I could go on and on…but enough!
Emilio Silva and Santiago Macias also joined us for a meal at my grandmother’s house. At first she was reluctant to meet them or even talk about it, but Yaya eventually changed her mind. They presented her with an autographed and dedicated copy of their book Las Fosas de Franco and Yaya was very pleased. They also showed us a documentary about the work they were doing uncovering mass graves which visibly moved my grandmother.
Santiago Macias and I really hit it off. He and his girlfriend Susana lived near El Valle and we spent more than one evening socializing. We decided that it would be good thing for both of us to include an account of the story of El Valle in his upcoming book. I also ran it by my grandmother to make sure she was comfortable with that and she was. Both Emilio and Santiago urged me to make the Spanish version of this film available somehow, because they thought that many people would want to see it in Spain even if the television stations had been unwilling to air it thus far. (I had made another attempt that summer in Spain to pitch the film but was turned down AGAIN!) However, the political climate had recently changed in Spain (with the amazing upset of the March elections) and with a bit of luck, Zapatero, the new president, his own family a victim of the Franco repression, might actually take some action on this issue.
Additionally, Emilio and Santiago offered to help organize more screenings for the film that I could attend this time. They didn’t have to say anything else. I was convinced. It had taken over 8 years…but a transformation had started in Spain and it had grown into an incredibly inspiring and powerful movement to hold General Franco accountable for his actions and to seek justice for his victims, and I wanted to be a part of it!
The things that Emilio and Santiago shared with me were so upsetting and disturbing and are far too many to write about here. But suffice it to say that in the past few years new horrors have been discovered of the many ways in which the Franco regime tortured, enslaved or “rehabilitated” its victims, everything ranging from forced labor in concentration camps to defective or expired polio vaccines for the children of “republicanos” to a lifetime of indentured servitude to the government of Spain.
I urge anyone interested in these topics to read their book, Las Fosas de Franco currently available in Spanish. The English version will be released in the United States in the fall of 2005.
Paul Preston’s book The Spanish Holocaust, due out in 2006, promises to be of major historical importance. This respected and award winning British historian states in an El Pais interview that “the regime did everything possible to falsify what had happened…. [and that] International historians have completely underestimated the tragedy of Spain….” According to Preston, Franco’s mass graves are no different than Sadam Hussein’s. “We will never know the total number of dead…." (500,000 and counting...) but he estimates the victims of repression alone exceed 100,000.
Upon my return to Los Angeles, I began the complex process of releasing the Spanish version of the film to DVD. Unfortunately for me, Channel 4 had “misplaced” the international version of this film. I blame myself as well for having trusted that they and M2, the facility, where we did the post-production would keep it safely. After much endless back and forth between us all, I finally managed a couple of months later to get my hands on the original audio files for the film. With a bit of luck, my sound mixer, Michael Hutchinson, found another mixer in Los Angeles, Rick Wilson, who had the fifteen year-old equipment that could open up these files. Wilson was a big help, and luckily, the audio was in good shape. What a relief! We transferred them over to Pro-Tools (an audio editing system) and were able to get started. However, we still had to completely redo the original mix for the film, which can be pretty cost prohibitive unless you have friends in the business, which thank god, I do.
October – December 2004
I got busy with Television work again in part so I had money to pay my bills and more importantly to support this crazy project.
Mid-January 2005 - April 19, 2006
I finally really get down to business and hire a web designer and begin the lengthy process of assembling this site and taking all the steps necessary to create and release the DVD. It would take me well over a year of full time 24/7 work, on top of all the amazing help and support I got from my husband, sound mixer, web designer and various good friends, to finally be able to launch the site on April 19th 2006. Hurray at last!
NOW, I need YOUR help to get the good people of Spain - and America of course - to help us raise awareness about Franco's terrible legacy in 2006 - the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War - and to PAY ATTENTION to Death in el Valle!