Josep was a real treat for me. Showing in My French Film Festival this is a form of animation not unlike last year’s The Swallows of Kaboul (France-Luxembourg 2019) in representing the humanity found in the midst of horror. I realise that my favourite form of animation is ‘drawn’, followed by stop motion. This is why I generally go for Japanese or French drawn forms with a side order of Aardman. I’ve lost interest in most Hollywood animations. But I should warn you that the three of the reviews in English of Josep that I found expressed doubts about the drawing style (while praising the content).

The grandfather introduces the narrative to his graqndsson who responds by offering his sketchbook to the old man . . .

The ‘Josep’ of the title is Josep Bartolí, the Catalan ‘draftsman and caricaturist’ who fought the Francoist rebels in the Spanish Civil War, finally escaped to Mexico and had an affair with the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, before being blacklisted in the US as a communist. Given the dramatic events of his life it’s amazing that he survived into his mid-80s. This animation, which is similar in conception to Maus by Art Spiegelman and Persepolis (France-US 2007) by Marjane Satrapi (which was a graphic novel before becoming a film), is narrated in flashbacks by an old man trying to engage with his grandson who clearly has talent as an artist. Like stories and memories for old people the narrative presents events outside a strict chronology and at first we aren’t quite sure how the grandfather knows about all the events. The film is presented in a ‘Scope ratio and it lasts just 71 minutes but packs in a lot.

The earliest sketches are faint and hazy

In February 1939 Franco’s forces, with the help of other Fascists in Italy and Germany, finally defeated the Republicans in Barcelona and half a million soldiers and ordinary citizens, men women and children fled Catalonia, marching over the Pyrenees in in the snow to reach France. But by 1939 the Popular Front in France had failed to resolve political differences in relation to the war in Spain, despite support for intervention by French communists. The Spanish Republicans expected some form of support in France but instead were met by at best indifference and at worst downright rejection and horrific conditions of internment. The Spanish were put into concentration camps hastily constructed along the coast of Roussillon and at several other sites across the rest of France. Josep was one of those who found himself in a camp on the coast guarded by Gendarmes, many with Fascist sympathies, and ‘Colonial troops’ – Senegalese tirailleurs. Josep had few belongings and was only sustained by his passion for drawing which he carried out with whatever implements and canvases he could improvise. Eventually, one of the few compassionate Gendarmes smuggled in a pencil and small notebook enabling him to draw more effectively. These drawings would become the basis for a later publication named La Retirada after the name given to this exodus from Catalonia.

In some camps there were men and women – who here search for lice in the children’s hair

There are several important figures involved in bringing Josep Bartolí’s story to cinema screens. The film is directed (and drawn) by Aurel, a press cartoonist. He works for Le Monde and Le Canard Enchaîné. He has published around twenty books including two documentary comics, Clandestino and La Menuiserie, and produced numerous graphic reports for various titles in the French press. (Source: the film’s Press Pack.) Aurel had made one short film before this, his first feature. He set out to be faithful to both the story and to the different drawing styles that Bartolí used, often out of necessity. Early scenes are drawn in pencil, then ink and felt tip. At first the colour is almost completely drained from the scenes but later it emerges, most dramatically in the appearances by Frida Kahlo. Towards the end of the story, Josep is in effect painting with broad colours. The script for the film was written by Jean-Louis Milesi who is possibly best known in the UK as the writer of films for the Marseilles-based socialist filmmaker Robert Guédiguian and Josep is ‘voiced’ by the Barcelona-born actor Sergi López.

Bartoli in the midst of the horrors he drew in fine lines

I don’t want to say too much about the events that Josep is part of or which he observes. Suffice to say these concentration camps were a disgrace and the treatment of the Republicans and especially communist Republicans (who their gaolers couldn’t properly distinguish from anarchists) was dreadful. After 1940 some of them worked as forced labour and some were sent to Nazi death camps. Some found themselves building the camps that held Jews and others rounded up in Vichy France under the orders of the Gestapo. One tiny ray of light in all this seems to have been the common decency of some of the Senegalese troops shown towards the Spanish Republicans. Some of the Spanish did eventually escape to fight with the French Résistance and I read somewhere that the first motor vehicle driven into Paris as part of the liberating allied forces was driven by a Spanish Republican. The identity of the grandfather telling the tale to his grandson gradually becomes clear.

In Mexico, Bartoli (up the ladder) helping Frida Kahlo to paint her house

I knew something of the historical events surrounding ‘La Retirada’ but I didn’t know about the details of the camps. Some Republicans made it to the UK, others got to the US and many made it to Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. I don’t think any of those refugees/exiles met the kind of treatment meted out to Josep and his compañeros. I hope this film gets a UK cinema release in the future. It is also possible to view currently via BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema streaming (which is taking some of the titles in My French Film Festival).