¡Viva! 27 #5: Billy (Spain 2020)

Billy is an unusual short (71 minutes) documentary feature, first screened at the Seville European Film Festival in 2020 and scheduled to be released in Spain in September 2021. It is another of the UK premières that have been offered by HOME at this year’s ¡Viva!. The film opens with a sequence that appears to come from a European Western (actually El hombre que mató a Billy el Niño, Spain-Italy 1967). A young blonde cowboy on horseback is being chased across across a dry scrub landscape into a small town by a group of ‘Federales’. A voiceover tells us that this isn’t a Western, although there are guns, chases and sheriffs and good guys and bad guys – but it’s too early to reveal them. All this while a woman dashes out of an adobe house to bring in her child in an almost direct hommage to the opening of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. The voiceover tells us that in fact this is a film about events only a relatively short time ago in a location that is also not too distant. This is immediately followed by a montage of talking heads all giving descriptions of ‘Billy the Kid’. A close-up of a pistol being fired at the camera turns into an animated credit sequence, also re-calling Leone, announcing ‘Billy’. This is certainly an arresting opening and soon the voiceover returns to tell us that Antonio González Pacheco, a police inspector in the Social Political Brigade of the Francoist regime in Spain during the late 1960s, died without having been tried for his crimes of torture and murder despite the demands of his victims and their families. The coronavirus delayed the post-production of the film and it also took Pacheco and one of the witnesses to his crimes. When shooting began Pacheco was alive, now he is dead but the need to expose his crimes remains.

One of the witnesses, Josefa was a member of the Revolutionary Antifascist Patriotic Front (FRAP). Hers is one of the most moving witness accounts. Many of the witnesses were photographed in locations like this, recalling the rooms used for interrogations.

As the witnesses began to identify themselves as members of various anti-fascist political parties that they joined as university students and young activists, I remembered the Spanish political thriller that featured in ¡Viva! 23, Seven Days in January (7 dias de enero, Spain-France 1979) that offered a compelling fictionalised account of the police and fascist ‘guerrilla  action’ against communist lawyers and activists which threatened to derail the transition towards democracy in Spain following Franco’s death in 1975. What I certainly wasn’t aware of was the extent to which young anti-fascists were active in Madrid during 1968 when student protest spread from Paris, Berlin, London, California and Mexico across the world. It seems to me now that those Spanish students faced a much more serious threat to their very survival, certainly compared to most student revolutionaries in the UK (though not those overseas students being tracked in the UK by intelligence services). Here in Billy we meet several of those Spanish student activists and other young activists, now in their late 60s or early 70s but with vivid memories of the late 1960s. As one of them puts it:

You could see how the police acted, how they tortured, how they repressed, how they shot for real – they didn’t shoot rubber bullets.

The witnesses constitute a diverse group of men and women who belonged to a variety of communist and anti-fascist political parties which didn’t necessarily agree on tactics. Some were determined to rely on words and the democratic process, others believed in direct action, including armed struggle. Writer-director Max Lemcke and his crew have access to a diverse range of material, including footage of demonstrations and street battles, newsreels and personal archives. Much of it is accessible for any audience but some probably means much more to Spanish audiences. A witness reminds us that it was difficult to find ‘important books’, to hear songs (such as the Victor Jara one used here) and watch movies in this period.

University students vote to end the Franco-imposed Student Union in the late 1960s

But who was ‘Billy’ and how did he acquire the name? Antonio González Pacheco arrived at university in Madrid in 1968 and in 1969 became a Junior Inspector in the ‘Social Investigation Brigade’. He quickly became a leading player in the ‘Dirty War’ waged by the police and fascist gangs against any left organisations. I think the term ‘Dirty War’ is used to deliberately link to the similar activities in Argentina, Chile, Brazil and other Latin American countries. The ‘Transition’ to democracy was was slow and although democratic elections produced a conservative government it did not have a majority. There was a major issue about the refusal to legitimise the Spanish Communist Party and a concerted effort by the new government to declare various Amnesties and not to investigate the activities of Francoist crimes against the people at that point. These are some of the issues discussed in Billy. Some historians mark the end of Transition with the failed coup d’état of 1981 and the election of the majority government of the PSOE or Spanish Socialist Party (a centrist party by the standards of most of the witnesses in Billy). The crucial point is that the torture and murder of leftist political activists as practised by Pacheco/’Billy the Kid’ did not stop in 1975 but continued into the 1980s.

One of the intertitles acting as chapter headings – “Billy’s here!”

‘Billy’ is portrayed in Seven Days in January and we get to see clips from that film and to hear the witness statement of the actor who played him. He got his name because he was a show-off who liked to parade his weapon and he was something of a dandy. Different witnesses explain how the torture terror worked and how the murders happened. The vivid descriptions are shocking and so is the observation that the fascists in the police force, just as the fascists in the élite, made the transition to democracy without being investigated or imprisoned and keeping their positions in many cases. The 1970s also saw an ‘International’ organisation of fascist police groups with meetings arranged with similar groups in Italy and West Germany.

Footage from newsreels and archive footage show police action against street protests.

I found the testimonies riveting, although the plethora of different political parties and revolutionary groups was a little confusing. The documentary is not publicly-funded or made by a media corporation. It was completely crowd-funded and all the contributors are listed in the long credits. It can therefore be a partial account (Francoists were invited but declined to be interviewed), though some of the witnesses have different views about direct action. The filmmakers have, however, decided that too many talking heads in long sequences would make the film unwatchable for any but the most diehard supporters. They have therefore used the Billy the Kid film as well as a Lucky Luke animated version of the Billy the Kid story and even an old black and white TV advert for Nesquik similar to the ‘Milky Bar Kid’ UK ad from 1961. The witnesses describe Billy in different ways – as a clown, as someone almost ‘deified’, as a sinister man, loathed and feared etc. The name stuck from his earliest university appearances but not everyone thought it was a good idea to repeat the nickname. I see the problem for a filmmaker wanting different material but I think there is probably too much of the feature film material shown – which does suggest Billy as the ‘hero’.

Fifty years is a long time to wait for witnesses to be heard. I’m glad I was able to see this film which has a repeat showing at HOME, Manchester on Saturday 21st August at 12.45. As fascism begins to rise again across the globe it’s important to introduce younger audience to this history and these victims of torture.

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