An unusual and fascinating documentary, Neuve Sevillas offers an avalanche of ideas, memories, observations, opinions and facts that is quite difficult to digest for non-Spanish speakers simply because of the rapid speech and subtitles with often two sets on screen at the same time. However, the gist of the argument is clear and much of what we want to learn is conveyed by songs and dances and newsreel footage. The idea behind the documentary is derived from what I now understand to be a ‘social performance’ approach as a means of ‘decolonising’ a field of knowledge. This is a film about finding the ‘identity’ of interconnected groups of people in Sevilla. But instead of presenting a formal history based on traditional academic writings, the search is conducted by the ‘folks on the ground’ – in this case singers, musicians, dancers, bullfighters, promoters and the fans who enjoy watching, listening and joining in.
Sevilla is Spain’s fourth largest city and the capital of the ‘autonomous community Andalusia’. It has a proud status as a cultural centre for the three components of flamenco – singing, guitar-playing and dancing. Sevilla is also a centre for other forms of music as well, including modern rock music. However, the identity discussed in the film focuses on the gitano communities of the region. Gitano refers to Roma people of the region, but it is slightly more complicated than that since as one ‘witness’ tells us: “Flamenco and gitano are the same, gitano and Roma are the same but Roma and flamenco are two different things”. I think this means that there are other forms of Roma music as well as flamenco. Sevilla is a music melting pot. Music in the city is influenced by the Jewish and Moorish histories of the region as well as other African migrants and South Americans who have returned to Andalusia and with them ‘American’ influences – one of the dancers featured is from Chile. Italian influences are also cited and the music also has connections across Eastern Europe.
To present these ‘discourses’ or ‘conversations’, director Gonzalo García Pelayo (who is listed as a co-director with Pedro G. Romero) makes one of the ‘journeys’ through the city himself as well as popping up in the linking segments. The structure is to present nine separate individuals with their Sevilla stories and in between to offer a range of music and dance performances representing the city more broadly. I’m not going to list all nine but I’m sure you get the picture. I’ll just take the first three. The film starts with archive material presented in Academy ratio and leads into Yinka’s story. She originates in Africa and promotes the African connections in the city’s culture whereas the second story features ‘Bobote’ who comes from Triana, an old district that is the home of traditional gitano culture. Gonzalo García Pelayo includes footage of his own film set in the city, Vivir en Sevilla (1978) and then claims that the film needs more sex and passion, so we get an extract from Buñuel’s last film That Discreet Object of Desire (1977) in which a woman dances naked before Fernando Rey in a restaurant. Two women discuss bullfighting in another journey and what it means to leave the barrio and another explains how she has lived in what she terms “a shack” waiting for a promised house for many years after her arrival from Galicia.
Each of the nine characters takes us on the next part of the journey through the city, through the history and the culture. The narrative structure plays out over twenty-four hours, starting after siesta one afternoon. The nine stories are not ‘separate’ and the characters sometimes turn up in each others stories. What remains central is the tension between the gitano/Roma community and culture and the mainstream Spanish culture. This is partly a tension created by a desire to maintain tradition within the community while at the same time wanting to be recognised within the contemporary society on an equal footing. This is represented in the use of language so that there is a struggle over ‘gitano‘ as a description that means something within the community but is considered as potentially offensive when used by others. In one segment we are told that the gitano/Roma community is a ‘political category’ and that for Spain if they didn’t exist they would need to be invented. This sounds like a familiar argument expressed by strong communities in many parts of the world, keeping their identity alive through cultural activities. Not all have the history and achievements of flamenco culture.
This is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a danger that audiences who don’t already know something about Sevilla and its people will be overwhelmed. Would it be more effective as two or three separate films? I don’t think so because that would lose the 24 hour journey. Perhaps it just needs a little tightening in the edit. However, I think most audiences will sit back and let the film roll over them (the festival brochure calls it ‘immersive’). The music and dancing are very impressive and enjoyable and anyone who watches it is likely get an urge to walk through Sevilla’s streets on a summer’s evening. I’m pleased to see the political and cultural analysis that the film offers. Here is a culture that remains vibrant in an increasingly commercialised world.