A Spanish film is making its UK debut in Newcastle, bringing a village of unknowns to the big screen. Barbara Hodgson hears how first-time actors working without a script helped create a piece of movie magic.
A FORMER member of Northern Stage is returning to the region from Spain for the first UK screening of his new film.
Spanish actor Francisco Alfonsin will be back in Newcastle for Monday night’s screening of En Tu Ausencia (In Your Absence) at the Star & Shadow Cinema.
He will be accompanied by Ivan Noel, writer and director of the film in which Francisco is the only professional actor.
It was offered official selection at the Valencia Film Festival this year, and the pair hope it will also make an impact in Britain.
Francisco said: “I used Newcastle because I spent almost eight years there and got to know many people.
“In order to get an honest feedback from a British audience, I could not think in a better place.”
Francisco, who trained as an actor at Cordoba Drama School and gained experience in Seville, was a founder member of Northern Stage in 1998.
He even devised a piece Las Hijas de la Verguenza for the ensemble in 2004, about a death-row inmate being interviewed about his life in Barcelona, and worked with then artistic director Alan Lyddiard until 2006’s 1001 Nights Now.
He then returned to Jerez in the south of Spain where he was born and raised. Married with a daughter, he now runs the cultural side of a new sherry bodega.
And it’s in the stunning countryside of Sierra de Cadiz in Andalucia that this low-budget independent film, which has a documentary feel, was shot – with village locals as stars.
Only the director Noel, also a composer, was not originally from Jerez: he moved there to perfect his flamenco guitar playing.
“For me, it was a real surprise to meet somebody like Ivan in Jerez,” says Francisco.
“He gave me the challenge and the opportunity to make my arrival in my home town, after so many years, a completely different experience.
“The challenge was making a film, as I have worked mainly in theatre, and acting in Spanish after so many years using English – maybe destroying English!”
The film is a story of betrayal which ends a childhood for 13-year-old Pablo whose fixation on a mysterious stranger, Paco, (Francisco) leads to tragedy.
“The film is a look at that difficult passage from childhood to teenage, a time in our lives where love, friendship and sex sometimes meet in a very confusing world,” says Francisco.
“I am the baddie, the grown-up, the stranger.”
Only two others in the film (Pablo’s parents) had any acting experience.
The rest of the cast, who are all from Francisco’s village, are first-timers.
“Ivan wanted to pursue a different style of acting – more real, more natural so you could call it documentary-style effect.
“Sometimes you get more honesty from non-professional actors.”
The film’s 12-year-old star Gonzalo Sanchez was discovered cracking jokes to customers in the village butcher’s shop.
Based on that, the director enrolled him in acting classes. Nevertheless, his gregarious personality meant he was turned down for the role of quiet Pablo.
Only when no other possible leads emerged – and after a ‘brief, violent exchange of words’ with the director – was he was finally accepted.
The youngster proved quick to learn and not just in acting. He learned guitar well enough, after just four months of lessons, to play some of the film’s soundtrack.
And 15-year-old Ana Tutor, who plays the part of love interest Julia, was so shy she refused to speak to the crew or director throughout the entire film-making process. Yet, when cameras rolled, she opened up as a natural actress.
A local teacher plays the part of a mechanic; schoolchildren were paid for just being themselves, and even the local postman was recruited, as a postman – though his working hours meant he was available for filming only at specific times.
The film is Noel’s first and the former drama teacher, who also has a BA degree in film music composition, sold his car and house to be able to make it.
“It is as independent as any film can be, I think,” he said.
“We had no support of any kind, financial or technical. The entire shooting technical team was composed of five persons: none were paid!
“I’d written a script and a shooting script but it got in the way, so I decided we’d shoot the film without any script at all, which gave everyone a great deal of freedom.
“The entire film, except for two sentences, was improvised.
“No-one knew the story except for myself. Before shooting they had no idea where the scene would go.
“I would speak as they acted and we later cut out my voice from the live sound.
“The two protagonists, the boy and the man, met only minutes before shooting their meeting in the film.
“On the other hand, I did take great care in preparing the ‘actors’ for about one year before the film was shot, by training them in natural improvisation.”
If the film takes off, no doubt Jerez will never be quite the same again. Francisco has plans to build on his town’s growing cultural interests.
“I am involved in the sherry wine world as manager of visits and activities at Bodegas Valdivia.
“I’d like to develop some cultural projects here with the world of wine, as well as other theatre, film or cultural international projects in my home town.”
En Tu Ausencia is showing at Star & Shadow Cinema, in Stepney Bank, Newcastle, on Monday, to an audience of mainly film-makers, production and distribution companies and artists.
But the aim is to show the work as part of the Vamos Festival and Cantina Latina, Star’s Spanish film programme.
For more information about the film visit www.entuausencia.com