The controversy engendered by
Julio Medem's Basque Ball: The Skin Against the Stone is only the latest bout in a struggle to represent and explore Basque identity on film. Early travelogues celebrated a unique landscape and heritage that had bred an indomitable race, and this Romantic notion of a historically, linguistically and culturally isolated nation in mainland Europe, with provinces spilling either side of the Pyrenees, would also charm foreign writers and film-makers such as Orson Welles.
However, following the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), hagiography was countered by the oppressive policies and tactics of Franco's dictatorship (1939-75), which forbade the right of assembly and the use of the Basque language of Euskera, and drove dissenters into private film clubs that were a cover for political debate. Consequently, the union of political thought and action with film theory and practice propagated a forceful faith in documentary films as instruments of record and propaganda.
Meanwhile, the distinctive delights of Basque hospitality led to the establishment of the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1953, and various short film and documentary festivals followed. Basque documentarists sought to express the contrast and discord that defined their relationship with the
centralized Francoist film industry and, though deprived of Euskera, their juxtaposition of sounds and images created an equivalent language of conflict that culminated in the introspective Ama Lur (1968). Made in the same year that saw an escalation in the violence that has overshadowed the development of the modern Basque Country, Ama Lur inspired many, both politically and artistically, to the extent that, following the end of the dictatorship, the first autonomous Basque government promptly dedicated 5% of its entire budget to the task of nation-building through revival of the indigenous film industry.
Many period epics followed, made by film-makers who took advantage of generous subsidies, and new production companies emerged. The Ikuska documentary series made by Bertan Filmeak provided apprenticeships for such as Imanol Uribe, whose progression through documentary, re-enactment and fiction dominated, influenced - and arguably skewed too much towards terrorism - the cinematic representation of the Basque Country. Other takes on Basque social themes and concerns, such as drug abuse and urban alienation, suggest the universal nature of these problems; but optimism, though rare, is not withheld.