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La Pelota vasca. La piel contra la piedra (2003)

The Basque Ball, Euskal pilota: Larrua harriaren kontra

Documentary about the Basque nationalist movement in Spain.

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 115 minutes

UK Certificate: tba

What does it mean to be Basque? Their language, Euskera, can lay claim to being the oldest spoken in Europe – but it is in decline, and no longer used by many who consider themselves Basque. Their land is currently divided into seven regions in southern France and northern Spain – but arguments still rage as to whether they should be fully absorbed into their host nations, attain some autonomy or even outright separatist status. These issues, far from being merely academic, have led to one hundred and fifty or so years of repression, misery and bloodshed, especially between the Basque and the Spanish authorities.

In front of the class, a teacher repeatedly beats two schoolchildren for speaking the Basque tongue. 'Spanish!' he shouts with each blow. 'Basque!' they keep replying, defiantly. Although this sequence, excerpted by 'The Basque Ball' from a film set in the period of Franco's crackdown on all features of Basque culture, presents the conflict between Spanish and Basque nationalists in its most black and white terms, Julio 'The Red Squirrel' Medem's brilliantly balanced documentary feature is far more concerned with 'all the colours in between'.

Named after 'pelota', a Basque game in which players hurl a ball forcefully against a wall, to be caught on the rebound by their opponents and hurled again, 'The Basque Ball' takes a whole range of discourse about the Basque problem, from politicians, academics, artists, activists and victims, allowing the most violently opposed of views to come into play, through judicious editing, alongside one another – including, controversially, the juxtaposition of one interview with the wife of a politician assassinated by Basque separatists, and another with the wife of a convicted Basque terrorist. Bouncing from one interviewee to the next, but letting all have an equal voice, the film paints a complex picture of Basque history, mythology and identity, with personal, often harrowing, accounts of the past and present outrages committed by Spanish and Basque alike, as well as expressions of hope and fear for the future.

The dialogue opened and enacted by 'The Basque Ball' offers a viable alternative to the spiral of deadlock, violence and hatred which has afflicted the Basque people for the last century and a half, so it is a telling irony that the two main antagonists in the conflict, the militant Basque separatist movement Eta and Jose Maria Aznar's ruling Spanish administration, have refused outright to participate in Medem's film. Indeed, the film has been condemned (without in fact being seen) as 'suspicious' by Spain's Minister for Culture. Yet claims that Medem shows bias towards Basque nationalism will seem simply ridiculous to anyone who has actually watched the documentary – indeed, one of the most striking things about 'The Basque Ball' is just how many of Medem's interviewees have received death threats from Eta.

A film devoted to a small ethnic grouping in the south-west of Europe may not at first sound important – but now that the polarising rhetoric of 'with us or against us', deployed by the Spanish government and Eta for years to no good, has filtered through to the politics of the whole world, Medem's model of conflict resolution, favouring open talk and sympathetic listening over deafness and silence, could not have come at a more crucial time, and contains lessons we would all do well to learn. It hardly, however, needs to be seen on a big screen.

It's Got: Almost 100 interviewees, and just about everything you ever wanted to know about Basque history, language and culture - including the revelation that Adam and Eve were pure Basque.

It Needs: To be heeded by Aznar and Eta.


A provocative plea for dialogue amidst a destructive political stalemate, 'The Basque Ball' bounces from one controversy to the next without ever losing its balance.