The collectivisation of the Spanish movie industry. Interview with Juan Mariné


Juan Mariné — CNT filmmaker

Solidaridad Obrera  (Second special edition of 2011 marking  CNT centenary)

Translated by Paul Sharkey

During the collectivisation of the movie industry, Juan Mariné was a cameraman and photographer’s assistant. These days he is director of photography and movie restorer.

Back in July 1936 Juan Mariné was 15 years old and already making movies. With the outbreak of civil war, the main union in Catalan industrial circles, the CNT, made up its mind to collectivise production as part of its strategy for fighting fascism and making revolution simultaneously. One of the collectivised industries was the Barcelona entertainments sector in which Mariné was working. He was part and parcel of that unique experiment in movie history, whereby the workers themselves organised production, made the decisions and handled the finances – from box office clerk to cabaret performer, from director to photographer’s assistant.

 You began going to the movies with your mother so as to read out the movie subtitles to her . . .

All I could think about was going to the cinema to watch movies, so I applied myself everywhere . . . on the street, at home and at school . . . just to learn to be a good reader . . . until they threw me out of school, at which I was delighted, since I could read and could now go to the cinema to watch the silents. I had to read the captions out to my mother because she had been put out to work at the age of seven.

We didn’t have a lot of money at home and my mother had to take on a lot of extra work to put me through my baccalaureate, which is why I decided early on to work in the movies. I started out as a helper but I had a vocation for it and would always show up early so as to have everything laid out ready to go and I was forever thinking up ways of improving things.

What was it like, the collectivisation of the movie industry?

It was like I was under a spell. We all earned the same wage. We were happy. There was no jealousy and nobody was jockeying for the other guy’s job. We all earned the same and so we  did the job as best we could and with gusto. I’ve never worked with a will like I did back then. If only we could get back to that way of life.

In terms of movie production, what were the good points and bad points of that arrangement?

The sense of belief, the ‘feel’ for the job, the sense of duty and the feeling that one was doing something interesting. Obviously what was completely missing was movie promotion and distribution. These were never quite organised with any real continuity on an ongoing basis: so there was a shortfall in box office takings. And maybe a few things were done too lavishly. I’m thinking of Barrios Bajos, say. On the other hand, there was one movie that was not given its due prominence but which proved a big earner and a great propaganda success: I mean the [newsreels] Los Aguiluchos de la FAI. At the height of the war there were impressive queues of people waiting to see and hear the latest news screened at the movie-house.

Was your preference for feature films or for filming what was happening on the streets?

The streets were great because there was plenty of light and as movies back then wre a touch crude, I preferred on-location shoots. But what I liked best of all was the challenge of indoor filming, and grappling with things that were harder to pull off. Which was one of things I did most of.

Of the movies you worked on at that time, which do you remember most fondly?

Antonio Sau’s Aurora de Esperanza was the blockbuster of the day. On a daily basis we had the preoccupation of which I spoke, the concern that the movie should be technically flawless. Sau was a man who took his work very seriously and was very professional. He was a sort of a prophet, a wunderkind.

And what lasting impact has the collectivisation period had on your craft?

I learnt how hard it was to keep it all going. And I also learnt something that was a great boon to me and by which nobody placed any great store: filming with a hand-held camera. The engines of the outdoor cameras were not AC but worked on batteries, complete with mishaps and mistakes. The studio cameras were better and less likely to let you down. So when it came to outdoor shoots I came up with a system whereby I held a book under my arm in order to keep the image still and kept an eye on a watch, counting off the 24 frames per second so that things would not move too quickly or too slowly. I used to film with a hand-held camera and nobody could tell the difference. All the existing footage of El Entierro de Durruti shot in the Plaza de Catalunya was shot by me using a hand-held camera and was later over-dubbed with the sound. The battery ran out and left us high and dry but I said “Now we can’t film. Come on, man, you’ll never have another crack at these images.” I was there filming by hand until I ran out of film. The other cameramen had gone by then because they reckoned there was no film and no hope. But that newsreel exists because I dug my heels in.

And then, at the age of 17, you were called up ….

Off I went in my rope-soled sandals, the first pair of trousers I could find and climbed aboard the train. We thought we’d be in a training camp but when we got off the train in Tárrega they handed us a rifle and said to us: “Here, from this day forth, this is going to be your companion”. I used to knock around with a lad who made animated drawings with me. Name of Joaquín Gálvez.

He and I were given the task of fetching hand grenades. That night we came under a heavy air raid and then came an attack from the Regulares. We were told not to shoot but by then the enemy was very close to us. Then they ordered us to open fire, but the machine-guns exploded because they were Czech whereas they had been loaded up with Russian ammunition. The Moors were closing in on us and since we had fetched the grenades we grabbed some of those and started … ‘sharing’ them … and the Moors backed off. Joaquín Gálvez was standing in front of the grenades, throwing one after another and they made him a corporal for his bravery. But later he told me: “What am I going to do now? I’m a corporal now and now I’m going to have to be brave every time.” The fact is that on the day of the attack he had a hangover as a result of brandy that we had been given to ward off the chill (we called it saltaparapetos [pun on saltpetre] because it was said to contain gunpowder, and Joaquín had downed a lot that night … and, well, it’s thanks to him that I’m still around today.

After the war Juan Mariné served time in three concentration camps but managed to return to a movie-making career. He worked as a director of photography, as a cameraman and as a special effects man on upwards of a hundred movies; and after retirement, carried on developing cinematic devices and techniques for film restoration. To this day, at the age of 90, he still works on new techniques for heightening the definition of digital film images

CNT movies on which Juan Marine worked:

Aurora de Esperanza (Antonio Sau 1936), a political melodrama about the unemployed

El entierro de Durruti (Josep Gaspar 1936) documentary

¡Nosotros somos así! (Valentín R Gonzalez 1936), children’s musical

Barcelona trabaja para el frente (Mateo Santos 1936), documentary

Venciste Monatkov (Valentín R Gonzalez 1936), audio-visual material for theatre use

El frente y la retaguardia (Joaquín Giner 1937), documentary

Paquete, el fotógrafo público no 1 (Ignacio F Iquino, 1938), slapstick comedy with Paco Martínez Soria