Anthropology, representation and absence. The case of Libertad, a film about memory and damage. Jorge Moreno

May 2019

I had to remove my name, I lost my freedom (Libertad in Spanish)

Josefa Castro

The memory of names

I was flicking through a couple of novels in a bookshop in Ciudad Real when a man in his eighties wearing a hat and suit walked in. Elegance always catches my eye, I thought as I looked at his felt, wide-brimmed Borsalino [1]. The man went to the counter to give the clerk a book he wanted to sell. “These are my memoirs,” he said. With some familiarity, the bookseller put the book away and took out a notebook to jot down a few things. “What’s your name?” he asked. “My name is Germinal,” he said. Capturing my full attention with his reply, I went over to talk to him. “Excuse me but I like your name!” I said. The man turned and looked at me with surprise and suspicion in equal measure. “I don’t mean to be cheeky,” I continued, “but I know that during the Spanish Civil War anarchists gave their children names from the French Republican calendar, and Germinal is one of those months, actually the month we’re in right now.” I must have struck lucky with my remark because the man then began to tell me his story. “Yes, my name is Germinal, but I’ve had to call myself Antonio all my life. My father was an anarchist and he was shot in Madrid. In November 1944, I went to remove his body from a grave in Carabanchel Cemetery when I was only 11. My grandfather hanged himself; he committed suicide in Ciudad Real prison … “before they kill me with their swampy hands” he said, “I will take my own life if necessary”. My aunt hid in her petticoat the only photo we have of my father. It was a way of conserving his memory in an image …” One sentence followed another as he spoke increasingly loudly, emphasising his words with the odd insult. “Pardon my language,” he said, “but it’s the only way I can find to let out the rage inside me.” The way he expressed himself had everyone in the bookshop listening to his story, one that, lying latent on the edge of his lips, could be activated if one pressed the precise key. In this case, that key was his name, because in it a trace was condensed, a trail leading to a story about which Germinal had always ruminated but rarely told in public.

To establish the new world that the anarchists of the 1930s held in their hearts, it was necessary to build a new temporality, a classification of time that would eliminate the traditional calendar and re-order the world under other parameters. This new world had yet to arrive; it was projected in the names that they gave their children, a way of affirming in that promise the will to change. The eloquence of this gesture proved so effective that one of the first measures taken by fascism was to eliminate any name with an ideological affiliation and replace it with another that responded to its doctrine [2]. “Persecution of names” was not only exercised against the anarchist worldview as this affiliation in the 1930s embraced the whole progressive ideology. If we trawl through the birth records of 1936, we can find the children of day labourers or country folk called Lenin, Durruti or Trosky (sic). In other cases, we find names of personalities who are barely recognisable these days, but whose choice reveals the influence of the national and international political panorama of the age. For example, if we look at one of the hundreds of civil registries where I have conducted field work [3], such as Pedro Muñoz, a municipality in the province of Ciudad Real with a population of 7,000, we find that, in addition to the names I have already mentioned, parents chose Dimitrov, Litvínov or Molotov for their children. Dimitrov responds to Georgi Dimitrov Mikhaylov, the General Secretary of the Communist International who approved the creation of Popular Fronts at the 1935 Congress. This political figure gave his name to Dimitrov Peinado Cuesta, an inhabitant of the town of Pedro Muñoz. Likewise, we have Litvínov Muñoz and Molotov Muñoz, whose references are Maksim Litvinov or Vyacheslav Molotov, both Soviet Ministers of Foreign Affairs in the 1930s. Or female names like Aida, Lina or Libertad, the former two being Aida Lafuente and Lina Odena, important communist militants killed in 1934 and 1936 respectively.

On 23 February 1939, an Order was published in the Official State Gazette and written in the city of Vitoria by the man who would become Franco’s first Minister of Justice, Tomás Domínguez Arévalo. This gave parents a period of sixty days to change their children’s birth records. Specifically, those “that were tainted with the designation of exotic, extravagant or other types of name included in the aforementioned provision, for the purpose of their requesting the imposition of the name or names that are to replace those declared illegal.”

“Once the designated period has elapsed without any of the persons designated in the previous number having appeared at the Registry, its clerk shall proceed to impose on those registered who are in this situation the name of the saint whose day coincided with the day they were born. If this is not applicable, then the saint of the day they were registered, choosing the name that is best known or venerated in the locality. (…) The Judge shall proceed ex officio to cross out the name declared illegal when, upon the request of one party or ex officio, an authorised name has been imposed on whosoever has been registered. He shall refer to this Order in the margin of the record”.

Birth records. Municipal archive of Pedro Muñoz

The saint’s day as a form of repression spread all over Spain in a wave that swapped any name linked to leftist parties and unions for that of a saint: Germinal became Antonio, Aida became Nemesia, Litvínov was Fabriciano or Trosky was Jerónimo. Such “state re-baptisms” formed part of a major clean-up that began with the murder of thousands of people, and continued with the establishing of a National Catholic cosmology expressed with regard to the most intimate part of a person: their own name. As indicated by Xaverio Ballester, name changes have been common in many cultures, responding to different issues ranging from the overcoming of a disease, to rites of passage that turn adolescents into adults or newborns into infants. In all these cases, the change of name implies a change of status, as in some way also occurs in the case indicated here, but adding in turn the same logic of those peoples who never use the name of a dead person because of the fear of invoking him or her, “so as not to be recognised should the soul of the deceased decide to return” (Ballester, 2008: 43). The fear of invocation and the return of the persecuted ideology was one of the motivations behind the Order, but also the restoration of practices that counteracted the criticism that had been levelled at the Catholic Church during the 1930s, and in which anticlerical movements were their strongest expression. The seed of the name planted in the children of those who suffered reprisals supposed highly dangerous identifications. To combat this, the regime had to erase all trace, eliminating the possibility of the name referring to such identifications and displacing those affiliations towards more established others. The name that the Municipal Judge had to choose, in the case of there being several saints on the same day, was the one “that is best known or venerated in the locality”. Wherever we look we see only saints’ names; this is the regime of visibility that was established and these are the horizons of meaning that delimit the borders of the new world.

“The Judge shall proceed ex officio to cross out the name declared illegal,” the Order stated. It is interesting to note the difference between erasure and crossing out, because in the former case there is no trace of what has been eliminated, or what remains is a ruin, a vestige; in the latter the action itself is preserved, the entire sequence, the social life of a birth record that moves through two different times and where the marks clarify what has happened. Although many people ended up taking as their own the name that the New State had given them, in other cases a double identity was created in which they signed with one name but responded to another, specifically the one of which the crossing out provided a glimpse. In those cases where the person had two names, the forbidden one would be removed and the one that lacked ideology would be left. If the strategy of the regime was to eliminate, that of the families was to maintain. We see this in the infinity of practices of resistance that in most cases had to be kept silent. This resistance was also expressed in the practice of giving the children the names of those who had disappeared, as long as they did not fall into the so-called “exotic or extravagant” category, a practice where invoking the dead with their name was not a fear but, rather, a chance for permanence.

A changed name is precisely the starting point of the project called Libertad (“Freedom” in Spanish), a film made collaboratively by high school students, teachers and creators linked to the Laboratory of Experimental Audiovisual Anthropology of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Castile and León. The story concerns Josefa Castro García, a victim of the Francoist violence whose testimony was recorded by the filmmaker Chus Domínguez. This is the premise for this project, which functions as a sort of resonance or a coordinate with which to view the present. A coordinate that, as a trace or piece of evidence, expresses a “placing under suspicion” in the very title of the work. This is because Josefa was not really Josefa; her name was Libertad.

I had always heard that I was named Josefa after my two grandmothers, and I was called Libertad Josefa. Nobody at home, other than my father, knew that I was called Libertad; he was the one who gave me the name. The name Libertad was not allowed by the Regime, it was the worst. Then I went to do my passport and the police ordered me to go and see them. (…) And I had to remove my name. I had to go to La Robla and remove my name. I lost my Libertad. It was one thing to spend time in prison but to lose my name was even worse.


Filming absence

The representation of a traumatic past is a difficult challenge for any documentary that wishes to deal with the war and the post-war years in Spain. This is not just because of the problems that might be caused by talking about a time that no longer exists [4], but because of the need to avoid  the social, political and ethical difficulties that sometimes seem to undermine the subject. If, on the one hand, the saturation of films about this subject is often commented upon, research conducted since 2000 actually shows there to have been a lack of them. This highlights the ignorance about what happened not only in qualitative terms, but it also reveals figures that double and triple what was known about the violence committed by the Franco regime. As Simone de Beauvoir said about the film Shoah by Claude Lanzman, in documentaries like Libertad, “one really realises that we did not know anything. Despite all our knowledge, experience with all its horror remained a considerable distance away from us” (Beauvoir, 2003: 7).

Another problem that arises in the documentaries that involve themselves with Spain’s traumatic past lies in the way in which film productions use testimony and the narratives of memory. Many of these works generally do not construct the victim in as complex a manner as they should; they affirm the subject’s kindness and pain without negotiating this aspect previously with the viewer. This has given rise to visual language that is predictable, supported by the reiterative use of humanitarian narratives that, as Javier Campo (2012) observed for the Argentine context, may portray certain discourses as truthful only because they are presented in the format of a testimonial narrative. Many actors participate in the cultural production linked to what is termed “historical memory”. They have very diverse interests, affections, dispositions, possibilities etc. and these are translated into a whole constellation of practices and discourses. This is not a given memory; it is a memory to be created. And nor is it a personal memory, with its sweet moments and its residues, its lacunae tasted as a mystery of origin or as a possibility of biographical reinvention. It is historic, and that is not just any term. For some, this adjective impacts on memory with an apparatus of demands that, in fact, are alien to memory: the demand for clarification, for redemption, for justice etc. One must ask what role is played by researchers and filmmakers (as specific and unusual actors in the construction process) in the definition of “historical memory”. Any work in this context should reflect on the questions that problematise about what is comprised or should be comprised by the memory of a people that comes from the remains and traces of experience, of exemplary violence sustained in time through war and repression. This is a violence to which the writing of a story as an authentic ritual essentially belongs, in which it is justified and perpetuates. It is with regard to the authentic ritual of the story as it was written from that episode, that “historical memory” is constructed. That is why it is right to be cautious in the face of the desire for poetic justice, or any rhetoric that obscures the conflictive, ambivalent and complex dimensions of building a memory that, like any other, will always be full of light and shade.

How do we approach this phenomenon from visual anthropology? Ethnographic experience and consequent anthropological reflection has made us well aware that translating the reality of others is difficult; and more so if it refers to strange feelings and emotions. Approaching the damage and pain of some and transmitting it to others is full of complications and the chances of falsification increase as the temptation of universalist generalisation prevails. Sometimes the other extreme is imposed: the emphasis on difference that may leave us bereft of common feelings of pity, sorrow or anger. In many cases, sub-texts do not work; in others, it is disconcerting to find that what is ignored actually functions. It often happens that words are not enough to convey the pain produced and felt, that accompanying images are needed for understanding and emotional convergence. Perhaps it is in this field where visual tools become more necessary for the anthropologist.

On this basis, one wonders to what extent anthropology and cinema can find a meeting point. One could be what links knowledge production and the deictic nature of anthropology, which defines by selecting from reality the scenes that are significant; selecting places where it is necessary to look, the places or the fragments containing what is important for the creation of its object of study. From all this [“this” being the thick description of a context created by an anthropologist], look at that! That is what deictic selection expresses in order to show the significant scenes of a particular place. It is in that nature, in that showing of situations, where anthropology and cinema find a close link. The control exerted by concepts in the analysis of reality when we write a text is not transferable to film language [5]. “Closing of concept” does not work well with “opening by film”, although there are increasingly more transfers and open forms claimed for anthropological texts. This attempt at conceptual closure is perhaps one of the sins that a literary discipline, such as anthropology, can commit when it comes to creating cinematographic stories, when attempting ultimately to convey elements that are difficult in cinematographic terms. For this reason, the interesting thing about this dialogue is precisely to understand that the marriage of anthropology and cinema works in the sense that concept is renounced and context embraced; those situations that, selected cinematographically, remind us that one of the ways to produce knowledge in this discipline lies in offering a place from which to look at reality.

The premise of the Libertad team was to make a documentary based on Josefa’s testimony. For many of the members working on the story this has functioned as a sort of Ariadne’s thread that has enabled them to enter the labyrinth of the past and discover the recent history of their country. However, the film’s starting point has consisted of keeping a considerable distance from that labyrinth, something that has enabled them to problematise not so much about what happened as about the way in which the present is affected or can be affected by the testimony of an unknown and ungraspable past. Accordingly, it is no accident that this positioning starts from a laboratory of visual anthropology, because if for a historian the key question would concern what a testimony can tell us about a country’s past, for an anthropologist the question would be rather what Josefa’s memory can say about our present.

The fundamental difference between a historian and an anthropologist who decide to work with materials from the past, traditionally used by the former, lies in their relationship, which is expressed in the methodology with which the two disciplines produce their objects of study. Testimony for historians is a material that serves to reconstruct the past. The complementarity of those materials, or their secondary place with regard to the status that written documentation traditionally represents for history, is due to the subjectivity that structures and shapes testimony from experience [6]. For anthropologists, whose principal activity is to spend time with people and their materials, observing and interviewing, the goal is not to reconstruct the past but to clarify the relationships and interpretative actions contained by these materials and with which their object of study is finally constructed. In this regard, what is important in a testimony is not so much what history there is in it, but the chance to analyse the memory that structures it, understood as a complex activity that, depending on what is at stake and the personal and social conflicts, conserves, transmits, forgets, abandons, expels, destroys, censors or embellishes the past. The subjectivity questioned by historians is for anthropologists one of the central nodes from which to ask questions and create knowledge [7]. That is, in the case that concerns us here, an ethnographic positioning would lead us to ask ourselves questions such as: what are the kind of relationships that the testimony to reach us today is establishing with the past? why is Josefa selecting, from all the memories she has had in her life, those that she is recounting to us in an interview? how has violence intervened in her story? what is the researcher’s relationship with the person interviewed? what has the anthropologist selected according to his/her own interests? or what is the use of that testimony: for a book, an article, a documentary etc.?

Cinematographic positioning with regard to the use of a testimony differs if the interest of the documentary is intervened by historiography or anthropology. It is not difficult to imagine, in this regard, Josefa’s voiceover in a supposed film interested in recounting what happened to her, using her voice as just another component of a historical time that it aims to reconstruct. From that place, it would be normal to try to account for the past in Josefa’s voice by using other voices that corroborate her story, as well as archive images that illustrate and make her testimony reliable. Apparently, that journey into the past would seem to connect us closely to Josefa, to understand her, but in reality that knowledge would be obtained on the basis of turning her into an object of another time, an object so removed from us that she does not even touch us, or affect us. With this is mind, Libertad aims precisely to generate that feel, that affection, those resonances that have more to do with memory than with history, with the present than the past, with creating a dialogue between different and distant temporalities (those of the team and those of Josefa) in order to express that link cinematographically. As Nelly Richard says: “We must protect the remains of misfortune from being passed to languages ​​that anaesthetise drama with their undamaged words, without marks or scars, which only seek to process -executively- the reference to the past in order to accelerate the passage between yesterday and today. (…) We again must weave the marks of the past with narratives in progress: we must take the criticism of memory to intervene in the field of discourses of the present so that it elaborates new vital connections that move it away from the fixed (dead) point of what has already been (2008: 193) [8].

Libertad’s proposal recalls that of Tempestad, the film by the Mexican director Tatiana Huezo, where one of the protagonists, the victim of corruption and injustice, leaves prison. The voice-over relates to her return although she never appears in the images. What appears is Mexico in a sort of “placing under suspicion” of a state that has connived with enforced disappearance. In Libertad, Josefa does not appear either, and yet we never stop hearing her over the street, buildings or people. Here, the “placing under suspicion” is that of the present itself, that of the places that were inhabited or travelled by Josefa and about which the film creates a sort of short-circuit, a disturbance that leads  us to understand that in those landscapes damage is inscribed. Seeing images of the present intervened by a trace like Josefa’s testimony, is something similar to seeing two superimposed names in the crossing out on birth records. After that experience, we understand that something as simple as one’s own name or a landscape is really the evidence of a wound.

Testimony disturbs the present because it has disturbed the work team beforehand; it is they who, affected by the story, attempt to reflect it in the creation of a film. This film cannot but resort to spaces and places, because evocation of the past requires frames that integrate and stabilise what has happened. These frames are social and related to time and space. In fact, when I evoke something, I place it in a specific collective space and time, establishing a point of reference above the events. “Space is not limited to being a silent order of relationship between things, but it manifests itself as a dense forest of social symbols” (Ramos, 1989: 75). The house, the street, the town square, are not the external framework of the events of my childhood; they are my childhood. Evoking that space is much like evoking that period and that social world. Accordingly, any place has a memory, even if it is not remembered or it does not have a monument that indicates what happened there. Libertad recalls what Nanni Moretti tried to show in the final scene of the first part of Dear Diary. Here, the film’s director and protagonist visits some waste ground in Rome’s outskirts on his motorbike. These are shots of uninhabited places filmed from the road; they give no signs that we are in one place and not in another. There is nothing in particular, and that “nothing” is precisely the place where Pier Paolo Pasolini died, a perfect metaphor that indicates that any place is loaded with memory.

This relationship between memory and space is also seen in Hiroshima Mon Amour, the film by director Alain Resnais where the streets, the squares or the corners of the city in which two lovers passed and retraced their lives step by step, materially or evocatively, blend into the experience they have shared. The walls and pavements are impregnated with them … they are the name spoken by the woman when she leaves for good and says only: “Your name is Hiroshima”. Libertad understands that link between place and memory, and it creates a story where Josefa’s voice is inseparable from walls, streets, ruins, gestures etc. [9] because it is in them that a dissenting present is expressed.

Removed from monuments, from those places where official history establishes what has to be remembered, as if the present was already inscribed in the past, Libertad tries to remind us of other spaces, those common places where history is inscribed against the grain. And yet, sometimes, however much you look at those places you cannot see anything. That is the question that seems to run through the whole film: where is Josefa’s voice in the present? The question is framed in turn within a larger one: how to represent past damage? This is the true merit of a film that problematises memory from a paradox: the real ignorance of these stories in the present is nevertheless the most eloquent place from where to look. If you try to provide a place, to create a narrative that includes a testimony like Josefa’s, it is because you ethically understand that this has to be heard, those injustices have to have a cinematographic body to make them present, and that body is precisely that of absence. The fact that the disappeared do not appear does not mean that they are not present, because there is nothing that fills space more than absence. The journey that Libertad provides is that of the faded trail, one that hangs from the thread of a voice, one that does not aim to lead us anywhere because in the background it is portraying absence. That is the resonance that arises from the link between two different temporalities put into dialogue; that is the place that the film has chosen to make us look at our present.

On seeing the result, one imagines not only the hours of work that must have been necessary to make a film of these characteristics, but the bond that the whole team has established with a material as sensitive as a testimony. The film expresses that relationship in such a close, respectful and honest manner that one cannot help but remember the Paul Celán poem that said: “I do not see a fundamental difference between a handshake and a poem”.


[1] A type of hat.

[2] As Julián López García indicates, “the name «has not only been a classifying mechanism but has also become a symbol”(2010: 192).

[3] Field work carried out with the Mapas de Memoria project, research by the National Distance Education University (UNED) in partnership with Ciudad Real Provincial Council.  

[4] On the impossibility of representation, please read the doctoral thesis La responsabilidad de la lectura ante el holocausto by Alberto Sebastián Lago, Carlos III University, Getafe (Madrid). The thesis problematises the representation of damage in the films Shoah, Schindler’s List and Waltz with Bashir.  

[5] This is precisely what the anthropologist Manuel Delgado states: “The great mistake of what is termed visual anthropology is, without a doubt, believing and making believe that the filmmaker can assume the task of filming or recording and then reproducing concepts. Thus, Timothy Asch wrote that “the first challenge of the programme [for ethnographic film students] would be to take the intellectual concepts of anthropology and find ways to express them on film.” Faced with such an aim, it should be acknowledged that it is impossible to obtain moving images that recall, evoke, represent or replace abstract categories similar to those generally used by the social sciences in their literature, basically because what the camera collects and the projector emits are not, nor can ever be, concepts, but (…) situations (1999: 69). “

[6] Experience, says Koselleck, is a “present past, whose events have been incorporated and can be remembered (…) The events of 1933 definitely happened, but the experiences based on them can be modified over time. Experiences overlap, they impregnate one another “(1993: 338-347).

 [7] “By subjectivity, I mean research into cultural forms and processes by which individuals express their sense of themselves in history. From this perspective, subjectivity has its own objective laws, its structures, its maps “(Portelli, 1991: IX).

[8] In a recent interview, Nelly Richard made a similar reflection with respect to art: “In art, it is not enough to stage images of the past, it is necessary to make the past converse with the present and cause a commotion. It is not enough to commemorate; we must again provide the memory with energy, engage in a conversation with a dissenting present”.

[9] The temporal and spatial frames on which memories are based are never external to events; it could almost be said that they are the same events because experience is never isolated from the place where they occur. Simmel was already saying that “memory often blends inseparably with the place and reciprocally; in such a way that the place constitutes the point of rotation around which the memory links to individuals, in an ideal correlation “(1986: 665).


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BEAUVOIR, Simone de (2003), “La Memoria del Horror” in LANZMANN, Claude (2003). Shoah, Madrid, Arena Libros, 2003.

CAMPO, Jorge. Cine documental argentino. Entre el arte, la cultura y la política. Buenos Aires, Imago Mundi, 2012.

CELAN, Paul. Obras completas. Madrid, Trotta, 2013.

DELGADO, Manuel. El animal público, Madrid, Anagrama, 1999.

HALBWACHS, Maurice. La memoria colectiva, Zaragoza, Prensas Universitarias de Zaragoza, 2004.

KOSELLECK, Reinhart. Futuro pasado: para una semántico de los tiempos históricos, Barcelona, Paidós, 1993.

LÓPEZ GARCÍA, Julián and FERRANDIZ, Francisco (coords.). Fontanosas, 1941-2006. Memoria de cerne y hueso, Ciudad Real, Diputación Provincial de Ciudad Real, 2010.

PORTELLI, Alessandro. The death of Luigi Trastulli, and other stories i form and meaning in oral history, New York, University of New York, 1991.

RAMOS, Ramón. “Maurice Halbwachs y la memoria colectiva” en Revista de Occidente, 100, 63- 81, 1989.

RICHARD, Nelly. “La crítica de la memoria” in Cuadernos de Literatura, 8 (15), 187-193, 2002.

SIMMEL, Georg. Sociología II. Estudios sobre las formas de socialización, Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 1986.

Jorge Moreno Andrés. Doctor in social and cultural anthropology. Filmmaker, photographer and director of the International Documentary Film Contest on Migration and Exile in Mexico (CEME DOC). Member of the International Centre for Studies on Memory and Human Rights (CIEMEDH-UNED), the consolidated Urban Culture group of the UNED and the “Thematic network of interdisciplinary studies on vulnerability, social construction of risk and natural and biological threats” (Conacyt, Mexico). He was a visual consultant at Goldsmiths (University of London) with the European project «Bosnian Bones Spanish Ghost». His research into audiovisual anthropology, violence and social memory embraces two main aims: the social uses of photography in traumatic contexts and the use of cinema and photographic essays in the construction of ethnographic stories. As a photographer, he won the second Marqués de Lozolla Prize in the national contest on popular photography for his work Entre lo urbano y lo rural: la matanza del cerdo (Spain, 2006). As a filmmaker, he won in 2011 the Prize for the Best Documentary of the International Festival of Castilla-La Mancha for his work Vuelo a Shangrila. In 2015, his documentary What Remains, directed with Lee Douglas, was selected at the Margaret Mead Film Festival (New York), the ALBA Human Rights Documentary Film Festival (New York) and the Ethnografilm Festival (Paris), among others.