The LAAV team invited me to join them on a working visit to Ciñera with the wives and partners of the miners in the area. LAAV has an audiovisual project based on images shot by miners who shut themselves in a mine last summer to protest against its closing conditions and bankruptcy. Broadly speaking, the LAAV proposal consisted of approaching the women of the town with the intention of creating a working group around the issues that they themselves want to tell. The original idea was to accompany the voices of the mining women with images shot underground by the miners.
I was invited because a few years ago I published a book about anthropological cinema, or rather about the impossibility of such cinema, and because I have programmed many experimental films at different institutions and festivals. LAAV has the dual intention of questioning not only the production processes of the traditional documentary but also the audiovisual language used for it. This latter aspect is my field of specialisation, although I would add that it is something that lies in the background, or has a secondary effect, because if you can do things differently, the use of a different language will be inevitable. Hence, when Andy Warhol, that great lover of fame and rotten money, shot some of his films without even loading the reels he understood perfectly that the process, to a certain extent, is everything.
On the morning of the visit, we set up a projector in the Ciñera casino and a dozen women come to watch with us the documentary Harlan County USA, which describes a bitter strike in Kentucky in the 1970s. Everything was private, including the security forces, and all were armed. The danger for the strikers was so obvious that it was the women who put themselves on the front line, and the film documents how they organised the resistance. I understand the reasons why the LAAV team wants to show this documentary in Ciñera, but I’m not convinced that it is a good idea. In the end, it is a type of protest cinema that is at the antipodes of its work. From Harlan County USA you may ask “What happened next?” We do not know anything about the miners; from the director, Barbara Kopple, we know this:
This image literally sums up some of the discomfort inherent in any documentary, which has to do with the superimposition of the image on life. Undoubtedly, LAAV’s work will not end up on any red carpet: when control is given to undertake a collective audiovisual work, the results only form part of the work, perhaps not even the most important part. Nobody knows for sure what this collective work is like, you cannot tell if it is seen on the screen or not. Maybe it is there but we are unable to see it. Language, any language, has this paradox: there is nothing that cannot be said, but nothing is said completely.
At lunchtime, we go to a restaurant in town and are accompanied by one of the ‘coal women’ who was in Brussels the previous day as a guest of Podemos. She tells us that in many European countries coal mines are kept open, even if they are not economically viable, in order to ensure a variety of energy sources in the future. In Spain, however, the government seems determined to do nothing to maintain the industry. It makes me think about the march of the miners arriving on the Gran Vía in Madrid in 2012. The street was crowded from Princesa to Cibeles. It occurred to me that the image of so many people applauding and supporting the miners would be viewed even in the spheres of power. There is something iconic in the solidarity of and with the miners that is difficult to tame. In England, Margaret Thatcher understood perfectly that putting a stop to the miners was key to achieving her purposes, and the Madrid of Aguirre and Gallardón even dedicated a square to her. In the end, these are images that serve for some and for others.
Demonstrations and protests are a difficult subject for people who make films and videos. They have to grapple with the invisibility of power, the difficulty of its representation and the intuition that there is something equally contradictory in the easy iconography of rebellion and resistance.
In the afternoon, there is a work meeting in Ciñera. Many women and a few men attend, the room fills up and the women start talking. One of the first speakers is a young mother who explains how the riot police entered the town with batons during the protests in the town in 2012. To hear her story in the first person is to understand how one feels about the violation of the family space, the home, in a visceral and unquestionable way. But it is worth taking a look at the images of this protest.
In a first reading of these images, one can appreciate the filmmaker’s vision; the inequality of resources is clearly seen: firecrackers and stones against rubber bullets and smoke cans, solidarity against the professionalised force, and the courage of the miners facing the inevitable imposition of power. But surely there is a second reading that is more focused on the details, based on still frames and registering the clothing of each demonstrator. This would be the reading of the forces of order, a reading that often ends in court, where the real danger of an image is revealed in all its harshness. But in the case of LAAV, which is doing work on women in mining, there is perhaps a third reading in which men are the protagonists of the story and women appear at the end to comment and explain the events. And here you can also see that it is difficult to see some things and very easy to see others.
At the end of the meeting, Conchi Unanue Cuesta, an anthropologist who is part of the LAAV team, asks to speak. After presenting her credentials, working class and born in the mining area of León, she explains that LAAV is interested in the stories of women and they want them to be the project’s protagonists. This requires more research about their own lives and not only about the working conditions and circumstances of the miners. It is an interesting moment because LAAV wishes to encourage a collective work, and not assume the control of it, but at the same time to prevent the project from becoming something almost exclusively focused on men. It seems to me necessary that the project is always balanced like this, what is paradoxical is what precisely gives it value. But it is an approach that implies a certain positioning on the part of the LAAV team and the women of the town. It is very difficult to stop thinking about the results of a work process enough to facilitate autonomy in its management, to have the patience and enough time for the project to take its course without a pre-established direction.
And there is something else, an added difficulty that has to do with the expectations of a public that is usually interested in watching a documentary or an audiovisual work. We are very used to watching films made from the point of view and with the style of a particular director, a unique voice and a rhythm of assembly that unites all the filmed material. Perhaps the most difficult challenge for LAAV is precisely to find an audience willing to assimilate something different, capable of opening up to listen to the sum of voices and perspectives of a collective work that is not subject to the command so rooted in our audiovisual culture.
Andy Davies is a video and film curator. Between 1998 and 2000 he worked as a director for exhibitions at the CCCB in Barcelona. From 1998 to 2008 he coordinated Sonar Cinema within the Sonar festival, he co-founded the experimental film programme X-Centric at the CCCB and directed the live audiovisual festival Play at La Casa Encendida in Madrid between 2006 and 2013. In 2012 he organised the exhibition “La Imagen Transitada” at L’Espai Barcelona, in 2013 “Common Sense, Luke Fowler” at La Casa Encendida, Madrid and in 2014 “Cry when you pass, Laida Lertxund” at Azkuna Zentroa.