Digging the Spanish Earth (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Thomas Waugh


Produced and directed by Peter Davis; associate producer Tom Shandel; cinematography by Peter Davis and Daniel Riesenfeld; audio by Peter Davis, Joy Searl Davis, and Laurent Henninger; edited by Kirk Schwartz, Tom Shandel, and Bogdan Kondriuk. Color and B&W, 60 min. A Villon Films release.

Original book cover of Ernest Hemingway's The Spanish Earth.

Digging the Spanish Earth is the latest of more than forty documentaries made since the 1960s on the prolific Dutch documentarist Joris Ivens (1898–1989) and his films. Produced almost everywhere the communist globetrotter touched down during his seventy-seven-year career, from Chile to Italy to Vietnam to China to Australia, this distinct subgenre of retroactive “making of” films (called “revisit” films by Ivens scholars) testifies to the extraordinary impact the legendary “flying Dutchman” had on the diverse societies that welcomed him in times of war and peace.

Canadian filmmaker Peter Davis’s study of the context and impact of The Spanish Earth, Ivens’s 1938 antifascist solidarity film on the Spanish Civil War, is surprisingly the only “revisit” film to tackle Ivens’s best-known film (unless we count Hemingway & Gellhorn, an uneven 2012 TV movie). Made in the United States with writer Ernest Hemingway, cinematographer John Ferno, editor Helen van Dongen, and producer Lillian Hellman in 1938–39, the canonical “masterpiece” (a word that Davis uses, justly) showed up for decades on “Ten Best Documentaries of All Time” lists. The work’s status eventually dimmed thanks to lingering red scares, millennial amnesia, and the piracy-paranoid obstruction of the Ivens Estate (fortunately versions of this eighty-year-old call to action are available on YouTube, and the Netherlands-based Ivens Foundation is keeping the torch alight, supporting this project among many others).

Helen van Dongen

Martha Gellhorn

Digging the Spanish Earth is a rich and illuminating hybrid: excerpts from Ivens’s original film engage with resourcefully accessed archival footage and other visual artifacts such as posters, alongside interviews with key players in and around the original film, from Ivens and Van Dongen to crusading journalist George Seldes and American war correspondent and Hemingway consort Martha Gellhorn (played by Nicole Kidman in the TV movie!), all recorded while they were still alive in the 1980s. Most refreshing, perhaps, is the meandering tour of the twenty-first-century Spanish earth over which the other elements are layered, a survey of the original geography of the conflict and the documentary—and even a few surviving local dramatis personae from 1938 (unfortunately there are few traces or survivors of the North American solidarity brigades, the Lincoln and Mackenzie-Papineau Battalions). Together with knowledgeable American Hemingway scholar Alex Vernon and charismatic Spanish pop historian and tour guide Almudena Cros, the film ponders the fascinating assemblage of Spanish Earth in the heat of battle during the cold winter of 1937–38. More broadly, the documentary updates us on the meaning of the war itself, on the prophetic political and cultural legacy of this testing ground for the world war that exploded right after Generalissimo Franco’s victory parade through devastated Madrid in 1939.

Joris Ivens, kneeling before the camera, and crew filming The Spanish Earth.

Madrid is the main site of Cros, Vernon, and Davis’s cinematic pilgrimage, where they discover this or that locale from the original film, for example the sidewalk where a body of a bookkeeper lay after Franco’s artillery shells found him one morning on his way to work, or the ruined house from which the crew filmed the standoff between the Loyalists and the Nationalist mutineers. Cros also leads us around eighty-year-old battlefields, and the excitement of rediscovery is palpable, for example when she picks up an ammunitions box cover from under her feet. Even more excitement unfolds in the village of Fuentidueňa, where Ivens had chronicled the peasants reclaiming and irrigating the land cultivated for centuries under feudal landlord rule.

Davis’s commentary anachronistically frames Ivens’s 1930s-style mise-en-scène with the pejorative “staging,” but we get a clear view of political and artistic collaboration both onscreen and off. An update is included on Julian, the exemplary local boy turned Republican soldier turned fascist prisoner turned Madrid waiter, who finally saw “his” movie in 1982 before his death. The true “eureka” moment happens in the village bakery, where Ivens had lovingly filmed bakers lining up golden loaves against a backdrop of “Defend Madrid” posters, visually linking agricultural and military struggles. He made a close-up of the union stamp on the bread, a symbol the fascists would soon “disappear,” and showed teenage girls in a sunny window picking up their purchases. The filmmakers discover by accident at the bread counter an eighty-year old woman named Prudencia who proudly reveals that it had been her elder sister depicted in the bakery window shots, and narrates how after the Franco victory she was imprisoned with thirteen other teenaged girls sentenced to death. It is moments of spontaneous discovery like this, two sisters’ beaming faces ricocheting off each other, black-and-white and color, youthful anticipation and wrinkled nostalgia, that give good documentaries their edge, those of Davis as well as of Ivens. Other discoveries are more somber, especially the concluding shots of the still ongoing exhumation of mass unmarked graves of civilian victims (180,000 is the estimate). The gaping skeletons testify mutely to the essential work of history in the film’s objectives of remembering, freedom, and justice.

  Ivens with camera and Hemingway. 

Ivens with camera and Hemingway. 

One highlight for me was a hitherto unseen shot taken in the darkened White House screening room of young Ivens trying to persuade Roosevelt to drop America’s fake neutrality policy and come to the rescue of the Spanish Republic (he didn’t). Ivens is as charismatic in 1938, fresh from the front, as he was in the 1981 interview, and rightfully dominates the film (notwithstanding its disproportionate reliance on Hemingway’s star power, as good a publicity hook in 2017 as it was in 1938). All in all, Davis’s sixty-minute, forty-year labor of love, this archaeology of a twentieth-century classic, is a timely and moving jog to our collective cinematic memory. Its palimpsestic archive of testimonies from 1937–8, 1981, 1985, 1987, 2013, and 2017 speaks eloquently to the political challenges of a twenty-first-century inhabited by a new breed of right-wing populists, mutineers, and feudal landlords.

Thomas Waugh is Distinguished Profesor Emeritus in film studies and interdisciplinary studies in sexuality at Concordia University, Montreal, and most recently author of the prize-winning The Conscience of Cinema: The Works of Joris Ivens 1912–1989 (Amsterdam University Press, 2016).

Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 4