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Iñaki Arteta: "I am trying to understand how I ignored the horror of ETA for so long". The filmmaker and photographer Iñaki Arteta (Bilbao, 1959) has made more than a dozen documentaries, most of them on an issue that has marked his life and that of several generations of Spaniards: Basque terrorism. Raised in a nationalist environment from which he found it difficult to leave, he has spent more than twenty years dedicated to breaking the silence that still envelops Basque society.

David Mejía, 13 March 2023

Iñaki Arteta and David Mejía. | Image: Carmen Suárez

Iñaki Arteta: “I am trying to understand how I ignored the horror of ETA for so long”.

The filmmaker and photographer Iñaki Arteta (Bilbao, 1959) has made more than a dozen documentaries, most of them on an issue that has marked his life and that of several generations of Spaniards: Basque terrorism. Raised in a nationalist environment from which he found it difficult to leave, he has spent more than twenty years dedicated to breaking the silence that still envelops Basque society.

Q: How do you feel being on this side of the cameras?

A: Well, I’ve been getting used to it; I started making films twenty years ago and it’s not my favourite place, but I also like to talk. When I’m an interviewer for my films, I like the contact with the person, getting to know them better; so when I’m interviewed I try to do the same, to be understood and known.

Q: Unlike other documentary filmmakers, you leave the answer naked, your voice is not heard, you hide yourself, is that an aesthetic or journalistic decision?

A: Yes, it is a decision of style and concept. What I want is that from the answers of the people we interview, the context of a specific problem is understood. And I find interesting the idea that the creator is in the background and the story remains in the hands and voice of the interviewee.

Q: In your latest film, Under the Silence, you take this technique a step further, because there is an interposed person, an interviewer. A young journalist is the one who takes the lead, although your gaze is behind. How much of you is in the interviewer?

A: The concept of this film came about because I didn’t want to ask the questions. I could handle the content of the interviews, the documentation and I usually work effectively with the protagonist. But an interview is a liquid game, you don’t know where the interviewee is going to come out and even less so with the kind of people we interviewed for Under the Silence: non-public people, most of whom there was no reference to how they spoke or what their character was like. The interviewer is not my alter ego, but he does handle my interests, although he has a very open field to cross-examine, to follow the course of the conversation where the interviewees take him, and it has been a very interesting experience. 

Q: Using the resource of the journalist surely also gives you access to certain people who know you and know where your concerns lie. Do they know from the very first moment that you are behind the film? 

A: Well, those are production details that can’t be talked about too much. I didn’t want to do the interviews for two reasons: I wanted it to be a young guy, because dealing with the interviewee is different, especially if the subjects are controversial. We thought of a young journalist, who also knew very little about the Basque issue when he started, which is very complex, and he was going to face people who had been, let’s say, on the other side: people from ETA or people linked in some way to terrorism. It was extremely risky, but I think it worked out very well. On the other hand, there was the question that I was known precisely because of the kind of films I make, so I was going to have a lot of difficulties interviewing certain people and getting permission.

Q: The interviews that this young journalist does put several of the interviewees in a very uncomfortable position. And he does so with very elementary questions, not that he is asking about anyone’s private life, but he puts former members of ETA and Bildu councillors on their guard. Why do they find it so difficult to recognise: “yes, those photographs in the town square where I am mayor or councillor are of ETA prisoners”?

A: Well, I think there is an important psychological component, and there are also current political interests. This psychological component is no joke because these people have been linked to terrorism until recently, and mentally they are still linked. Then they have something to hide, because they want to be admitted into society by maintaining their political project and pretending that they didn’t know anything or that they weren’t there. That’s the summary of my film, all the interviewees argue that there are no people responsible for what happened. And that, of course, creates a communication problem just by asking. There are two people who are asked “How would you tell this to young people?” One of them, a well-known person in the world of culture, took off the microphone; he doesn’t appear in the film. The other is a writer who remains silent for two minutes and then says that he is uncomfortable with the question. It’s tremendous.. I think they are hiding something that they know it is not convenient for them to say now. They are not going to say that they have been with ETA, but neither are they going to say that they are not. They are basically trying, in a self-interested way, to confuse politicians and the public. To lie low for a while, to see if they are given a green light or if we forget what they did. And that is the little hole, the fissure, where we wanted to enter in the interviews, to what extent do these people control this game? Some are more brazen and some are less brazen, not all of them know how to handle it equally well.

Q: The reticence seen in your interviewees brings to mind something that your films and your book insist on: the tolerance and social co-responsibility that existed, beyond the individual agents. Your book, Historia de un vasco, is structured around letters that a young Iñaki Arteta writes to a young man in the present to explain to him what ETA’s violence was like. Why do you feel the need to tell this story, which is something that is also dealt with in your films? Do you really believe that memory is being lost?

A: I have the need to explain part of my life. I was born in 1959, and that year ETA was also born. For as long as I can remember I have lived with that and I have lived surrounded by a lot of confusion and a lot of silence, which was complicity. There comes a time when I mature and take charge of the things I am seeing. My work as a photojournalist also helped me, which brought me closer to the harshest reality. All of that led me to realise that I didn’t want to be on that side. There came a time when I found it horrible to be in a group that was, let’s say, moderate nationalist (moderate at times) that was close to death, to terrorism. I needed to get away from that, and that was my process. And I think that throughout my life I have tried to understand how I ignored for so long what we lived through so closely. And how the rest of society put up with it, because when I look around me and see the people I’m close to, my family, the neighbours, the people who were involved in politics… the picture is devastating. All of this led me to make the films, it led me to empathise with the victims and to identify with those people who had suffered the most brutal damage that can be done and to whom we hadn’t paid attention. I cannot be among those who ignore these suffering people. Maybe that’s where the aspiration is to do something humanitarian, social. 

Q: You grow up in a nationalist environment, that’s the ecosystem in which you grow up and that’s precisely why your step is so difficult, because you have to break away from your own environment. There are people who vote for the same party all their lives, simply because they find it hard to break away from their tribe. And when terror comes into the picture, the price to pay is certainly higher.

A: Yes, of course, I see it as a tribe, a moderate sect, because it didn’t drug people, but it did lull them to sleep with historicist, supremacist and victimising arguments. Moreover, within this tribe, people are well off, because nationalism has governed the Basque Country since democracy. It has generated a clientelism that has gone a long way, from which everything is controlled, for example, who applies for an Ertzaintza post. In the batzokis [premises frequented by PNV sympathisers] they used to put the names of those who were going to apply for Ertzaintza posts, in case anyone had any objections. That control of society, for those who were inside, was very good. And I could have stayed there and I would have been living quite well, I’m sure. But you make complicated decisions and over time, as a result of the films I’ve made, people from my village have approached me to say “Hey, I’m with you, I’ve seen what you’ve done and it’s fantastic, there’s no right to such and such”. It’s difficult to escape from the nationalist world, because nationalism is nirvana: you live well, everyone appreciates you, you’re going to have a job, a comfortable life. The problem is the people who have not been able to express non-nationalism, and who have watched what was happening with great horror. We’ve put them in that part of society that didn’t do anything, but they have suffered a lot. There are many of those people, many people who didn’t dare. Is it cowardice? We are not all going to be on the front line. That is also a drama; people who have been teachers or journalists, who in their work have not been able to open their mouths so as not to create a climate of discomfort. That is the real hidden drama of all this. Because, in fact, it’s not that they were going to be killed; they were not in danger of death, but they were in danger of being isolated from that tribe. And that was dangerous because people have children, they want to continue working in the same job and the price to pay was very high.

Q: How did you realise that the nationalist environment was a breeding ground for the worst emotions with fatal consequences?

A: Well, the truth is that it took me a long time, almost until I was 30 years old I let myself be carried away by it. And besides, I remember it with a feeling of guilt, because I didn’t feel anything in 1980, when I was 21, and they killed 100 people, kidnapped five, there were all those demonstrations and that ultra-nationalist and radical atmosphere. I was living there, I was studying, and I didn’t feel the horror. And that’s how a lot of people experienced it. But of course it wasn’t a specific event, in my case it was an accumulation of experiences that, moreover, I lived alone, I didn’t share them with anyone, I didn’t exchange opinions with anyone. That’s why it was such a slow process. But when the time came, not only did I want to get away from it all, but I also wanted to do something. And that’s what leads me to make the films; I mean, it’s not that I cross the line a little bit, it’s that I put myself on the other side.

Q: And you made that film, 1980.

A: When I made 1980 I thought: “my God, what was I doing here”. How could I have been at the village festivals… All that natural coexistence with horror is something that I can’t comprehend.

Q: In the prologue to your book there is an appeal to this feeling of guilt. You recognise that part of the driving force behind your work is that guilt of saying “I was looking the other way for a long time”.

A: I had to get everything out of my head because it was time. You can’t do an autobiographical book if it’s not painful. And it has been painful. For example, talking about my family is painful, disturbing, but you can’t avoid it, it’s a pillar of education. And the feeling of guilt… well, I think so, and it’s difficult to get rid of it. I met Teo Uriarte, who was an ETA militant in his early days, and soon after we were having a drink and chatting, the subject of the feeling of torment came up, in his case the most important one, for having taken part in it. And I think that those of us who have gone through life as if nothing had happened have to carry it somewhere, and I am getting rid of it through cinema.

Q: In the case of the Basque Country, and unlike what has happened in Catalonia, historiography has been quite serious. I’m thinking of people like Martin Alonso and young historians like Gaizka Fernández Soldevilla. I wanted to ask you how you see this academic research work, where so many myths are debunked, and how you value academic contributions and their relationship with aesthetic contributions.

A: All this is the cultural panorama that we can pass on to the next generations, in the same way that we were educated in the 1990s by reading Azurmendi, Juaristi and Iñaki Ezkerra. I had that restlessness and the books of these people, who came from the left, were my intellectual nourishment. Later I got to know them all and I was able to find out more about how they generated such interesting intellectual products. Now there are new works, new views of young historians who are doing very good work. And then in cinema, it’s true that until 2000, when my first film came out, victims didn’t exist. But this has also changed, as has society, from 2000 until now. And I think that all of this is the mosaic that has to exist to compensate for the official discourse, the machinery of money and publications. ETB seeks to distort things, to encourage oblivion and, above all, confusion. And that leads to desistance. In other words, “it was such a complex problem that only the Basques understand”. The Basques have made an effort to make it very confusing so that it would be a problem controlled by them, because it is too much of a mess. Well, no, it’s not a big deal, these people have killed all these people for this and have done this damage to society. It’s very simple, isn’t it? And you shouldn’t kill for an idea, you shouldn’t kill for an ideology.

Q: And now that you mention the official discourse and public television, I know that they didn’t broadcast 1980. With Under the silence, have you had better luck or is your relationship with Basque public television still, shall we say, not very fluid?

A: They have bought some films from us. But they haven’t bought the rights to Bajo el silencio. But what also works is the silence about the things that are done, the ignoring of them. Luckily, the newspaper with the largest circulation there, El Correo, is always very attentive to everything I do. But not the rest, for the rest of society I don’t exist, I don’t have a CV. Once in the Basque Parliament, a member of parliament, from Ciudadanos or the PP, asked the director of Basque television why my films were no longer broadcast. And the director of the television station replied, first of all, that she didn’t know who I was, but that she had heard that my films were a bit biased. That’s the environment in which my films move there.

Q: I think there is also a profile which is the citizen who agrees with you, who agrees with the message, who shares the diagnosis, but doesn’t want it to be publicised any more, who says “let’s move on”. Do you think this has to do, once again, with collective guilt, or is it simply difficult to go permanently against the nationalist wind?

A: Yes, it is indeed very difficult to go against the tide, it is almost an apostolate. Many people, myself included, have decided to go that way, whatever happens. But you can’t demand it of everyone. I don’t know if it’s a feeling of guilt, mixed with the idea that “ETA hasn’t existed for ten years, so why talk about it”. They want to forget that episode. There is also a good feeling that “this way we will all live better, and our children, who didn’t know anything, better not to know about it”. But a healthier society will come from acknowledging what happened, as happened in Germany. 

Q: The murders have caused the most pain. But they have also overshadowed a non-lethal terrorism that has marked many lives: immigration flows, silences, anguish. Until today. In Bajo el silencio, a young student at the University of Vitoria is beaten up because he wanted to form a constitutionalist association, in the style of S’ha Acabat! Of course, he gave up. What can we say to those who say that once ETA is over, the problem is over?

A: I go to Bilbao and I know that everyone who is over thirty years old has this in their heads; what was done and what they did. Another thing is that you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t want to do the personal exercise of asking yourself how we did these things or how we tolerated them. I’ve done the exercise and it’s very hard for me to accept it, but it takes away the guilt. But there are people for whom that is a lot of going backwards in life and it’s a very costly job. What do you do with that past? Ignore it, live quietly, don’t talk about it, let it all go on, don’t ask me about it… but everyone’s head is full of it and it’s a problem. I think that we Basques live in a society that is traumatised by something horrible that has happened in its history. The small personal stories, when you put them together, give a tremendous panorama of fear, frustration, incomprehension, of living a delirium. The title of the film was very difficult to find, but in the end it sums it up very well: Bajo el silencio (Under the silence). Under this apparent – and also convenient – silence, there is a traumatised society. OK, the kids haven’t heard, but everyone else knows what they’ve been through. In the end, something will happen, it’s a generational issue. When we all die, the next generations will look back and, as they are not stupid, and there are journalists, writers, historians, who take the trouble to reconstruct the past, and without the involvement that we all have now, they will be able to give a truthful and, above all, profound version of what happened. Mikel Buesa recently wrote about the impact of terrorism, and it is not just the thousand murdered, the fifteen thousand wounded, the 150 thousand people who left, but also all the relatives of all the families: the policemen, the thousands of people who were escorted for so long. If you add them all up, you will see that approximately a quarter of the Basque population has been close to this problem. And that, in a small society, is tremendous.

Q: And how do you see Bildu’s position at the moment in the Basque Country, where it could come to govern?

A: I’m trying to think of a word that isn’t indecent, but I can’t think of one. It seems indecent to me to tolerate a political party with such a past, when it does not shy away from it. On top of that, it involves in its organisation people who have been involved in terrorism, or have defended it politically. All of this seems to me to be out of this world. Until it presents an acknowledgement of what it has done and a political project that distances itself from what has led them to kill, it should not enter politics. But this occurs to me and to many people, but not to the political parties, which have done almost the opposite of what one could imagine, as in the worst nightmare: we are going to admit it as if it were nothing, without passing any filter, without any recognition of anything. They even support the government of this country. If you write this fifteen years ago, all of us on the front line would give up.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future of the Basque Country? 

A: I am hopeful, I have the hope that things will get better, because in my life I practice it; I play at making films. But optimistic, no, there is nothing to indicate it. There is no social movement, constitutionalism has disappeared in the Basque Country, where are those of us who took to the streets to protest against terrorism when it was dangerous?

Q: How do you explain the fact that constitutionalism was in better health when ETA was killing than when it stopped killing?

A: The political projects of the parties also change. What happened has forced them all to take a stand, they are not going to spend all day talking about what happened, OK, I understand that politically we have to look forward. But you also have to look back, because, of course, we have the sociological and political remnants… they are still there. It is impossible to abstract, to live in a wonderland, to start from scratch. It’s impossible in any human relationship to start from scratch when something horrible has happened. I think that the people who were more committed to the fight against terrorism have given up, also because they are older – twenty, thirty years have passed. And the next committed generation is waiting to see if they can find a political project that is not forthcoming for the Basque Country, and that’s a shame.

Q: Do you have another project in mind soon, another film?

A: Yes, we have many projects. Right now we are finishing shooting another documentary that links the victims with young people. I don’t do the interviews myself, but we have chosen five young people who are studying journalism to do a series of interviews with victims that we interviewed twenty years ago for another film of mine. And the five young people have not known about terrorism, nor have they read about it, nor have they learnt about it at school, or anything else. The result of the interviews is very interesting.  Besides, I have a fiction film that I wrote a few years ago.

Q: Well, Iñaki, and to finish, who would you like us to invite here for a chat?

A: Kirmen Uribe, a writer we interviewed for Bajo el silencio and I think he hid a lot of things. But perhaps in an interview here he will open up more.

Historia de un vasco. Cartas contra el olvido (Letters against oblivion) (Espasa, 2021)

– The documentaries 1980 (2014) and Contra la impunidad (2016) are available on the RTVE website.

– Information about Bajo el silencio (2020) at https://www.bajoelsilencio.com/

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