Two years before Daniel Monzon directed Cell 211, one of the great successes of Spanish cinema, told him that films about prisons, prisoners and escapes were of no interest to anyone. An opinion with Alberto Rodriguez couldn’t disagree more. “These are stories that interest and are very well understood. We all understand what it means to lose your freedom,” says the Andalusian director and screenwriter, who has been teaching a workshop at the Sevilla II prison for several years. In stills, the Sevillian enters La Modelo de Barcelona – the scene of the spectacular episode of the escape of 45 inmates – at the beginning of the Transition, a time in which the prisons experienced a movement of common prisoners grouped in the Coordinator of Prisoners in Struggle (COPEL), whose great claim was to achieve an amnesty similar to the one being granted to political prisoners.
Covered by professionals you know very well and trust – from the writer Rafa Cobos to the director of photography Alex Catalan–, Rodríguez raises the curtain on the San Sebastian Festival with a production inspired by real events. “It is the film in which the emotions are more afloat”, warns the director of the minimal islandwhich does double in the contest by also presenting one of the episodes of the series Blackout.
How much reality is there in the film?
Much more than it seems. A fairly high percentage of the events that occurred in La Modelo and in the Carabanchel prison are mixed, but the spirit of the story is the same in one as in the other. And in the background, everything that was the COPEL movement.
They have done considerable field work.
The first thing that caught our attention was the escape in 1978, when 45 prisoners escaped from La Modelo through the sewers in the middle of the Transition. We went from surprise to surprise, because when we started talking to some of the people who escaped, we realized that more interesting than the escape, which was extraordinary, was COPEL’s movement That the prisoners unite in search of a utopia, in a country in which freedom was advancing by leaps and bounds and, nevertheless, they knew that they were going to be the last and they were going to be left out. We found it very attractive. We interviewed prisoners, lawyers, the then director general of Penitentiary Institutions [Carlos García Valdés], journalists, civil servants… We spoke with many people. It has been a very enriching trip that we completed with numerous visits to the newspaper library and reading a lot of books. Among others, biographies of prisoners who passed through La Modelo.
In 1997 it premiered COPEL: a story of rebellion and dignity, documentary promoted by some social prisoners belonging to this Coordinator that sought to give a voice to all those who saw theirs annihilated.
Stories about prisons are silenced. Prison does not matter to anyone, it is made to remain on the margins of society. We all know it’s there, but unless you have a family member or you have to do something, there is no contact. It is the solution we have found to the problem, it is made to be invisible.
Through self-harm, hunger strikes, fires and riots, they made headlines and managed to tell the media what was happening inside, which was very different from what was happening outside.
They got the attention of the media because at that time a line had not been drawn and freedom had been said until here, this is our democracy, and because of the awareness of society towards any disadvantaged group. There was still a chance for utopia.
But it is not usual. For example, most people do not know what has happened during the pandemic inside the prisons, where, since they did not receive visits from relatives, they have run out of drugs. But no one has asked that question.
The prison film genre has pull.
Yes, as a genre or subgenre, it works. The fugue genre is very basic. The journey of someone who is a prisoner and has to escape connects. Another thing is when we begin to make considerations as citizens such as ‘what is the use of keeping some people locked up’. My feeling is that you don’t ask that.
The film does raise many questions.
Model 77 It talks about some prisoners who are claiming something utopian. Theirs would be to have made a clean slate to start from scratch as the country, and they didn’t get that because they started with a huge disadvantage. Many crimes for which they were convicted disappeared with the new penal code. In La Modelo there was a module for homosexuals, divided into “acquired and congenital”, who knows how they differentiated them! The jump from a dictatorship and a military government to a democracy was enormous, and a good part of what was in Spanish prisons was misery, people who came from very low down trying to fight to survive, and many of them ended up in prison. jail.
Isolate instead of rehabilitate
From television reports, from movies, you know what a prison is, at least visually. Today, what he portrays in his film is a distant reality.
Fortunately. The living conditions and the treatment that the officials have with the inmate have changed, they have evolved. The big problem is that your time belongs to the institution. Not having the freedom to dispose of your time and having all your activity while your sentence lasts is regulated by someone else crushes anyone, and this has not changed and will not change.
They advocated an attempt at social justice, and this is now shared with the people in prison, who mostly also come from misery and poverty. And there is the slow pace of justice: those who escaped in 1978 were tried in 1995, and pardoned almost 20 years later. Justice is always late for the most unfortunate.
Do you believe in reinsertion?
It is very complex in a system like the one we have, which is punitive. I believe that prison is not used to rehabilitate, it is used to isolate.
Would you like your work to serve as a means of prevention?
The important thing is that we managed to do it. What I want is for the public to like it and make them think. But that it becomes a model of something… I don’t think the viewer asks any of the questions that we asked ourselves when we were preparing.
In this story of “friendship, solidarity and freedom” you have two actors whom you had already directed, Javier Gutiérrez and Jesús Carroza, how did you come to Miguel Herrán?
It was a proposal from the director of casting Eva Leira. Much of the strength that the character has is given to him by Miguel. Neither bad guys nor criminals, the characters are, above all, people, and that ability to endow them with humanity comes from the work of the entire cast, who did not make archetypes.
Did you give them a lot of homework?
They have worked a lot, they have read, forced, a good part of the books that we handled. All prison stories told in the first person or autobiographical have in common that the most primary emotions, those that have to do with the need to love and be loved, are triggered. There is always a moment when your heart sinks with what these people who have emotional support outside tell you. It must be remembered that in the seventies there were no visits vis to viscontact was almost impossible.
A very masculine film has come out.
The fact that only one woman appears, which is the representation of what is happening outside, is a way of expressing the brutal repression that existed. Several members of Els Joglars visited La Modelo in 1978 and told us that they arrested several Venezuelan girls who had taken hormones and, because of their appearance, they went to women’s prison. When the nuns found out they were trans women, they were transferred to the men’s prison, which tells you how isolated and retrograde this country was.
And now what do you want to do?
No idea. I would like to go back to the origins, do something small, more content, focused more on the work of the actors. Then, you’ll see in the mess we get into.
Model 77 opens on September 23.