Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

United Spains? North African Immigration and the Question of Spanish Identity in Poniente

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

United Spains? North African Immigration and the Question of Spanish Identity in Poniente

Article excerpt

In today's Spain a wide range of perspectives about national identity coexist.1 Some argue that Spain is a diverse country where the Spanish citizen has a triple identity: regional, state, and European. Others think that a Spanish national identity does not exist at all. Still others see Spain as a country united by a unified nation. As the historians Sebastián Balfour and Alejandro Quiroga argue: "[l]as definiciones de identidad nacional van . . . desde la españolidad centralizada hasta las formulaciones negativas contrahegemónicas de los nacionalistas periféricos, en las que el español es considerado como el 'otro,' la antítesis de lo vasco, lo catalán o lo gallego" (14).2 The concepts of nation and identity are a burning topic in Spain today, and the presence of North African Muslim immigrants has prompted the questioning of the idea of Spanishness from a new perspective.

Spanish cinema first recorded the encounter of African immigrants with Spaniards in Las cartas de Alou (Montxo Armendáriz, 1990), where the actor Mulie Jarju (Alou) plays the leading role as an immigrant of Sub-Saharan origin. But the Spanish audiences would have to wait until the end of the 1990s for the release of the first movie with a Maghrebian immigrant, one of the largest groups of immigrants in the country, in the leading role (Saïd, by Llorenç Soler, 1999). Since then, Spanish directors have made several movies with immigrants as both leading and supporting actors and actresses "al punto que se podría hablar ya de un género, el cine de la otredad" [so much so that we could already talk about a genre, otherness cinema] (Zecchi 158). These Spanish films about North African immigration tend to focus on the "problematic" encounter between the national subject and the foreigner, criticizing Spain for perceiving the immigrant of Maghrebian origin as a cultural Other who cannot assimilate to the Spanish culture.3

The rising number of these films has in turn caught the attention of numerous scholars.4 Among these films, Poniente (Chus Gutiérrez, 2002) has attracted much attention because of its reference to an episode that took place in 2000, two years before Poniente was made, when a Moroccan immigrant killed a Spanish woman in the village of El Ejido, in Almería. In retaliation, numerous Spaniards chased and beat up hundreds of Moroccan immigrants who were working in the greenhouses. It was not until three days later that the Spanish police decided to intervene. This episode opened the eyes of the Spanish society to a reality of anti-immigrant sentiments that were becoming stronger in their own country.

Poniente, a film directed by Chus Gutiérrez, who also wrote the screenplay (in collaboration with Icíar Bollaín), has been the subject of several insightful studies, which focus primarily on the present troublesome consequences of the encounter between Spaniards and immigrants.5 Typically, these studies examine Poniente as a film about immigrants-that is, as "otherness cinema," to use Zecchi's term. I would argue, however, that the film can also be read as a movie about Spain, the host country. That is, in this reading the film is less about immigrants than about the debates they provoke within the Spanish society. This article will examine how Poniente's cinematography draws the Spanish audience into consideration of its own history by making use of image and staging; at the same time the film dramatizes the way in which debates of Spanish identity cannot take place without immigrants.

The cinematography and formal staging features of Poniente have attracted little attention.6 Nevertheless, only the formal features allow us an understanding of three scenes that allude to key Spanish historical narratives in relation to North Africa: the narratives about the invasion of 711, the Inquisition, and the expulsion of Muslims in 1492 and 1609. Gutiérrez's selection of these narratives was not arbitrary; these three narratives are the cornerstones of a traditional history that establishes the origins of Spain as a unified nation in the Reconquest, a history that constructs Spain's unity in opposition to the Maghrebian Muslim. …

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