Juanma Bajo Ulloa's Airbag and the Politics of Spanish Regional Authorship

By Maule, Rosanna | Post Script, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Juanma Bajo Ulloa's Airbag and the Politics of Spanish Regional Authorship


Maule, Rosanna, Post Script


Juanma Bajo Ulloa is one of the youngest in a group of filmmakers who represent the Basque component of Spanish regional cinema, including, among others, Montxo Armendariz, Alex de la Iglesia, Eloy de la Iglesia, Julio Medem, Santiago Segura, and Enrique Urbizu. (1) Like most of the directors working in a regional context, Bajo Ulloa benefits from regional aids from the Department of Culture and Tourism and produces his films mainly with Basque production companies or TV networks. Yet his films seldom respond to the criteria that would entitle them to the autonomous governments' production subsidies, or even identify them with regional themes. In this respect, they do not make any exception in the panorama of Basque films. Unlike Catalan cinema, Basque cinema does not foreground cultural specificity. This is so for reasons that range from the lack of a local film tradition, the absence of linguistic distinction (the Basque language, Euskera, being actually spoken only by a minority of the population), to the fact that most Basque filmmakers work outside their area of origin. (2)

Since his debut, film critics have acclaimed Bajo Ulloa as one of the most promising talents of this new generation. His first film shorts, Akixo (1988) and El reino de Victor/Victor's Kingdom (1989, his first 35mm color film) made a sensation at the Spanish Short Film Festival and assured him the mentoring of the 1992 Academy Award winner director Fernando Trueba, who produced his first feature film, Alas de mariposa/Butterfly Wings (1991). Both this and his following film, La madre muerta/ The Dead Mother (1993), won Bajo Ulloa several awards at national and international film festivals and unanimous acclamations as one of the most promising authors in the Spanish arena (Amitrano 138-40; 145-47). (3) Yet auteur-oriented critics have also stigmatized this filmmaker for "compromising" with popular strategies of representation. With Alejandro Amenabar, Alex de la Iglesia, Julio Medem, and Santiago Segura, Bajo Ulloa is one of the young Spanish directors that have attained box-office success in the domestic mar ket, traditionally indifferent to Spanish films. Spanish film critics typically dismiss this accomplishment as the result of aesthetic compromise and commercial interest. They were particularly harsh on Airbag (1997), Bajo Ulloa's third film, a big-budget, fast-paced, parodic action movie which they considered radically departing from his previous style and buying into the postmodern appropriation of Hollywood formulas that has proved to be a winning vehicle for other young Spanish directors. (4)

The hybrid status of Juanma Bajo Ulloa and of Airbag in Spain's contemporary film system highlights some contradictory aspects of the European "cultural" stance vis-a-vis film practices. The relations that Bajo Ulloa maintains with various types of production and film styles, equally attributed to mainstream and art house films, call to question the possibility of defining European cinema as predominantly linked to "cultural" types of production. From an auteurist perspective, Airbag may easily be entitled to aesthetic consideration by virtue of its intertextual references to formal and thematic elements that trace back to Bajo Ulloa's previous films, as well as to Spain's authorial tradition, only reformulated in a postmodern style of address. However, my discussion of Airbag aims less at pointing out marks of authorial continuity than at addressing issues of nominalism and methodological appropriateness in approaching Spanish cinema from a national and an authorial perspective.

I place Airbag in the "dialogical" position that, according to Marvin D'Lugo, characterizes Spanish regional cinema with respect to both the national and the international markets, institutionally and politically endorsed by state legislation on the percentage of national components that international co-productions must have in every European country in order to be entitled to national and European funds. …

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