Considering Oppositional Practices in Arantxa Echevarría’s ‘Carmen y Lola’ (2018)
Written by Rachel Beaney, Cardiff and Exeter (AHRC South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership)
Rachel Beaney discusses Arantxa Echevarría’s 2018 film Carmen y Lola (Echevarría 2018), which tells the story of two Spanish Roma women who fall in love and are subsequently rejected by their community.
Carmen y Lola presents experiences of sexuality, coming-of-age, prejudice and love. This is the first film to address the taboo topic of prohibited love between two teenage Spanish gypsy women. The film also exposes the gendered stereotypes often adhered to within Spanish Romani gypsy families and was selected to screen in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. I believe it can also be categorised as an F-rated film:
Una película femenina: No solo la dirección y el guión han sido obra de una mujer, el máximo protagonismo también corresponde a dos chicas como ya indica el título. Pero es que también las hay en muchos otros apartados: productoras, compositora, fotógrafa, vestuario, diseño de arte, maquillaje y peluquería, etcétera. (A female film: Not only have the direction and the script been the work of a woman, the main parts are also two girls, as the title indicates. Women also make up many of the other production elements: female producers, composers, photographers, wardrobe, art designers, makeup artists and hairdressers, etc) (Vicente 2019).
In this piece, I will explore the story of the two protagonists, 17-year-old Carmen (Rosy Rodríguez) and 16-year-old Lola (Zaira Romero), and their navigation of their relationship and the process of coming out the Spanish Romani gypsy community. I consider the tactics of resistance and oppositional practices that can be observed in the plot, through shot analysis of scenes from the film. I will examine the use of graffiti and heterotopic spaces as tactical practices of Carmen and Lola. I will support my analysis with applications of theories including the Queer Child (Bond Stockton 2009).
Director Arantxa Echevarría hails from Bilbao and this film,Carmen y Lola, follows the friendship and blossoming love between the two protagonists of the same names. Carmen, who we see here in glamourous dress, ready for El pedido,the ceremony in which the groom to be asks for her hand in marriage, is about to be married to a man that she quickly discovers has a very uncompromising, gendered expectation of their married life. Carmen meets Lola, another young Romani gypsy, who encourages her to question the way their futures have been mapped out for them and the expectation of their families that they fulfil their traditional gender roles. Together, they begin to navigate and question the patriarchal, conservative and Catholic society in which they find themselves. Perhaps it is the director’s decision, in the style of many neorealist films, French new wave films and many of Spanish director Carlos Saura’s films about youth, to use non-professional actors that gives this film a heightened sense of realism, but this is also supported by the camera work that gives an almost shaky feel with handheld-recording:
Intentamos darle un tono documental para que fuera más realista. Rodamos en un mercadillo de gitanos abierto al público y teníamos un puesto de fruta que alquilamos. Lo más curioso es que muchas veces vinieron clientas a comprarnos sorprendidas por los precios tan baratos que teníamos y algunas de esas escenas se han quedado en la película (We tried to give it a documentary feel so it was more realistic. We shot in a market run by romani gypsies that was open to the public and we rented a fruit stand. What was quite strange was how many times members of the public came to buy fruit and were surprised at how cheap it was and some of those scenes have remained in the film) (Echevarría, cited in Vicente 2019).
Moreover, the film is a reminder that this kind of attitude and prejudice towards non-heteronormative love is still prevalent and young gay people are facing this kind of discrimination the world over. Indeed, as the director also notes, when creating the film, they encountered some resistance from members of the gypsy community, some even shouting at the director that she was evil for depicting a lesbian love story. From the film’s beginning, the cinematography conveys a sense of being watched and constant surveillance through the incorporation of extreme close-up shots and enigmatic point-of-view shots. This kind of concept, of living in fear of what the neighbours will think, of a correct performance of correct values, is translated to the screen somewhat explicitly, as we will see in this next still from the film. In one of the early scenes of the film, a handheld camera shakily frames the community in which Carmen and Lola live. We see this shot of a watch tower and the scene then swiftly transitions to show some children playing in the neighbourhood (see Figure 2). Situating the spectator in this barrio in the suburbs of Madrid, this cinematic framing also sets the tone of surveillance and fear of being watched and judged from the outset. In fact, this shot occurs within the first 3 minutes of the film. Did someone say panopticon?
As Alan D. Schrift has pointed out in his reading, in Discipline and Punish Foucault theorises that
Through various procedures that compare, that rank, that hierarchize, that judge, that select or exclude, that, in all senses of the word, examine, the modern individual is no longer called upon as a subject required to obey the law but is produced instead as an individual who is required to conform to the norm (Schrift 2013, p. 145).
I posit that this can be applied to the Romani gypsy community value system that is imposed on the two young protagonists of Carmen y Lola. This value system is upheld through a system in which the girls will be married off, the structure of the community itself (Romani gypsy communities will have a patriarch, who is usually the head male of the community), and a prejudice towards non-heteronormative, queer relationships. In fact, the director notes that many scenes had to be cut from the film as one of the non-professional actresses from the Romani gypsy community had a serious problem:
Pero un día, la mujer que lo interpretaba me llamó para decirme que su marido había hablado con el patriarca y la habían desterrado y no pudo volver(But one day, the woman that played them called me to tell me that her husband had spoken with the patriarch and they had exiled her and she could not come back) (Vicente 2019).
It is perhaps a simplistic reading but also a pertinent element of symbolism in the film; the power and surveillance that the panopticon brings with it. This sense is then further underscored by subsequent scenes in the film in which we see shots of the windows of the apartment tower blocks that look out onto the communal spaces (see Figure 3). Again, the feeling of being watched by the neighbours is a constant in the film. The Spanish refrain ‘El amor es ciego pero los vecinos no / Love is blind but neighbours aren’t’ is a current that runs through the narrative.
Kathryn Bond Stockton’s queer theory of the child posits that every child is queer:
For no matter how you slice it, the child from the standpoint of “normal” adults is always queer. It is homosexual…or, despite our cultures assuming every child’s straightness, the child can only be “not-yet-straight” since it, too, is not allowed to be sexual (Bond Stockton 2009, pg.7).
Children, per this theory, are queer; there are sexual children, murderous children, gay children, ghostly children. It sets out that children exhibit qualities that we have deemed as ‘adult’ and are ‘shockingly queer’ and consequently do not fit neatly into a binary. We can instead read a child in the films that is loquaciously queer and therefore, recognise its agency in the narrative.
We see the film depict clear ‘sideways movements’, (Bond Stockton 2009, pg. 52) per Stockton’s theory, in the girls’ actions, as they find what, in yet another Foucauldian reading, can be classed as other spaces or heterotopias within the stifling landscape of surveillance. In these spaces, the girls are free to talk, love and dream. This is especially poignant in an intimate scene in an empty swimming pool (see Figure 4). Where the structure of the film initially seems to be a linear coming out and coming-of-age love story, a narrative arc that has already been well trodden in contemporary Spanish cinema by films including Toto forever and Almodóvar’s La mala educación, Echevarría succeeds in providing insights into the asphyxiating control and prejudice experienced by the Spanish Roma protagonists.
What other kind of spaces do they find? In the shot seen in Figure 5, we see the girls in a horizontal position in the suburb’s urban landscape. Here they are enclosed in the space but also surrounded by graffiti. Graffiti, according to Brighentti, is an interstitial practice and, from a political angle, can be viewed as ‘as a message of resistance and liberation’ (Brighenti 2010, p. 316). Hispanist Stephen Luis Vilaseca has explored the paradoxical rhetoric surrounding graffiti laws in cities like Barcelona and Madrid which have criminalized graffiti, whilst galleries including the Reina Sofia in Madrid have co-opted graffiti art for contemporary collections (Vilaseca 2017). In Carmen y Lola, Lola creates graffiti murals as an outlet to express herself. She dreams of studying and moving away from the life that her father desires for her as a housewife. Pointedly, one of the central motifs of Lola’s murals is the image of the bird.
Latin Americanist and scholar of Spanish language visual cultures Rachel Randall has explained that ‘playspaces’ allow youth protagonists briefly to escape social restrictions, and to exercise what could be termed their own ‘imaginative agency.’ She further categorises playspaces in the films she analyses as heterotopias of sorts, in that they create a space that is ‘other’ (Randall 2017). The child protagonists in the Latin American films she analyses ‘appropriate spaces’ in order to create, in Foucauldian terms, counter sites, or ‘places outside of all places.’ Through the journeys of the young lovers in Carmen y Lola which take them to secret enclosed spaces and hidden urban areas, the girls are able to negotiate their own space for play and love, away from the rigid structures of adult rules.
Rachel Beaney, Cardiff and Exeter (AHRC South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership), Hispanic Studies, Cardiff School of Modern Languages (Supervisors: Ryan Prout and Sally Faulkner)
Almodóvar, Pedro director. “La mala educación”. Warner Sogefilms, 2004. DVD
Bond Stockton, Kathryn. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, Duke University Press, 2009. Print.
Brighenti, A. M. “At the wall: graffiti writers, urban territoriality, and the public domain.” Space and Culture 13 (3), 2010, pp. 315–332.
Canuto, Roberto. “Toto Forever”. 2010.
Echevarría, Arantxa, director.“Carmen Y Lola”. Super8, 2018. DVD
Randall, R. Children on the Threshold in Contemporary Latin American Cinema: Nature, Gender and Agency. Lexington Books, 2017. Print.
Schrift, A.D. “Discipline and Punish”, A Companion to Foucault, C. Falzon, T. O’Leary and J. Sawicki, 2013, pp. 137-153.
Vilaseca, Stephen Luis. “Representations of graffiti and the city in the novel El francotiradorpaciente: readings of the emergent urban body in Madrid.” Graffiti and Street Art: Reading, Writing and Representing the City, edited by Konstantinos Avramidis, Myrto Tsilimpounidi, Routledge, 2017.