Director: Iciar Bollain (Spain). Year of Release: 2021

2000, the Basque Country. A man hotwires a car and drives his two colleagues to a nearby café. He waits, motor running, as they approach a man from behind. One of them takes out a gun and shoots him in the head. They flee, but get caught behind a police car. The driver stays calm. They can hear on the police radio that the cops are looking for a black Renault. By the time the police realise that their target should be a white Citroen, the men are speeding down the motorway.

A large, bourgeois house. A woman is drying her hair. We hear the sound of a ringing phone. She appears not to hear over the sound of her hair dryer. Or does she just not want to hear?

A group of girls camping by the river. Two of them go to pick up more beer and Schnapps. In the bar where they get their booze they are shocked at news scenes on the telly. Back at the river, one of the girls’ aunts arrives. The girl looks at her aunt’s agitated face and bursts into a fit of screams.

After ETA murdered social democrat politician Juan María Jaúregui, his wife Maixabel and daughter María were permanently traumatized. But a few years later, after the killers had started to regret their acts, Maixabel arranged to meet with them “for my sake, not theirs”. She tried to get them to explain what they did and why. (For all this, much of the film is not very inquisitive and accepts a presumption that they were members of the ETA gang who were “just following orders”.)

Two of the killers agree to talk. Luis is more immediately keen. He has politically broken from ETA and no longer even talks to his former comrades in the same jail. Ibon is more circumspect. He carries a burden of guilt for the results of his actions, but even though he has left the organisation, the armed struggle was a serious part of his life and he has not given up on the goal of national liberation. Talking to Maixabel makes him more open to the thought of reconciliation.

Maixabel, the film, accurately portrays some moments of deep emotion – the terror, when you, or even worse, your mother, has to take bodyguards to avoid possible assassination, the gnawing doubt of someone starting to break with a political organisation which has dominated his life, the realisation that your whole political strategy just isn’t working.

And yet there is one thing that it never fully successfully shows – why would someone join an organisation which is as hierarchical, undemocratic and bloodthirsty as ETA, as it is portrayed here? At first, Ibon gives us some unsatisfactory half-answers: it was a youthful phase of rebellion, it was what his mates were doing, he was from a nationalist family. These may all be true but it doesn’t explain how a movement can be sustained with a fair degree of popular support for so long.

As the film goes on, and Ibon starts to open up, we start to approach more lasting truths. Joining ETA was the natural result of the Left’s support of popular resistance in Latin America and Palestine. If armed struggle is necessary to free other countries, why not use it at home? But this argument is not put forward convincingly, and the effect on the audience is more likely to portray the Left as being murderous than to explain why ETA called itself a socialist organisation.

This is a film review, not a treatise on the weaknesses of individual terrorism, so let’s just say this. ETA’s turn to violence came from frustration that liberal democracy was not delivering. ETA emerged in the radical 1960s, and gained support when the fall of Franco did not result in more rights for national minorities. Instead all parties – including the Socialists and Communists – collaborated with the former Fascist ministers who remained in office.

Similarly, ETA’s hierarchical nature stems from its illegality. If membership is a criminal offence, you have little room for open, democratic votes. None of this is to justify the killings, rather to show that in a country where people could remember being ruled by an actual Fascist, when speaking Basque in the street was a punishable offence, it is a bit much to insinuate, as the film sometimes does, that all the problems in the Basque country are down to the existence of ETA.

Nonetheless, for better or worse, this is a powerful film. It does acknowledge the existence of GAL – a right wing paramilitary group, and once even mentions police violence. But the message of the film seems to be less a call for reconciliation than for total surrender. The presumption that ETA – and only ETA – is responsible for the horrible situation is not questioned. You’d be forgiven for leaving the film and thinking that ETA’s 2011 ceasefire turned the Basque country into a paradise.

And yet while I obviously disagree with this assessment, this is more a political disagreement than an artistic one – Maixabel does what it does very well indeed. All the performances are deeply moving, and the film contains a deep humanity that should always accompany excuses for armed resistance. Ultimately, the fact that it provokes such a discussion about whether it fulfils its aims (and what these aims are) is part of its strength.

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