Thursday, July 24, 2014
“Some Stories Need to Be Told
Some Voices Need to Be Heard.”
-- From the trailer for “To Say Goodbye”
“I didn’t want to leave, and of course my mama didn’t want us to go, but papa said it was only for a short time,” recalled Josefina Stubbs in a 2012 interview. She remembered being dragged away “with my teddy….The boat was terrible, really terrible. I remember the screams and cries of the children packed into this boat. There was no space to even lie down.”
Stubbs was one of roughly 4,000 Basque children who were sent to Britain for their own safety following the Nazis’ bombing of Guernica in 1937. Her story and those of other ninos (their name for themselves) or “Basque babies” (the more pejorative British name) have become part of the human tapestry of “To Say Goodbye,” a movie co-written and produced by Izaskun Arandia.
“Being a Basque, I always knew about the evacuations,” remarks the award-winning scriptwriter, script consultant, and producer, “but what I didn’t know was that were 250 of the evacuated children who stayed in the UK for good.” She was actually living in there herself when she “saw Matt Richards’s documentary ‘The Brits Who Fought for Spain,’ where this fact is mentioned briefly. It prompted me to ask myself: ‘Why did these children stay? What happened to them? Are they still here?’”
Arandia had always had a feel for a good story – thanks in part to her vivid imagination (“I used to spend hours in my room, writing stories.”) and in part to her journalist grandfather’s influence. “I used to watch him type away on his old Olivetti. That was fascinating to me as a little girl, and I desperately wanted to do the same.” She tried writing this story as a fiction film, only to realize half-way through that she needed more info. The trail led her to Prof. Alicia Pozo at Southampton University. Pozo shared her research with the filmmaker. The academician had “traced all the survivors, now in their 80s and 90s, and interviewed them. We had access to hours and hours of interviews. The second I heard those voices, I knew they had to be in the film.” Her fictional screenplay had morphed into a documentary. As the two women listened to the recordings, it suddenly hit them that the former refugees “all remembered the same traumatic moments: when the war broke out in the Basque country; the moment they had to say good-bye to their families; the crossing on board of the Habana.”
Arandia traveled the length of the UK to talk with “all the children who featured in our film.” She felt that it was “essential” for them to meet face-to-face with her, especially since some of them were sharing their stories for the first time ever.
“These visits became my motivation,” reflects the writer-producer, “and when things went wrong – which they did! – I kept visualizing these visits and their wrinkled happy faces telling me all sorts of amazing stories.” Her first visit was to Paco Robles, and “the first thing he said to me was ‘They have forgotten about us.’ I promised him that was never going to happen again.”
“We do try to speak to our sons about ourselves,” another subject, Valeriana Llorente, remarked. “But I think it’s only in recent years that we have done so, talked about all this, what happened to us.” Was this a typical comment? I ask Arandia. She says that she thinks it comes down to the ninos “wanting to forget, not wanting to worry their own kids.” In fact, so strong was this feeling, some of their children and grandchildren only learned about the evacuations through the film.
It all seemed to be falling into place, except for one thing: how exactly was Arandia going to tell the story? Dramatic reconstruction was a possibility, of course, but it was one that she “wasn’t very keen on.” And there wasn’t much archival footage. Then Richards came up with the idea of using animation, with the film “Waltz with Bashir” (Ari Forman, 2008) as their “visual inspiration.” The interviews became “the backbone” of the film. “So there wasn’t that much growth in the way you may get by filming a traditional documentary,” observes Arandia. “But there was a lot of flexibility from me as the producer…. [D]ue to lack of funds, the team had to come up with alternative ideas to the original scenes and adapt the story accordingly.”
Basically, “To Say Goodbye” reclaims a lost chapter of history. Of those thousands of children, only about 250 stayed in the UK; the rest returned to Spain before the outbreak of World War II. But whether they stayed or went home, they were all left with a sort of split consciousness, that sense of being neither one nor the other. “When they are in the UK, they sound Spanish, so they don’t feel completely British and the other way around when they are in the Basque country.” Identity and a sense of belonging – or of not belonging – are recurrent themes in the film, she adds.
During this time, they lost two of the “children,” Rafael Flores, and Bene Gonzalez, the founder of Evacuated Basque Children’s Association in Bilbao (later the Asociacion Evacuados Jubilados de la Guerra Civil). Arandia recalls Flores as “a happy charming man who used to sing and dance at the camp in Southampton when they were first evacuated, to raise funds for the group.” When she met him and his wife, Valeriana – another one of the evacuees – he sang her “a song they used to sing at the camp – a beautiful traditional Basque song, ‘Boga-Boga,’ which he still remembered word by word after 75 years.”
Gonzales and her sister had spent two years in the UK before being claimed by their mother and returning home in 1939. She was fiercely supportive of the film right from the get-go, and filmmaker “shared many unforgettable moments with her.”
“To Say Goodbye” has been a hard sell, Arandia admits. But she has seen people come away from it in tears, “questioning what they would do as a parent, having to send their own children away.” She believes that the film “forces you to reflect on your own life and to put things in perspective”…that it “will now outlive us all and will be a testament” to all those frightened children who arrived in Southampton 75 years ago. Arandia has given them a way for their voices to be heard.