Elias Querejeta: Hugely influential Spanish film-maker

 

Elias Querejeta was the most important and influential Spanish film producer of the past 50 years, responsible for the emergence of a groundbreaking group of new highbrow auteurs who, in defiance of censorship, reinvented Spain’s national cinema.

His name, stamped prominently on the introductory credit sequence of all the films he backed, was considered a guarantee of art-house quality.

Querejeta was a point of reference for the cinematic opposition to Spain’s right-wing dictatorship, and the producer of many of the key films of the latter period of Franco’s regime and the transition to democracy that followed it. Exemplary of this are films such as Cria Cuervos (directed by Carlos Saura, 1975) or El desencanto (Jaime Chavarri, 1976).

More cineaste than producer – as he acknowledged – he is best known for having launched the careers of many of the film-makers who shaped the cultural imagination of their times.

Under Querejeta’s patronage, Chavarri, Montxo Armendariz, Manuel Gutierrez Aragon, Ricardo Franco and others defined the 1970s and 1980s through film. In subsequent decades, Querejeta worked closely with a younger generation, most notably Fernando Leon de Aranoa and his own daughter Gracia.

However, he will be recalled primarily for the lengthy professional association he established with Carlos Saura who – before the arrival of Pedro Almodóvar on the world stage – was the most internationally successful of Spanish film-makers. During their 20-year collaboration, Querejeta and Saura produced some of the most emblematic Spanish films of their day, winning major awards at the Berlin International Film Festival (for La Caza, 1965, and Peppermint Frappé, 1967) and at Cannes (for La prima Angelica, 1973, and Cria Cuervos, 1975).

Querejeta also produced what is widely considered the most important film in the recent history of Spanish cinema, El espiritu de la colmena (1973), directed by the enigmatic Víctor Erice. This beautiful and poignant film depicts the effects of trauma and the influence of film in shaping cultural memory. Lyrical yet understated, the film is a subtle act of resistance that reflects upon the traces of the Spanish Civil War, marked by the contours of the bleak Castilian landscape and seen through the penetrating black eyes of the seven-year-old actress Ana Torrent. It is a pivotal film, made simultaneous with the death throes of the Francoist dictatorship, after which nothing would be the same again.  

For a producer associated with the promotion of auteurism, he had little respect for directorial autonomy, and his reputation for intervention was legendary. It earned him the label of “producer-auteur”. Instead of limiting his producer’s role to fund-raising, he intervened at every stage in the creative process. He particularly involved himself in the screenwriting process. This endured throughout his career and left an indelible signature on his films. It has led, unusually for a producer rather than a director, to a string of national and international homages and tributes in the form of celebratory screenings of his work. In his home country, he was awarded the gold medal from the Spanish Film Academy in 1998.

Argumentative, irascible and often maddening, he made as many enemies as he did friends and quarrelled with many of the illustrious film-makers he worked with, among them the great German director Wim Wenders. His interventionary style would lead, eventually, to a bitter rupture with Erice after Querejeta withdrew his support from Erice’s 1982 film El sur before the shoot was complete, leading to a truncated version that the perfectionist Erice disavowed.

Originally a professional footballer in the Basque Country – he played in the Primera Liga for Real Sociedad, the San Sebastian team, from 1952 to 1958 – he took up film-making in 1960 and directed with Antonio Eceiza two short documentaries about football and San Sebastian respectively. From these parochial beginnings ,he evolved into the most cosmopolitan of film-makers. He inspired a transformation in the mindset of the nation’s film industry, a movement from provincial backwater to the global art-house.

While he eschewed the tired cliches associated with Spain, he never lost sight of the locally specific and his own heritage. In this and in other ways, he was fundamental in placing Spanish national cinema on the world map.

Elias Querejeta, film producer: born Hernani, Spain 27 October 1934; married Maria del Carmen Marin (one daughter); died Madrid 9 June 2013.

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