Spaniards adept at fending off competitors

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MADRID - It was Francisco Franco who first pulled up the protectionist drawbridge in 1955 for fear that Hollywood films would swamp the domestic industry, not to mention brainwash his subjects with such concepts as democracy, love affairs or the victory of white hats over the baddies.

The American Motion Picture Export Association boycotted Spain for three years, before Franco's influence, not least in the Pentagon, forced them to back down. The Americans had to accept a deal under which one in five films shown in any Spanish cinema had to be a Spanish production. Franco also imposed a tax on box office takings of dubbed films, with the tax reinvested in Spanish productions.

It was a shrewd and lucrative move. He had long since made dubbing compulsory in Spain. It gave censors total control of what Spanish cinema-goers saw and heard. Often, at the censors' insistence, the dubbed script bore little resemblance to the original, leaving audiences confused over the discrepancies between what they were hearing and what they were seeing. Still, it was a night out.

It appears to have been Franco's restrictive regime that made cinema, with its escapism, disproportionately popular here. Where else, after all, could a crowd gather with fears of a baton charge restricted to the screen. At the height of his regime, otherwise-backward Spain had more cinema seats per capita than any country in the world except the US.

The generalissimo even wrote his own screenplay. The film, Raza, owed more to the influence of Goebbels than to Hitchcock.

Compulsory dubbing has long since been dropped but its influence remains. Subtitles never caught on here and the Spanish dubbers of such stars as Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger are 'household voices'. Changing a star's voice, as happened during a recent dubbers' strike, causes public outcry.

Even under Franco, Spanish film-makers blossomed, using metaphor and allegory to outsmart the censors. Hand-picked by the dictator in his own image, the latter were hardly subtle. Franco was livid when, in 1961, Luis Bunuel's Viridiana won the Golden Palm at Cannes before his censors realised it included a parody of the Last Supper.

The post-Franco years have seen the surge of directors such as Carlos Saura, Jaime de Arminan, and the colourful, publicity-conscious Pedro Almodovar. While the US and Europe make protectionist soundings, Almodovar leans heavily on Hollywood greats for his new film Kika. Almodovar, whose sexual preferences are the regular subject of Spain's glossy magazines as a result of his constant companion, the formerly male Bibi Andersen, likes to emulate Francis Ford Coppola by getting members of his family into the act. His ageing mum plays a TV talk show hostess in Kika.

As for Saura, you might be forgiven for sensing Hollywood's Unforgiven and Thelma and Louise lurking behind Saura's latest film, Dispara] (Shoot]), which includes an explicit rape scene few Hollywood directors would risk.

A key factor for Spain's film-makers, who can receive subsidies of up to 50 per cent from the government, though the current economic crisis makes such support unlikely, is the huge Latin American market, bigger than that of the US. De Arminan was looking at those box office possibilities when he cast the well-known Mexican actor Gonzalo Vega in his latest film, La Sinopsis.