The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Mateo Santos and the Documentary of Occupation: "Cine Social" in the Spanish Anarchist Revolution

Ameya Tripathi
Columbia University



The anarchist film critic Mateo Santos, founding editor of Popular Film magazine, pioneered “cine social” in Barcelona, an importation of the French “cinéma de peuple,” a cinema made by and for working-class people. In the summer of 1936, the Barcelona anarchists collectivized industries as soon as they had driven the Nationalist rebels out of the city, declaring a revolution. Even today, many think of the conflict as only a civil war, not a revolution, and are surprised to find that the very first film of the war, Reportaje del movimiento revolucionario en Barcelona, made in 1936, describes the conflict first and foremost as a workers’ revolution. The film is the first in world cinema history where workers film their own revolution as it is happening. Reportaje reoccupies city spaces previously held by the middle classes, now belonging to the working class, in four ways. At the level of production, the entertainment trade union and its autodidact workers produce the film themselves, without help from studios. By controlling distribution, the union occupied cinema spaces previously associated with elites and Fascist sympathizers. At the level of cinematography, the operation of the camera’s gaze itself possessed and occupied city space, asserting the new power of workers to move freely among streets demarcated by their own barricades and checkpoints. Finally, Santos orchestrates scenes of street drama by playing on his subjects' own spectacular and dramatic actions. Through its occupying practices, Santos’s film demonstrates a powerful alternative to Hollywood methods and approaches to filmmaking. It possesses an alternative genealogy of workers cinema from the first filmic reconstructions of the 1871 Commune in Paris to the first film of revolution shot by and for the workers in Barcelona. 

Keywords   Mateo Santos / anarchism / radical cinema / documentary / Spanish Civil War


This essay considers how a documentary film occupies urban space during revolution. On its own, the term “occupation” can describe a wide variety of cultural, political, and military practices: for example, German-occupied France in the Second World War, settler colonialism, or more recent resistance movements such as Occupy Wall Street in the United States and 15-M in Spain. Often, as resistance movements, such occupations are as much an effort to re-occupy spaces and neighborhoods which were unjustly seized. This idea is part of the political rhetoric of the documentary film I will discuss, Reportaje del movimiento revolucionario en Barcelona (1936), directed by Mateo Santos (Fig. 1). 

A “documentary of occupation,” in my account, works at the levels of production, cinematography, and distribution.

In addition to being the first film of the Spanish Civil War, Joan Ramon Resina and Pau Martínez Muñoz both note “el hecho insólito de que por primera vez una revolución es filmada por los mismos obreros combatientes” (“the unusual fact [exists] that for the first time a Revolution is filmed by the revolting workers themselves”; Muñoz 94; author's translation). However, the film is little known. The images from the film suffered an unfortunate fate, both at home and abroad. Reportaje was shown in August and September 1936, often together with El pueblo en armas, which revealed the beginnings of the defense of Madrid.1 At a time of severe shortage in film stock, sequences from the film were reused by many other Spanish and international documentaries.2 Within months, controversial anti-clerical images of mummified nuns were in the hands of the Nazi Film Unit, which stripped them of their explanatory narration and repurposed them as counterpropaganda. In Spain, Transition documentaries such as La vieja memoria (1977) only used images from Reportaje to illustrate the bitterness of the internecine struggle among anarchists, communists, and socialists. The film has rarely been read on its own terms as a film made for, by, and about workers to challenge the hegemonies of Hollywood and Fascist cinema.3

English language critics of Spanish Civil War film frequently assess the The Spanish Earth (1937), directed by Joris Ivens and narrated by Ernest Hemingway; Blockade (1938), an American production by Walter Wanger, starring Henry Fonda; and Espoir (1938), directed by Boris Peskine and André Malraux. While the extraordinary and rich engagement of visitors to Spain has demanded the attention of much critical literature, it has, as Jessica Berman notes, led to the “marginalization of Spanish writers chronicling the war that took place on their own soil” (Berman 153). 

In Spanish film criticism, recent attention has focused on the construction of a Hispanist racialized national identity by the Falange.4 Some government-sponsored films, such as Espagne 36, directed by Luis Buñuel, have been commented on by critics, as has his parodic documentary Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933).5 Films with less support from either Hollywood or the state, such as noncommercial and amateur film, have received much less attention. Masha Salazkina and Enrique Fibla’s forthcoming A Global History of Amateur Film Cultures explores, among many writers, Valencian Communist film critic Juan Piqueras and his magazine Nuestro Cinema, which promoted Soviet cinema and organized filmmakers in a transnational film network in favor of social realism. Piqueras frequently clashed with Santos on the question of how Spanish cinema should relate to Soviet cinema, in particular. Fewer critics have written on Spanish anarchist cinema, despite some 44 films being available (Muñoz 9). The films demonstrate a thriving filmmaking culture that took advantage of the war to begin a filmic revolution. 

Mateo Santos and the Genres of Documentary Film

Before working as a director, Mateo Santos edited Popular Film (1926–1937), a commercial film magazine in Barcelona (Fig. 2).

He came to be known as the father of the “Popular Film Generation” of socialist and anarchist film critics in Barcelona who protested the government’s censorship of Soviet films. They were frustrated by the foreign film producers and sound studios which imposed a commercial, Hollywood film style. They collaborated to form new ideas as to how Spain could produce a national cinema by and for the people. 

Earlier, Santos had begun his literary career writing for an anti-clerical weekly Los miserables (1913–1915) in the highly charged years after the “Semana Tragica” of church burnings as a protest to the government’s conscription of soldiers for the colonial Rif Wars in Morocco. He spent eight months in jail for sedition. In the 1920s he wrote popular novelas de quoisco that could be picked up for 30 centimos at newsstands, one of which satirized la colla miserable, the group of writers, activists, and freelance stringers that frequented the Bar Centro in the trendy neighborhood of El Raval near the docks. The group included the future co-founder of the Spanish Marxist Workers Party (POUM) Andreu Nin, among others. They and the CNT fostered a coalition between anarchist intellectuals and internal migrants in the streets and neighborhoods, with ateneus promoting a rationalist, anarchist education. As Barcelona expanded, demolishing warrens and alleys and imposing gridded streets, these internal migrants were the “shock troops of the urban industrial revolution” and were receptive to anarchist ideas (Ealham 10).

Upon founding Popular Film magazine, Santos criticized various kinds of documentary film as well as the cultural industry promoted by Hollywood, and inveighed against Spain’s minor position in the film industry where the country was “neither creator nor organizer” (Santos, “Ni creadores ni organizadores,” 12 March 1931). The very word "documentary" derives from the French documentaire, which described a colonial expedition film where the exotica of the colonies were made into an arabesque by the modern recording technologies of photography and film invented by the metropole (Grierson 121). Spain had ceased to be a colonial power, having lost its colonies of Cuba and the Philippines in the 1898 Spanish-American War. It was therefore unlikely that Spanish film producers were going to produce many of those kinds of films. 

Fibla-Gutiérrez has noted a post-imperial melancholy that pervades the first decades of Spanish cinema (Fibla-Gutiérrez 9). When Luis Buñuel produced a parodic expedition film furnished with surrealist twists and exotic scenes, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933), it was of Extremadura, one of the poorest regions in Spain. The film was censored and provoked much controversy for allegedly defaming the Spanish people. Instead, the government preferred the sincere films and photography of the Misiones Pedagógicas, which showed intellectuals and educators going out into villages, where illiteracy was high, to teach on a range of subjects from basic literacy to agricultural management, along with national history via the paintings of Goya. 

Many Leftist critics wanted workers to produce films themselves, instead of merely watching those made by intellectuals. The Communist Juan Piqueras, the autodidact bricklayer and anarchist intellectual José Peirats, and the elite intellectual Mateo Santos all argued for a “cine social” which would produce a “clearly Spanish” national cinema (Santos, “Hacia el cinema social,” 5 Jan. 1933). All believed in an increased role for workers themselves, advocating that workers should pool money to buy camera equipment, as part of a wider counter-hegemonic collectivizing practice to empower themselves. Where Leftist critics differed was whether, and to what extent, Spain should borrow from other filmmaking traditions (Holguín 124–34). In Piqueras’s magazine, Nuestro Cinema, poignant stills from films in the social realist tradition were featured on the covers and followed by serious editorials. 

Mateo Santos maintained a more open approach to the genres of film. Popular Film’s covers of dancing girls and actors nestled alongside trenchant criticism of Hollywood and German militarist cinema. Piqueras adopted a Communist-based internationalism, translating filmmakers such as Joris Ivens.6 Santos praised many pro-worker films, Soviet, German, and otherwise, but insisted on Spain developing its own national cinema, tired of the españolada genre of films about Spain which included typical black legend, medieval, and other archaic stereotypes of Spain, produced in the United States and fed to the Spanish public. 

If there was one foreign model that Santos admired unequivocally, it came from the French “cinéma de peuple,” which his correspondent Armand Guerra had witnessed at its inception. Armand Guerra, pseudonym of José Armando Estívalis Calvo, was a polymath anarchist militant, typographer, journalist, traveler, actor, and filmmaker. He was in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and Germany during the Spartacist rebellion of 1919. Foreign correspondent for Popular Film in Paris and Berlin, he directed his first films in Paris, including Un grito en la selva (1913), Les misères de l’aiguille (1913), Le vieux docker (1914), and La Commune (1914). He was part of the historic founding of “Le Cinéma du Peuple” in 1913 in Paris, where trade union workers came together to produce their own films with non-professional actors and without the involvement of commercial film studios. La Commune had versions of scripts decided on after several rounds of voting by workers, and workers figured as extras in many shots. As Martínez Muñoz points out, remarkably, some veterans of the 1871 Paris Commune are themselves actors in the 1914 recreation. Guerra’s input inspired Santos and other Popular Film collaborators to begin the Asociación Cinematográfica Española in 1932 in the spirit of the “cinéma du peuple.” It would build cinema libraries in each city and town, run regular discussions in the ateneus, provide courses in filmmaking, pool together money to buy film equipment (as Piqueras was already suggesting was necessary for a worker’s cinema in Nuestra Cinema), and establish a network of local representatives promoting the production of a Spanish national cinema. Of these Leftist critics, it was Mateo Santos, who after years of issuing stinging criticism to all-comers, got the opportunity to produce a documentary film of his own and did so without the aid of the film studios he reviled.7 

“A Small Proletarian Hollywood”

Reportaje was produced by the entertainment workers union, the Sindicato Unido de Espectaculos Públicos (SUEP), which seized 114 cinemas, 12 theatres, and ten music halls (Fig. 3). They incorporated the CNT-FAI’s political agenda for socialism into their activity, procuring props, and technical equipment, and making decisions about the use of public space for filming scenes. The SUEP workers came from all parts of the entertainment industry. They ranged from waiters and concession stand workers, street and theatre performers, actors, producers, writers, composers, and musicians in music, dance, orchestra, and film. During the Spanish Revolution they produced “un pequeño Hollywood proletario” (“a small proletarian Hollywood”; Juan-Navarro 523).⁠ Many aspects of the production process were decided by voting among members. Writers, for example, would have their scripts voted on, although the Production Committee was still in charge of directors and performers (Sanz Alonso 13). The artistic director was chosen by vote after a contest where they presented a sketch of their scenography, and the remaining personnel were chosen from the SUEP members (Juan-Navarro 531). This collective production process invited far more input from union members themselves. Aware of their audience’s tastes, producers made dramatic films such as Aurora de esperanza (1937) and Barrios bajos (1937), which strongly echoed Hollywood production processes, cinematographic style, and plots (Gubern 184). Although the socialization of cinema brought some changes, workers in distribution, who were less radical than those working on actual productions, did not want to lose profitable producers.8 For this reason, Hollywood films still comprised some “80% of the 69 films screened in Barcelona” (not including documentaries and newsreels), “from the likes of Warner, MGM, Columbia” and others. But that was an improvement on what was previously seen as an even more hegemonic dominance by Hollywood films.

Some Spanish films, such as Los héroes del barrio, were the biggest successes of the season and were retained for three weeks (Diez 91). There was more room to experiment, deviating even more from Hollywood practice, in documentary and newsreel films where the cameras in the hands of camera operators chosen by the SUEP left the film studios for the streets. 

What the film shows (the confiscation, and repurposing, of property previously owned by  the urban bourgeoisie, such as the Hotel Ritz becoming a common food hall) has been described variously as collectivization, socialization, municipalization, and autogestión (“workers self-management”; Diez 34). Because these terms have more narrow political meanings, and because occupation describes both what the camera operators witness and what they themselves do as they take up space in the streets that are now theirs, I describe Reportaje del movimiento revolucionario as a documentary of occupation which requisitions the equipment, people, and venues. That phrase captures the practice of documentary film, mimicking the physical occupation of city space by the revolutionary militias. 

The July Revolution

Early in July 1936, the CNT-FAI anticipated a military coup. In preparation, “small groups of militants requisitioned arms, disarming night watchmen and policemen” (Ealham 152). On July 19th, the military set out from garrisons across the city to seize strategic locations such as the telephone exchange, major intersections, banks, hotels, and other tall buildings. However, the CNT called a general strike and cenetista militias established barricades, “preventing the military from entering the barris and rendering their passage to the city center perilous...using doorways, trees, roof tops and balconies” to establish rifle nests (153). From the Builders Union office on Mercader Street, “armed cenetistas massed...where they organized flying squads that weaved their way to engage the military” (153). At midnight, the “Sant Andreu barracks was stormed by CNT activists, who seized 90,000 rifles” (153). As Chris Ealham describes it, in what was “the greatest revolutionary festival in the history of contemporary Europe,” the city became a “labyrinth of barricades,” to the extent that the authority of both the national government in Madrid and the Catalan government “was eclipsed by that of the revolutionary committees” at a local level. They established a network of checkpoints that controlled traffic from the French-Catalan border, through the Aragón Front and as far as Valencia (153). When the CNT called off the general strike, “only those barricades that impeded trams and buses were dismantled” (155). The rest remained, because the revolutionary committees interpreted the initial defeat of the military insurrection as the beginning of the Spanish Revolution. 

Once the strike was over, committees took charge at the neighborhood level, of transport, supplies, policing, and the city economy. Few of those appearing in Santos’s film are wearing “ties and suits,” now “displaced by new working-class symbols,” and most are armed (159). Santos had previously written about the relationship between cinema and armaments. In “El cine alemán y la guerra,” he described the celluloid United Film Artists used as “smelling of gunpowder” because the studio was founded from German First World War military profits (Santos, “El cinema alemán y la guerra,” 1 Sept. 1935). It is fitting that this film begins with scenes showing workers seizing munitions. They arm themselves with rifles and pistols as they also arm themselves with cameras. Spanish anarchists recognized that they needed weapons to face the Fascist threat, and their rhetoric frequently refers to armaments.

Reportaje del movimiento revolucionario was released at the Actualidades, Savoy, Atlántic, and Maryland cinemas in Barcelona on the 19th of August.9 It was especially satisfying that the Maryland, which had screened Nazi militarist propaganda, had to show the film under the order of the propaganda office of the CNT–FAI. The cinema was on the old Plaza Urquinaona, renamed Plaza Ferrer i Guardia to honor the anarchist pedagogue and martyr Fransisco Ferrer. The distribution of the film took over spaces where formerly anarchist film critics and directors had been denied entry. In this sense, the film is a “documentary of occupation” at the level of screenings and distribution. Moreover, Santos and his camera operators move around city space in a way which is occupying, indexing and charting city space according to their own prerogative. 

In what follows, I briefly discuss how the camera operates in relation to the three main activities undertaken by the militias. The militias first of all look for remaining Fascists, seeking them hidden in buildings or in cars whose movement is now controlled by checkpoints and barricades. Second, they expose and punish the clergy who have desecrated their own churches by using their turrets as vantage points for rifles. Finally, they celebrate those going to the Aragón Front and they call off the strike, returning to work with the city righted again by the new revolutionary order. 

The Vigilant Camera Eye

How does the camera move around city space as it documents the revolution? Reportaje del movimiento revolucionario opens with a shot looking down a boulevard with the streets silent “tras largas jornadas sangrientas” (“after long and bloody working days”; author's translation.). The streets are carefully policed by militias who have built barricades and checkpoints. As one shot hovers behind a waiting car with its interior too dark to scan, the commentator explains that checkpoints are in place to ensure no nationalist rebel can slip out of the city. Fascist rebels could be “enmascarado bajo el uniforme militar, el sayal frailuno, el hábito monjil, la sotana clerical y el gesto de rapiña de los capitanes de la Industria y de la Banca...desde los mismos lugares donde tramaban sus complots” (“masked by military uniform, the friar’s sackcloth, the nun’s habit” or even among the “the captains of Industry and the Bank” who are, Santos says, hiding “in the same places where they hatched their schemes”; author's translation). Throughout the film, viewers are trained to scrutinize dark spaces, especially windows in shadow, for a glimpse of a rebel peering over a parapet. As Juan-Navarro notes, “the inciters of the coup d’état (the military, the capitalist, the priest, the magistrate) never appear identified in the film” (Juan-Navarro 527). Filmed the day after the major fighting has ended, we are mostly looking at where the rebels have just been, not where they are still hiding, but paranoia about snipers and “fifth column” riflemen was high at the time (Paz 44). 

While viewers are implicated in a vigilant mode of attention, the pedestrians filmed are at ease, smiling at the camera. In one shot a man adopts a pose as we recede away from him, the camera perched atop a lorry and at equal height with the trams. Just a few months before the revolution, hundreds of workers had “been victimized after a long and bitter strike” against the Barcelona Tram Company, with anger running so high that “armed groups destroyed the court archives and management records” (Ealham 164). It is especially significant that the workers can so freely operate the trams now. The camera traffics along the lines of flight of the city permitted by the local revolutionary committees, with buses and trams unimpeded but other routes into the barris forbidden by a labyrinth of barricades. A massive barricade prevented entry into the Raval from Paral.lel (in Catalan—today’s “Avenue of the Parallel” in English).   

In general, the camera’s freedom to scrutinize, roam, and take portraits is shown with medium range takes. In one important scene, film scholar Joan Ramon Resina finds such takes passive, showing “hardly any intervention”; however, the neutrality of this subject position, neither alien nor invasive, whether from the height of a tram or street level, lends the film a genuine character (75). The film’s perspectives are markedly different from the typical panoptic view of Barcelona taken from a viewpoint such as Montjuic, and its views come without the operational map that became so common in Spanish Civil War films.10 Another way of thinking about the medium range takes is that they convey a sense of urban belonging rather than an intervention. While certainly not as mobile as later experimental cinema, this kind of use of the camera, not always tied to a tripod, required an operation distinct from the cartoon in Mateo Santos’s 1935 article “El cine alemán y la guerra” (Fig. 4). 

In the cartoon, drawn by Les, the UFA cameraman in the studio (complicit with the war profits of Krupp) holds the stance of an artilleryman looking down the sights of a machine gun. 

In this case the camera operator is on the streets. Santiago Juan-Navarro points out that, as all the other workers were observing a General Strike during the three days of the coup and a week afterwards, “the only ones who worked during those days were several filmmakers capturing images of the resistance” (Juan-Navarro 526). The camera operator is producing film not from outside the working class, but as a representative from the SUEP especially sanctioned to continue working (despite a General Strike) to capture the revolution for posterity. Tasked with capturing the revolution, the gaze of the camera has a representative function in two senses. In the first sense, which Santos explains in “Los Noticiarios sonoros,” there is faith that the camera’s lens captures objectively and with more verisimilitude than any written medium could (23 Jan. 1930). As Resina puts it, the photochemical traces of the event are imprinted on film celluloid and Santos knew this footage would become part of a film archive of the nation’s history.11 More than this, the camera’s gaze is representative in a political sense. Where, when, and how the camera looks, the ease with which it surveys, and the responses from its subjects (in this case, workers smiling back) signal worker power and cement a sense of belonging among viewer, camera operator, and subjects in the film. The camera’s gaze possesses the city, with the special sanction of the workers to do so. In a review for Popular Film, Alberto Mar criticized Reportaje for not using already available footage (from Paramount, Fox, and other studios) to add to the footage recorded on the streets (“Un estreno,” 20 Aug. 1936). Given Santos’s high regard for autodidacticism to foster intellectuals of film, coupled with his initiatives to build cinema libraries and schools, to create a “cine social” which was “netamente hispano / purely Spanish,” and to turn his back on institutions, he would not seek other footage. 

Instead, Santos and lead camera operator Ricardo Alonso directed the workers to arm themselves with the camera.12 The opening credits for many of the union’s films show workers filming others at a metalworks using a hand-crank camera, fusing together ideas of the intellectual labor of filmmaking with the physical labor of the workers they record.

When the cameras are at ground level, they look upwards peering into windows and at rifle nests of the rebels, inside churches and other taller buildings. Resina describes the camera as a “participant in the revolution, already interpreting it while the shots are ringing out” (72). In these takes, the camera is more than an eye or an interpreter. As cameramen point up at the windows, the camera functions as a prosthetic. It is very likely no one is in the windows, but to be able to peer in at those vantage points in that fashion is itself a sign of worker power. This power was consolidated two weeks later when the government announced that all arms licenses, except for those belonging to the Popular Front militias, had expired, including arms for hunting and should be handed over at once. As the government noted, it should be “bien entendido que de no hacerse asi, se incurrirá las máximas responsabilidades legales, siendo considerados facciosos los que eludieren el cumplimiento de lo que se ordena” (“well understood that by not doing so, the maximum legal penalties will be incurred, and those who do not comply with these orders will be considered traitors”; Solidaridad Obrera, 27 July 1936; author's translation).

By December, Ángel Lescarboura (the cartoonist “Les” and Santos’s nephew) was writing a near hagiography of the decision to film in such a dangerous time; “Cuando nadie tenia serenidad suficiente para pensar en algo más que en pegar tiros, alguien creó Información y Propaganda en el Comité Regional de la CNT y de allí surgió la idea de filmar aún en plena Revolución” (“When no one had enough presence of mind to think about anything other than firing shots, someone created the Propaganda and Information Office of the CNT and from there burst forth the idea of filming, even during full Revolution”; Solidaridad Obrera, 22 Dec. 1936; author's translation.) In reality, that it was safe enough for the operators to roam the streets was itself a sign of the newfound power of the Barcelona workers.  

Exposing the Church

In the second part of the film, the narrator expresses disappointment. Seizing the military barracks alone was not enough to defeat the rebels and complete the revolution. The rebels, including the clergy, were hiding in churches and firing from there. This leads to the most controversial scene. The documentary shows mummies of nuns thrown from their coffins in front of the Salesian Convent. Santos asserts the nuns were tortured during the Inquisition; the proof is that their hands are tied together. Santos was not the first to show this in a Spanish film. In Los sucesos de Barcelona (The Events of Barcelona) (1909), Josep Gaspar had shown nuns disinterred during the Semana Trágica (Resina 74). As Brad Epps notes, “Spain is seen [...] as obsessed and/or at peace with death…the alternately hyped and diminished legacy of the Inquisition and the auto de fe; the panoply of torture devices and practices […] the deadly specters of the black legend,” and the images would have provoked the conflicted reactions he describes (Epps 112). Between the 23rd and 25th of July, “40,000 people filed past the Iglesia de la Enseñanza on Calle Aragó, to inspect the disinterred and partly mummified bodies of clerics” (Ealham 210). Santos wants to show that it is the clergy who are the hypocrites; “la crueldad de los representantes del Cristo llega al hallaron momias de monjas y frailes vista de esas momias retorcidas, violentadas por la tortura, levantó clamores de indignación popular” (“the cruelty of the representatives of Christ reaches its refinement...they find mummies of martyred monks and nuns...the sight of those gnarled mummies and monks, violated by torture, provoked clamors of popular indignation”; author's translation). For Santos, the evidence could not be clearer, “estos cadáveres petrificados en sus ataúdes constituyen la diatriba más áspera que se ha lanzado jamás contra el catolicismo” (“These cadavers petrified in their coffins constitute the harshest condemnation ever launched against Catholicism”; author's translation). 

Compared to some popular sacrophobic festivals, where anarchists derided the clergy, wore religious robes, used skulls for footballs, and donned statues with ludicrous clothing, these scenes would not have provoked much negative reaction towards anarchists from locals in Barcelona. Santos intended them to stir up anti-clerical feeling among a predisposed audience. Within a month, however, “a copy had fallen into the hands of Franco’s friends in Berlin. In the Babelsberg studios the pictures of mummies and burnt churches were...subjected to clever montage and supplied with a new soundtrack...[T]here is hardly any Nazi document on Spain which does not present images of the mummies or of the popular masses in front of burning churches” (Resina 76).13 The images of the mummies provoked an outpouring of right-wing responses among international audiences. Any kind of sacrilegious behavior could, as George Orwell himself noted among anarchists in the POUM militia, provoke a “sneaking sympathy with the Fascist ex-owners to see the way the militia treated the buildings they had seized” (Orwell 37). As Orwell observed, this behavior was legitimated by anarchism, “in Catalonia and Aragon, the Church was a racket pure and simple. And possibly Christian belief was replaced to some extent by Anarchism…which undoubtedly has a religious tinge” (39).  

It is sadly ironic that Santos is arguing that it is the Church which is doing the desecrating and transgressing. They are the ones, he says, who brought guns into the altar: “iglesias, conventos y edificios públicos convertidos en fortalezas, abren fuego contra el pueblo...La ametralladora y el fusil tras los altares; tras las imágenes saturadas de liturgia y de incienso, impregnadas después de pólvora y de blasfemia” (“churches, convents and public buildings converted into fortresses, opening fire on the people...The machine gun and the rifle behind the altars; the images once drenched in incense and liturgy, now pregnant with blasphemy and gunpowder”; author's translation). The next step, in anarchist ideology, is for the churches Belén, La Merced and San Jaime to be “purificada con las llamas del incendio” (“purified with the flames of the fire.”; author's translation). As Juan-Navarro argues, “Reportaje revives, especially, the idea that destruction is the precursor to the construction of a utopian society” (Juan-Navarro 527). The destruction is not wanton. The purification by flames that Santos invokes was undertaken in a regulated way, with the proletariat more interested in reoccupying land and buildings that were previously theirs, rather than destruction for its own sake. As Ealham notes, Austrian sociologist Franz Borkenau described “a church burning in Barcelona as an ‘administrative business’ with the fire brigade on hand to prevent fire spreading to adjoining buildings…money and valuable items were frequently discarded…the fate of some churches were decided at community assemblies” (Borkenau 165). More than “administrative business,” the purification by flames resulted from a democratic process.

Those who did not see this calculated destruction were taken aback by Santos’s offended tone. Santos says that the mummies are a “diatribe,” as if the tortured nuns themselves talk. If anyone is giving an especially rough diatribe it is Santos, who disturbs foreign viewers. As Geoffrey Pingree notes, the story of the Spanish Civil War was told ambiguously, often in incongruent and passive commentary which aided the pro-Franco political leanings of the directors of Hearst Metrotone and other film producers (“La política” 111). Even in the case of the pro-Republican film The Spanish Earth, Hemingway’s careful diction and voice is hopeful and calm, which, Sonia García López observes, emulates the “omniscient, demiurgic” narration of The March of Time newsreel series (32). By contrast, Marcel Oms says that, “on sent bien que le souci principal se situe au niveau de la harangue et non de l'image; le discours étant comme proféré indépendamment des faits montrés, et plaqué sur les scénes filmées” (“one readily perceives that the [director's] main concern is at the level of the harangue, not of the image; the speech is being delivered independently of the events shown and tacked on the filmed scenes”; Oms 51). The commentary is so distinct from the images that Oms says, “si l’on prete attention à l’un, on perd le contact avec l’autre” (“if you pay attention to the one, you lose contact with the other”; Oms 51). For Resina, the film makes for poor propaganda, because there is a “self-cancelling dialectic between filmic discourses” without much fit between the commentary and the visual scene (Resina 75). 

A successful alternative, where image and commentary are complementary, may be the shot in the The Spanish Earth where the identifying tags of a dead German soldier are shown untranslated in German. Explaining that in order to confront Fascism, documentary had to take sides and serve as propaganda. Ivens admitted, “When we show the German coming down…I knew that there would be people who would not understand those long German words, so I held the scene a little longer, to get them annoyed, and then I had the commentator say ‘I can’t read German, either…In other words, I think you sometimes have to anticipate the feelings of your audience” (Ivens 258). As Berman notes, the tone is deeply ironic, as the film “presses the conclusion that Spanish children are worthy of individualization” with slow, long takes, “while German pilots” are filmed with short takes, coming, as they do, from “ruthless, mechanized German bombers” with their “unknown and untranslatable speech marks” (Berman 233). Ivens’s sense of when a documentary becomes propaganda hinges first, on what does and does not get translated and second, what merits additional comment from the narrator. 

In the case of Reportaje, a documentary primarily intended for a local—rather than an international—audience, Santos also, like Ivens, tries to anticipate the feelings of his audience. He does so by employing an earnest, rather than ironic tone. In Ivens’s case, it is a useful fiction that the German bombers and uniforms are untranslatable. As Berman says, the writing only “remains untranslated,” because audience and narrator are allied in keeping it that way (233).14

In Santos’s case, the images of nuns thrown from their coffins in Reportaje are a “diatribe” against the Church, where the agreement of the audience with the commentator’s interpretation is assumed. In both cases, the films slow down, shots hovering, aspiring for the stillness of a photograph. In Susan Sontag’s account, drawing partly from Andre Bazin’s idea of all photography as embalming life, “all photographs are memento mori that enable participation in another’s mortality” (15). Santos’s filmic photographs want to circumscribe that participation very narrowly. In so doing, they go beyond anticipating audience feeling, as Ivens puts it, instead establishing a metaphorical framework for commemorating or not commemorating death. 

To Resina and Oms, Santos’s commentary is overly writerly, disconnected from the visual scene, the work of a film critic who is still in the mode of writing about film rather than for a film.15 While they may be alienated by the earnest tone of the commentary, within the context for which it was intended, the commentary’s offended tone resembles much writing in newspapers of the time such as Solidaridad Obrera, and augments the visual scene, adding metaphors to help us interpret it. Santos describes female soldiers, the milicianas, going to the Aragon Front with “sus punos prolongados por pistolas” (“their arms prolonged by pistols”; author's translation). This may seem overly writerly, but this commentary establishes a framework for thinking about how arms, like the camera, are a prosthesis for workers that (now augmented by these figurative and literal weapons) are ready for war. When we see the number of arms-bearing citizens throughout the film, Santos’s theme of an armed workforce coheres as part of an overall rhetoric of urban takeover and war readiness. Cameras and weapons augment the power of workers and are signs of not only armed, but cultural power. Workers have “fusiles listos para enviar mensajes de muerte a los enemigos” (“rifles ready to send messages of death to the enemy”; author's translation). This personification of weaponry (where weapons send “messages”) became so common to the literature of the war, it is hard to see it as distinctive now, but this was the very first film of the war and anarchist groups insisted on armed self-defense to protect the public sphere they had developed. While there is some redundant commentary, telling us what we can plainly see, at other times, the film commentary’s more complex functions implicate us in this ready vigilance. 

Street Drama: Celebrating the Revolution

In the third part of the film, Santos stages a number of scenes of street drama, often using post-production sound to enhance events recorded for dramatic effect. The filmic effects show the workers dictating how the urban spectacle is received by the audience. Moving away from the front of the church, a voice—supposedly from a speaker in the scene but really added post-production—commands twenty riflemen crouched on the steps of the church to fire at “al primero que se le vea asomar por las ventas, ¡fuego con él!” (“the first one you see peeking through the windows!”; author's translation), despite the fact that much of the filming took place a few days after the danger had passed. This kind of play-acting in the film, as Martínez Muñoz notes, suggests that those taking part in the “revolutionary fiesta” of the first days of euphoria thought and acted as if they were on a film set (100). Juan García Oliver describes one such filmic incident, “entre ellos Ascaso y Durruti- preparaban unas formaciones en línea a lo ancho de la Rambla, alentados por un tipo extranjero, seguramente concurrente a la proyectada Olimpiada Obrera, que les indicaba cómo adelantar de aquella manera, a pecho descubierto, como si se tratase de reproducir a lo vivo escenas de película, como las del Acorazado Potemkin, exponiéndose vanamente al tiro de los militares” (“Durruti and Ascaso were preparing line formations across the Rambla, encouraged by a foreigner [surely an attendee of the planned Workers’ Olympiad], who told them how to advance with a bare chest, as if they were to reproduce live those scenes in a film, such as those of Battleship Potemkin —exposing oneself vainly to the shooting of the military”; Oliver 189; author's translation). This play-acting did not impress Oliver, who begins his autobiography stating, “people think an anarchist is someone who has read books by Kropotkin and Bakunin, and maybe that is true of middle-class let’s see how a fighting anarchist of working-class origins was formed” (Oliver 1). His dissent presages the split in the CNT over whether or not to join the Popular Front government with its bourgeois elements in 1937. At the time, however, in the anarchist imagination of the likes of Santos, the film camera, the rifle, and even revolutionary film all augment the worker, recording and advancing the pre-destined revolution.

In one of the small narratives that compose the newsreel, we see men removing artworks and idols from a church, with a grim look as they do so. It turns out that two priests and one Fascist are reported to be hiding in the lunatic asylum of Santa Eulalia. The milicianos, Santos explains, do not want to start hunting for these three men in the asylum, “por no alarmar a ese trozo de la Humanidad azotada por la locura” (“so as to not alarm this slice of Humanity whipped up in insanity”; author's translation). Instead, to punish the priests, they burn their idols and artworks heaped up in a pile, while a voice from a speaker bellows (again, supposedly an intradiegetic sound, but added later), “¿Que hacéis? ¡Quemar basura!” (“What are they doing? Burning trash!”; author's translation). He hopes that “sus cenizas quedara castigada la cobarde actitud de los que no respetaron el triste reino de la locura” (“ashes will punish the cowardly attitude of those who do not respect the sad reign of madness”; author's translation). While their behavior may seem to be sacrilegious, Santos points out that the original incursion was made by the two priests and a Fascist who have failed to respect the boundaries of the asylum. We are supposed to think that the rebels in hiding hear Santos saying, “quemando basura!” as they cower in the building, but this is a post-production effect added to dramatize urban takeover. 

The new revolutionary order would have been the envy of many progressive governments:

Crèches were founded in big factories, allowing women to emerge from the domestic sphere and participate in the workplace...libraries were also established in factories...the Ritz became Hotel Gastronómico 1, a communal eating house under union control providing meals for members of the militia, the urban dispossessed...cabaret artists and factory workers...Private homes of...the elite were also converted into housing for the homeless...begging was largely eradicated after July...six new hospitals had been established. (Ealham 161)

The film sweeps past a hospital, where nurses treat all wounded without asking for identification, the Modelo Prison, where Santos had been imprisoned, and where now political prisoners have been freed, and buildings reoccupied for different uses. Old churches are now “casas del pueblo,” which, like anarchist athenaeums, are spaces for meeting halls, canteens, union offices, libraries and workers education programs. The camera glories in looming over these once bourgeois spaces, while not spending any time in the barracas and shanty towns. This seeming omission is because the revolution “allowed...the reclamation and reoccupation by the working class of a space from which it had been expelled in the 1900s” (Ealham 160). The most prominent example of this is the business avenue, the Via Laietana. 

Towards the end of the film the militias parade down Laietana towards Avenida Diagonal. Most buildings are strewn with CNT-FAI banners and the “Casa Cambó, formerly the head office of the...main Catalan employers’ association, became known as Casa CNT-FAI, the nerve center of the Barcelona anarchist and union movements” (Ealham 160). Confiscated cars are marked with the same six initials. With the militias now firmly in control, the newsreel shows French athletes returning from the Workers’ Olympics (a counter-Olympics protesting the Nazis’ Berlin Olympics) accompanied by the Internationale, and men from the “furthest flung slums” filing into the Paseo de Gracia to go to the Aragón Front. The film concludes with the city functioning again, but with men using space rather differently than before. In one of the final shots, a man walks over the colonnade of the building and shimmies in and out of a first-floor window to aid another on a ladder making some adjustments to the massive CNT-FAI banner now over the building. 


Although two of the four films Santos produced are missing, Reportaje del movimiento revolucionario and his later newsreel, Barcelona trabaja para el frente, offer fully fledged examples of his own documentary practice and poetics, a realization of the many ideas he had been discussing as a critic in the pages of Popular Film in the preceding decade. The anarchist dream of a “cine social” has been interpreted by Chris Ealham with reference to Antonio Gramsci’s contemporaneous ideas of national popular culture. Similarly, we can think of the worker camera operators as similar to Gramsci’s theorized organic-intellectual, the working-class individual who traditionally does not occupy the social function of intellectuals within society, but nevertheless applies his intellect to challenge elite hegemony. There is a strong case for doing so, but Santos’s own idiosyncratic taste and capricious critical eye manifest in a highly individual film poetics situated in the specificity of Barcelona’s urban environment and recent, violent history (Ealham 43). As it documents the revolution, Reportaje del movimiento revolucionario occupies city space and cinema practice in four ways. First, the SUEP union forms a collective of self-taught workers, producing their own cinema on the streets rather than in film studios. Second, the union occupies cinema spaces that were formerly for the elites and Fascist sympathizers, such as the Cine Maryland. Third, the camera’s gaze into the windows of the elite asserts the power of worker camera operators to move freely, acting as a prosthesis of the worker’s body. The workers’ use of the camera shows the CNT-FAI’s dominating power of movement through the city, with checkpoints and barricades interrupting the streets. Finally, Santos uses post-production sound and montage to orchestrate scenes of street drama as the working classes take over major symbolic sites, hospitals and new spaces for education which come from requisitioning structures and land. Much anarchist rhetoric in the pages of Solidaridad Obrera and elsewhere was didactic rebuttal and did not address the individualistic concept of an author or director. Where Santos stands apart is in the very writerly nature of his film commentary that grates against the film aesthetics of some critics. Santos came to directing film as a film critic and clearly sensed a defect in various kinds of cinema, from Hollywood to Soviet documentary. He went on to forge his own style, marking both his own imprint, and the imprint of the reoccupied city, onto film celluloid, producing a dissident, alternative cinema that—far from working at the margins—occupied the spaces and practices of filmmaking and film spectating. In such totalizing, myriad ways in which anarchist cinema took over, Reportaje del movimiento revolucionario not only occupies but dominates the film industry and urban environment of Barcelona in 1936.


1 Although both were newsreel films or “noticias sonoros,” a genre Santos celebrated, one anonymous critic in L’Instant found Santos’s film by far the more artificed than El pueblo en armas. (L’Instant, 19 Aug. 1936).

2 As Martínez Muñoz has shown, footage from the film was also used in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s L’espagne vivra (1938), Ruinas y sangre de España (1936), Bajo el signo libertario (1936), Veinte de noviembre (1937), ¡Nosotros somos así! (1937), ¿Y tú qué haces? (1937), Fury over Spain (1937), and Amanecer sobre España (1938). See Martínez Muñoz (91).

3 The exceptions include a growing body of work from Pedret Otero (2015), Juan-Navarro (2011), and Martínez Muñoz (2008).

4  Attention has focused on the film Raza (1942), based on Francisco Franco’s semi-autobiographical novel and steered in certain directions by him during the production process.

5 For accounts of how Spanish Republican documentary cinema developed in a period of both great anxiety and innovation, see Pingree (2005) and Mendelson (2005).

6 For an excellent summary of the politics of Spain’s arts magazines, see Mendelson (183), and for a more in-depth reading of Piqueras’s editorial work with Nuestro Cinema, see Fibla (110–69).

7 Two of Santos’s films are missing, and the other one which is available, Barcelona trabaja para el frente (1936) was never screened, though may also be said to be a documentary of occupation of a different kind and is beyond the scope of this essay. See Martínez Muñoz (2015).

8 In fact, it was a distributor, José Arquer, who took Reportaje directly to Berlin to be disformed by the Nazi Propaganda Unit and then as far as Venezuela. See Sala Noguer (1993).

9 Brief notices to do with the film: for example, that Santos’s commentary was narrated by radio broadcaster José Soler, that film studios readily donated their fee to the CNT-FAI, and that technician Antonio Canovas was ready to help Santos “incondicialmente,” appear in La Vanguardia, on 29 July, 30 July, and 2 August 1936.

10 As Jordana Mendelson notes, maps were used extensively by Eli Lotar and Joris Ivens, among others: “maps were a prominent feature in documentaries and newsreels during the period” (234).

11 Santos acknowledges the archival potential of film in “La actualidad como orientación” (Popular Film, 23 July 1931, 258).

12 On the camera-weapon analogy, see “Turning the camera into a weapon” (Fibla Gutiérrez and La Parra-Pérez 341–632). This offers a less literal idea of how the camera can be turned into a weapon in the case of Piqueras’s Nuestro Cinema: “The proletarian appropriation of the amateur filmic means of production could turn the camera into a weapon in the class war that was being fought in Spain. It also represented—echoing the Vertovian utopia of creating internationalist visual bonds—a formidable point of connection with international militant networks...He suggested instead the collective purchases of cameras and film materials” (Fibla 350).

13 The Propaganda Service of the Vichy Government reused the sequences in Français, vouz avez la memoire corte (1942), and they were also used in the Swiss film Die rote Peste (1938). Even the antifacist Frederic Rossif used the images to illustrate the bitterness of the internecine battle of the left in Barcelona in Mourir a Madrid (1968) and Jaime Camino in La vieja memoria (1977). See Martínez Muñoz (91).

14 In Imagined Communities (1991) Benedict Anderson highlights the tomb of the Unknown Soldier as a prime example of national mythmaking (9). Ivens’s shot ironically dispenses with this myth to create a transnational, but partial memory: comrades need to and can be known and Fascists should be kept unknown.

15 The film was rushed out. It was produced hastily and the comments sometimes lag behind or stray far ahead from the visual sequence, which is partly why Resina notes a sharp divide between commentary and image.   


Works Cited

Amanecer sobre España. Directed by Louis Frank, Solidaridad Internacional Antifascista, 1938. 

Bajo el signo libertario. Directed by Ángel Lescarboura, SUEP, 1936. 

Bazin, Andre. The Ontology of the Photographic Image, no. 4, July 1960, pp. 4–9.

Beman, Jessica. Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism. Columbia UP, 2011.

Borkenau, Franz. The Spanish Cockpit; an Eye-Witness Account of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Spanish Civil War. Faber and Faber, 1937.

Diez, Emeterio. “Anarchist Cinema during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War.” Arena One: On Anarchist Cinema, edited by Richard Porton, PM Press and ChristieBooks, 2009, pp. 33–96.

Ealham, Chris. Class, Culture and Conflict in Barcelona, 1898–1937. Routledge, 2005.

Epps, Brad. “Seeing the Dead.” Visualizing Spanish Modernity, edited by Susan Larson and Eva Woods Peiró. English edition, Berg, 2005, pp. 112–42. 

Fibla-Gutiérrez, Enrique. A Pedagogical Impulse: Noncommercial Film Cultures in Spain (1931–1936). 2018, Concordia University, dissertation,

Fibla-Gutiérrez, Enrique and Pablo La Parra-Pérez. “Turning the Camera into a Weapon: Juan Piqueras’s Radical Noncommercial Film Projects and Their Afterlives (1930s–1970s).” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, 2017, pp. 341–62.

Fury over Spain. Directed by Louis Frank and Juan Pallejá, SIE Films, 1937.

García López, Sonia. Spain Is Us : La Guerra Civil Española En El Cine Del Popular Front, 1936–1939. Universitat de València, 2013.

García Oliver, Juan. El Eco de Los Pasos : El Anarcosindicalismo ... En La Calle ... En El Comité de Milicias ... En El Gobierno ... En El Exilio. Ruedo Ibérico, 1978.

---. Wrong Steps: Errors in the Spanish Revolution, translated by Paul Sharkey, Kate Sharpley Library Pamphlet, 2000.

Grierson, John. Grierson on Documentary. U of California P, 1966.

Gubern, Román. El cine sonoro en la II República. Lumen, 1977.

Holguín, Sandie. Creating Spaniards: Culture and National Identity in Republican Spain. U of Wisconsin P, 2002.

Ivens, Joris. “Documentary, Subjectivity and Montage,” (1939). Lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 13 Dec 1939. Joris Ivens and the Documentary Context, edited by Kees Baaker, Amsterdam UP 1999, pp. 250–60.

L’espagne vivra. Directed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, MK2, 1938.

L’Instant, (1935–1936), Barcelona, CNT, 19 Aug. 1936. 

Juan-Navarro, Santiago. “Un Pequeño Hollywood Proletario: El Cine Anarcosindicalista Durante La Revolución Española (Barcelona, 1936–1937).” Bulletin of Spanish Studies: Hispanic Studies and Researches on Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, vol. 88, no. 4, 2011, pp. 523–40. 

Mar, Alberto, “Un estreno, Reportaje del movimiento revolucionario, de Mateo Santos,”  Popular Film, Barcelona, I.B. Casanovas, 1926–1937, 20 Aug. 1936. 

Martínez Muñoz, Pau. La cinematografía anarquista en Barcelona durante la Guerra Civil (1936–1939). 2008, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, dissertation,

---. Mateo Santos; Cine y Anarquismo: República, Guerra y Exilio Mexicano. La Imprenta, 2015.

Mendelson, Jordana. “Contested Territory: The Politics of Geography in Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan.” Locus Amoenus, vol. 2, Dec. 1996, pp. 229–42.

---. Documenting Spain: Artists, Exhibition Culture, and the Modern Nation, 1929–1939. Pennsylvania State UP, 2005.

Mendelson, Jordana and Estrella de Diego. “Political Practice and the Arts in Spain, 1927–1936.” Art and Journals on the Political Front, 1910–1940, edited by Virginia Carol Hagelstein Marquardt. UP of Florida, 1997, pp. 183–214.

¡Nosotros somos así! Directed by Valetín R. González, SIE Films, 1937. 

Oms, Marcel. “La Guerra d’Espagne.” Guerres révolutionnaires: Histoire et Cinéma, edited by Sylvie Dallet, La Sorbonne, 1984, pp. 50–8. 

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. 1938. Harcourt, Brace, 1952.

Pedret Otero, Gerard. La quimera de la gran pantalla: periodisme, grups llibertaris i cinema a Catalunya (1926–1937). 2015, Universitat de Barcelona, dissertation,

----.“Mateo Santos: del periodismo ‘de combate’ al periodismo ‘profesional.’” Historia y Comunicación Social; Madrid, vol. 21, no. 2, 2016, pp. 527–39.

Popular Film, Barcelona, I.B. Casanovas, 1926–1937.

Paz, Abel. Viaje al Pasado (1936–1939). Fundación de Estudios Libertarios Anselmo Lorenzo, 2002.

Pingree, Geoffrey. “La política en voz pasiva: los noticarios de Hearst Metrotone de la Guerra Civil española.” Catalógo general del cine de la guerra civil, edited by Alfonso del Amo and María Luisa Ibañez, Cátedra / Filmoteca Española, 1997, pp. 109–15.

---. “Modern Anxiety and Documentary Cinema in Republican Spain.” Visualizing Spanish Modernity, edited by Susan Larson and Eva Woods Peiró. English edition, Berg, 2005, pp. 301–28. 

Reportaje del movimiento revolucionario en Barcelona. Directed by Mateo Santos, 1936.

Resina, Joan Ramon. “Historical Discourse and the Propaganda Film: Reporting in Barcelona.” New Literary History, vol. 29, no. 1, 1998, pp. 67–84.

Ruinas y sangre de España. Directed by Ricardo Alonso, SUEP-Frente Popular, 1936. 

Sala Noguer, Ramón. El Cine En La España Republicana Durante La Guerra Civil (1936–1939). Mensajero, 1993.

Santos, Mateo. Rebelión militar y revolución social in La guerra filmada, Filmoteca Española,2009.

Sanz Alonso, Carlos, et al. Cine y Anarquismo 1936: Colectivización de La Industria Cinematográfica. CNT, 2009. 

Solidaridad Obrera (1936–1939), AIT, Órgano de la Confederación Nacional del Trabajo de Cataluña, Portavoz de la Confederación Nacional del Trabajo de España, Barcelona. 

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

Tiempos Nuevos (1934–1938), Revista de Sociología, Arte y Economía (Suplemento de Tierra y Libertad), edited by Diego Abad de Santillán, AHCB, Unión Gráfica, Barcelona. 

Veinte de noviembre. Directed by Ángel Lescarboura, SIE Films, 1937.

¿Y tú qué haces? Directed by Ricardo de Baños, SIE Films, 1937. 


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