The pursuit of justice

Alberto Rodriguez on Spanish history and Prison 77

by Jennie Kermode

Miguel Herrán as Manuel and Javier Gutiérrez as Pino in Prison 77
Miguel Herrán as Manuel and Javier Gutiérrez as Pino in Prison 77

A taut drama exploring what life was like inside Spanish penitentiaries in the years just after the fall of the Franco regime, Prison 77 screened at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival. Director Alberto Rodríguez was keen to tell the story behind it. Readers should be aware that there are some spoilers here, but nothing that detracts from the tension in a film where the fate of the central characters remains uncertain until the very last moment.

Jennie Kermode: What made you want to make a film on this subject, and how closely did you stick to real events?

Alberto Rodríguez: Prison 77 is a film that we have been trying to make since 2006, when we learned about the events that took place in Spanish prisons during the transition of the country to democracy. Much has been written about the changes that took place to establish democracy after 40 years of dictatorship in the mid Seventies in Spain, but we had no idea, no news about what had happened to all those people who had been tried during the dictatorship for acts that had nothing to do with politics but with social justice... The self-proclaimed social prisoners.

If the three legs of the state were moving, there was one that took a long time to get moving: justice. The judges at the end of the dictatorship and at the beginning of democracy were the same... It was an interesting metaphor... I think the film is quite close to the real events that took place in different Spanish prisons, but under a common denominator, the tremendous solidarity of the prisoners and the hunger for freedom. During the elaboration of the script, in the documentation phase, we met with many prisoners, lawyers, judges, civil servants... Some of them have seen the finished film and I believe they find that everything is quite close to how they remember it... That's what we have tried to achieve.

To document ourselves, we went through many books and a lot of photographic material, but fundamentally the main materials were interviews we conducted throughout the country with prisoners, lawyers, journalists, officials, even with the Director of Penitentiary Institutions at the time, García Valdés. I believe it was the most intense learning phase of the film and perhaps the most interesting, I hope that part of what they told us has been reflected in the film.

JK: What was it like working with Miguel Herrán, who plays the central character, Manuel?

AR: Miguel is quite young but I think that, of his generation, he is probably the most talented Spanish actor I know. He is very intuitive and hardworking. I saw casting try-outs of a lot of actors and he seemed to me to be the one who was closest to the role of all. We had a previous interview in the middle of the pandemic lockdown and he gave me the impression that he had understood the script perfectly even though the facts occurred in the Seventies and he was born in the Nineties.

It was very easy and pleasant to work with him.

JK: How did you arrange to shoot inside real prison La Model, and how did shooting there affect the mood on set?

AR: The availability of Model prison itself was one of the reasons why it took us almost 15 years to shoot the film. The massive escape that occurs at the end of the film actually happened in Barcelona’s Model prison in 1978. So we understood that the film had to be set in that prison, and there was no alternative to replace it. In 2006 we were told that the prison was going to close soon. It remained active as a prison until 2017, we had to wait for it to close for good. Even so the shooting time we were allowed inside was limited, because now a multitude of cultural, social, activities take place in the prison... So we could only shoot 3 weeks in the real prison, the rest is a set. It was difficult to think about the continuity when recreating the spaces but I think it was worth it.

JK: There’s obviously limited room for set decoration in a prison, but I was intrigued by the way that Pino’s space was personalised, and by the way that he began to make it personal again after his possessions had been burned. He seemed to create a little island of civilisation around him. Was that an important part of the character?

AR: Well, Pino's journey is the journey made by many prisoners incarcerated during Franco's regime and, by extension, it is also the journey made by many Spaniards who had lived 40 years under the yoke of the dictator. It is a journey towards openness, towards the freedom of a country that was believed to be imprisoned, it is still a metaphor. It is freedom awakening in those who had never possessed it.

JK: People who watch a lot of prison films will be wary of each friendly character and will expect trouble. Although there are some dangerous prisoners, a lot of the emphasis here is on mutual support and friendship. Did you feel that that made it possible to explore a different side of prison life?

AR: I think that, as you say, there are many films that talk about how dangerous prisons are, about the wickedness of their inhabitants and about the stereotype of the delinquent. So that the film can be understood I will give an example. In 1978, in the Model prison of Barcelona there was a module of homosexuals, considered by law criminals just for that fact. The module was divided into 'congenital' and 'acquired'. I think it is quite graphic in every sense. A real fact that for example gives an idea of the dimension of solidarity is that in the Model prison in 1977, 200 prisoners cut their veins in unison, just to let the press in and be heard, as the film shows. I was more interested in talking about human beings, not with a total bonhomie, but convinced that part of what was demanded is fair, social justice, which was what they were asking for above all.

JK: How did you approach the scenes of beatings to make them convincingly brutal while keeping the actors safe? This seems more difficult than usual when there are so many people involved in some of them.

AR: There was no sense of danger for the actors at any time, but if we've made the audience feel that way, it's great. That was the idea.

JK: There’s a lot of tension in the film, for each prisoner, between the need to survive as an individual and the need to help the group. Did you see that as an analogy for what was happening in Spain more generally after Franco?

AR: It is a very difficult time to understand, a ship going down, the dictatorship, and something new emerging. Terrorist attacks, angry and retrograde military, young people asking for new laws, freedom... The gnashing of teeth of the whole country, the cry for freedom of the whole country... It was a very complicated clash of tectonic plates. Two worlds colliding and trying to come to an agreement to establish a future.

JK: Do you think that there is much public awareness of what happened in prisons at this time? Do you think that the film will change that, and if so, what messages do you hope that people will take from it?

AR: No, people, in general, ignore what happens in prisons, it is a part of the system that remains hidden. It's just the box in the game where you disappear. And a lot of things are still terrible, the system is supposed to rehabilitate, I think it fundamentally punishes. It's a fundamentally punitive system.

JK: How do you feel about the film being part of the Glasgow Film Festival?

AR: I am happy that the film is in the festival. I think that festivals in these days that we live in, with such a confusing and profuse offer, are a beacon for viewers, a light that indicates what to see. I'm grateful and happy that the film had its UK première in Glasgow.

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