ZINEUSKADI: How did you come up with the idea for the film?
Ana Schulz: The story of the friendship between Juan and Roberto was always part of my family’s history and shared memories. When my father started to visit Roberto in jail and resumed his friendship with him, history suddenly came back to life and became a part of the present. It was the opportunity to tell a story with two very unique characters who came from two opposing worlds to which, as the daughter of one of the characters, I had privileged access. What I didn’t know was how to tell the story. My first instinct was to take my camera and request a photo session. The context was my father's 81st birthday and Roberto came to celebrate with us. This photo session was the seed of the project. The two were in a good mood and we took a dozen pictures that reflect their close relationship, in spite of everything, but I quickly realized that fell short of telling their story. Their story required words, a narrative. It was then that I thought about involving the filmmaker of the family.
Cristóbal Fernández: It was clear that we had a very powerful story on our hands, a story of family espionage with a political background that had to do with ETA and the State's fight against terrorism. We found these two polar opposites interesting but the big question was how to connect them. One of the challenges was undoubtedly to tie in the family’s private history with the country’s political story. There was no script for the film so the answer was found in the filming process itself.
Z: This is a cross-genre film that transforms as it progresses. Was it something planned or something that happened organically?
AS: Our idea from the start was to delve into the classic theme of the world of espionage that has always fascinated movie audiences, but from the perspective of a documentary and a family’s point of view. We felt it was something that hadn’t been done before and that we could tackle. Roberto himself told us about the need to challenge the stereotypes that films have created about the world of secret services. Engaging in a dialogue with a former secret service agent in front of the camera and trying to discover who he is was an exceptional gift. What we didn’t expect was to find ourselves immersed in a thriller while we were filming. So we decided to take advantage of it, turn the camera around, film what was happening to us and also add tension and suspense to the story. On the other hand, it is also a political film. There is no denying the context of the Basque conflict in which the narrative takes place and Juan's serious but frustrated attempts to promote different processes of dialogue for peace. In that sense we wanted to enter the gray areas of what happened in those tough years in the Basque Country. In this delicate historical moment in which society is trying to digest what happened, we provide a first-hand account of two individuals who, without being victims or victimizers, played an important and active role in those years and saw their lives marked by the Basque conflict.
CF: We’re not interested in making a film that closes itself off to what happens during its own process. Rossellini said that a film is a documentary of its own making, and it’s true. That tension between the controlled and the improvised was particularly interesting in ensuring that the film remained something alive. If the word documentary means anything, it’s surely to be perceptive and open to the experience of filming. So in the end what we have is a movie that shifts forms and styles as it progresses. Also because we draw inspiration from many sources, from classic spy films, like Coppola’s The Conversation, to documentary and essayistic films similar to Chris Marker. Covering that spectrum seemed very stimulating to us.
Z: What hardships and obstacles did you face throughout the four years of filming?
AS: The biggest difficulty was working with someone as elusive as a spy can be. Someone who has been trained to change his face to fit the circumstances and manipulate people to achieve their goals. It gets even more complicated if this person has also been accused of treason against the State. We had to deal with the same control to which Roberto himself was subjected. The secret services didn’t want him to participate in the film out of fear that he would say something that he shouldn’t and they did everything they could to get their point across. As we got closer to filming, our phones and computers started acting up, Roberto discovered two agents putting a tracking device in the car, we always had some weird person around when we met with him...it was all very obviously to intimidate us.
CF: I don’t think there’s anything worse for a filmmaker than to be told that his film might not be made. We found ourselves in that position a few times during the process. But something came out of those limitations, neither better nor worse, but different. We felt like what was happening to us was a kind of reflection of what had happened to Juan in the past and that it should be one of the film’s themes.
Z: How did you approach working with the archive?
AS: The research and documentation phase did happen pre-shooting, like it usually does, but was something we did throughout the four years of the project. We spent hours upon hours digging through newspaper archives, personal archives, and the Basque Film Archive. We wanted to find new images that were different from the overused images of the news. For example, searching through the amateur movies on Super 8 film that several families donated to the Basque Film Archive. Guided by the feeling that most of the images in the collective imaginary weren’t giving us what we were looking for, we searched for images that could once again tell us something.
CF: In a certain sense, our film has hints of a classic documentary. There is a frontality with respect to the characters that we were very interested in, along the lines of Depardon. We were aware that the word and the story were fundamental for us, because they allowed us to establish the relationship between Juan and Roberto, but we also thoroughly explored everything that had to do with photography and film archives. I think one of the unique aspects of Mudar la piel is the way we blend the family archive with the political one, how militant films of the ’80s are interspersed with family photographs and TV recordings. We wanted the archive to have its own voice, so we opted to recover the full length of the original images, so that they could reveal without words the political environment that existed in the Basque Country at the time. Far from making images speak for us, we suggest that they speak to us, give us signs of the past, and throw light or shade onto our history.
Z: Mudar la piel shows the issues you had in your relationship with the characters. How did you get along with the two main characters during shooting?
CF: I think that the relationship between the one who films and the one who is filmed is something implicit in making a movie. Every situation is unique. There are no recipes or formulas. Of course, there is always a tension between these two positions, even violence in the very act of looking at and “trapping” someone else with the camera. So obviously we have to dialogue with the characters but, from our point of view, the filmmaker’s decisions must prevail in that kind of implicit contract with the characters. In Mudar la piel we had problems because Roberto didn’t quite understand what we were doing at one point in the process and that tension was quite strong, perhaps out of fear or distrust. It seems disingenuous to hide it so we decided to make it part of the film.
AS: It was a very sensitive issue. We were very clear that we would show the final cut to our main characters and that we would take into consideration their impressions and suggestions. But in the end we were forced to almost constantly have to teach them about our way of understanding cinema, that the experience of filming a movie has to be tied to a life experience, and that the cinema we defend is a cinema that is provocative and transformative. We didn’t have final script before filming and this made our main characters extremely uneasy. We only asked them to try to trust us; trust had to be the foundation and point of departure for our work.
Z: The film is narrated from the subjective point of view of Ana as Juan's daughter. What was it like to co-direct such a personal film for both of you?
CF: The common thread throughout the film is Ana's voice-over that clearly frames the point of view. But, how do you participate in the movie in the first person while also participating as a supporting character? I felt a bit strange at first until, very organically, I found my position. Somehow, since I was also behind the camera I contributed my personal point of view, so it is as if there were two subjectivities at the heart of the film. One is that of the narrator and character of the film, Ana. The other is person behind the camera who also reveals herself at certain points, when I appear as just another character. However, in Mudar la piel Ana's relationship with her father and her position on Roberto were essential.
AS: We were like a monster with two heads, we talked and discussed everything until we learned not to get offended along the way. Not a bad lesson.
Z: The film focus a lot on the relationship between a daughter and a father. Ana, how did you approach that?
AS: There are two dimensions that may seem contradictory but just as contradictory as relationships many times are. There is a willingness on my part to situate the contribution that my father’s work made in a political and historical context, from a very genuine but at the same time very unclassifiable position, and a kind of homage to his career and his way of doing things. I can’t deny that. But at the same time there is a need on my part, from a deep affection and admiration, to question the generosity shown to Roberto, a person who deceived my father and who for years made him believe and feel that a relationship that was truly fake and based on professional interest was actually true. It bothers me that he doesn’t see the hurt he caused and that he won’t admit to the duplicity in the relationship. I try to take off the blindfold but I also have a stubborn father who refuses to see the light himself. I’m annoyed by his innocence, but that anger may actually come from that innocence that I also recognize in myself.
Z: Does the title Mudar la piel refer to the intrinsic transformations involved with being a spy?
AS: Partially, yes, and the film itself certainly makes explicit reference to it (“mudra la piel” means “shed the skin” in Spanish), to the ability spies have of “shedding their skin” according to the circumstances. For me, in an abstract sense, the spy is a somewhere between chameleon and reptile, but for my father, Roberto, our actual family spy, shed his skin and experienced a profound change of identity. There is a third, more indirect interpretation of the title and that refers to the transformation or shedding of skin that ETA’s symbolic snake has experienced. The nationalist left has profoundly shifted its discourse, has transformed coexistence in the Basque Country, and it’s very likely that my father also did his small part in this regard.
CF: After thinking it over a lot we decided on Mudar la piel because we liked its ambiguity. The film itself also sheds its skin as it progresses. Of course, we decided to pair it with a title in English that does contain the word spy, The Spy Within.