Viva la revolución! Viva la mujeras!

Issue 

Libertarias
Directed by Vincente Aranda
Dendy Films

Review by Marina Cameron

Libertarias is a fantastic and inspiring look at the Spanish Civil War through the eyes of a group of women who fight to play their part in the struggle for liberation.

Vincente Aranda has drawn on his childhood experience of the war and a rich library of documentary-based interpretations and original footage to give Libertarias an authentic feel. The film is a wonderful mix of seriousness, conflict, humour and irony during the upheaval of revolution.

The story focuses on six women thrown together by chance. Maria (Ariadna Gill), a nun, flees on the arrival of a truck of revolutionaries who are going to burn the church, and seeks refuge in a brothel. Later a group of militia women arrive and inform the women that they are no longer slaves to prostitution or to god.

Pilar (Ana Belen) takes Maria under her wing. She and one other woman from the brothel decide to join the militia women after they go to a meeting of the Organisation for the Liberation of Women. In the same way that Land and Freedom provided an insight into a newly liberated village discussing land collectivisation, Libertarias covers the debate amongst women regarding their role in the revolution.

The women are told that now that the civil war has begun, they should stay behind working the machines and tending the men who come back from the front.

Pilar gives an impassioned speech on the need to fight for an equal role, in this case revolving around the right to participate in armed struggle and an equal right to the spoils. Pilar says that women would rather fight and die alongside the men than "live on their knees like servants".

In the early stages of the war, women like Pilar and the five others did win this right. But the film also covers the later period, when the Stalinised Communist Party, together with the popular front government in Madrid, sought to contain land collectivisation, which was being assisted by the revolutionary militias. They issued orders that the militias submit to the authority of the national army — don uniforms, obey formal military discipline and ban women from carrying guns.

The message comes through that women have a double fight — against the old order and to be equals within the revolution — and that because of this they are as strong, if not stronger than the men.

The women show themselves willing to brave the consequences of this fight for equality, including death and the terror tactics of war reserved especially for women. It is also clear that the women gain strength from organising and discussing with each other, as well as with other revolutionaries.

Amidst the drama, there is time for humour and a light-hearted look at the ironies that result when society is turned on its head — the militia women in overalls and gun straps drinking with the freed prostitutes in garish clothes, make-up and inch-long fingernails and discussing how to set up a collective; soldiers gathering ammunition in old top hats; a labourer using a confessional from a nearby church to shield himself from the sun; Maria learning to memorise Kropotkin instead of the Bible; well-meaning revolutionaries sending boxes of lipstick to the bemused women on the front amongst the orders of blankets, army plates and candles.

Aranda explains that the first version of the script was made 11 years ago. The film was a long-term dream, its aim to make the Spanish people proud of their history. Aranda talks about the need to cover the war as not just a military uprising, but a people's revolution.

"Libertarias talks about civil war as a consequence of a military revolt, but at the same time it talks of revolutions, in plural, because while men fought for justice to be reinstated in the world, women wanted justice to recognise and accept their own rights.

"There are many examples in history of events that seemed impossible, but have happened. That's why we have to keep on believing in utopia. The film talks about two utopias: women's and society's. They both end tragically, but there is still hope enough to keep fighting."