Spanish Film Stars Protest War

Acting Out of Conviction

Spanish actor Javier Bardem, who won a 2003 Goya Best Actor award for Los lunes al sol, participates in an antiwar protest in Madrid on Feb. 13. (Photo: AFP)

The champagne was on ice, the paparazzi were poised, and the big band was all set to play, when Spain’s Goya film awards, held in early February, took a radical departure from convention. In quieter times, the closest such glamorous occasions had come to controversy were the questions in the popular press about whether an actress' dress was a little too revealing. These, however, are not quiet times.

With war looming in Iraq, Madrid’s equivalent of Hollywood’s Oscar ceremony exploded with the force of a cruise missile in the face of Spanish Prime Minister Jose María Aznar. The awards ceremony quickly turned into a carnival of protest as, one by one, Spain’s leading actors and film directors took to the podium to denounce right-wing premier Aznar’s support for the Bush administration’s war plans.

Every award winner received his or her prize wearing a badge or T-shirt proclaiming, ‘No to war.’ Former Oscar nominee Javier Bardem used his acceptance speech to speak out against military action. The artists’ stance was certainly reflective of Spanish public opinion: Recent polls show that 75 percent of the Spanish people oppose war in Iraq, even if it receives authorization by the United Nations.

This did not prevent leading figures in the Spanish film industry and politics from accusing the actors and directors of bringing the nation’s cinema into disrepute. Eduardo Camoy, president of AV Producers, expressed outrage at the conduct of the awards, and called upon the Film Academy’s president, Marisa Paredes, to resign her post. The Aznar government’s Culture Minister, Pilar del Castillo, was similarly unimpressed. On Feb. 3, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that she was “'bemused and saddened’ that the event was ‘politicized’ in this way.”

For her part, Paredes was unapologetic about the statements made by the artists. “In no circumstances will I deny the Academy’s members the same rights as our citizens—the right to freedom of speech,” she said.

Javier Bardem’s mother, the widely known and respected actress Pilar Bardem, was less restrained. Following a protest by anti-war film artists in the Spanish parliament a few days after the Goya awards ceremony, Ms. Bardem launched an excoriating attack on the Aznar administration.

Commenting on reports that directors of Spain’s state-run television station had tried to have coverage of the Goyas taken off the air, she made comparisons with the days of the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. “I'm 63 years old, and I lived through a dictatorship,” she commented, “and now, once again, dictatorial methods are being used in this country.”

The Spanish daily newspaper El Mundo (Feb. 5) reported that Mercedes Sampietro, winner of 10 best actress awards, spoke of her disgust at what she saw as attempts to silence the artists following their statements during the awards ceremony. “What happened after the gala was shameful—it set us back years. I'm happy we did what we did,” she told reporters. “It took courage, but it was time to tell the truth.”

Bardem and Sampietro were speaking after a number of artists, sporting their now famous antiwar T-shirts, had been ejected from the Madrid parliament on Feb. 5 following a debate on Iraq. Twenty-nine actors had been invited to attend the session by Spain's left-wing opposition, which was clearly sympathetic to the growing antiwar sentiment in the country's film industry. An impromptu rally of more than 1,000 people quickly gathered outside of the assembly building in support of the film stars.

El Mundo reported on the carnival atmosphere. “The demonstration outside the Congress had been going for an hour when the trapeze artists of the Circo de los Muchachos made a human tower and released a white dove,” reported the paper. “There was applause and chanting of ‘Aznar overacts’ and ‘More booze and less cruise’ or ‘Make revolution through art.’” Leading actress Victoria Abril joined the protest, the paper reported. “‘There go our subsidies for the next three years,’” she told reporters.

If the criticism leveled at Spain’s antiwar artists was intended to dampen their fervor, it has certainly failed. El Mundo reports that the stars have established an organization and Web site titled Artists Against War, and that they have been in the streets of central Madrid collecting signatures for an antiwar petition.

The creative industries' opposition has become a persistent headache for the Aznar government. On Feb. 23, Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar, in London to receive a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for his film Talk to Her, used his acceptance speech to attack the “darkness” of a U.S.-led war in Iraq. Just two days later, Hollywood actress and singer Jennifer Lopez arrived in Madrid and added her voice to the chorus of protest.

On Feb. 25, the press agency Europa Press reported Lopez as saying, “I do not want the war.” The actress continued, “The people who are in power should make good decisions for everybody. They should think about the many lives that are in danger.”

The opposition of artists to war in Iraq is not a specifically Spanish phenomenon. Almodovar was just one of numerous stars of various nationalities who made their protests heard at the BAFTA awards on Feb. 23. Also on Feb. 23, the Grammy music awards held in New York saw performers such as Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, and Fred Durst declare their antiwar stance.

In the United Kingdom, during the rally which followed the 1.5 million strong antiwar march in London on Feb. 15, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was denounced by acclaimed British playwright Harold Pinter as President Bush’s “hired Christian thug.”

There is nothing new in artists' becoming publicly engaged in the major political issues of the day. Marlon Brando famously refused to receive his Oscar for The Godfather, sending a young Native American woman to accept the prize instead, so that she could make a protest about the treatment of her people.

Nor have the political stands of the stars always tended toward left-wing causes. French actress Brigitte Bardot is a prominent supporter of Jean Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front, and is married to a senior party official.

But at the moment, an unprecedented level of support is being expressed by the world’s artists for the campaign against war in Iraq. In these days of growing cynicism about politicians' motivations, leaders might well be wary of clashing with stage and screen stars whose popularity with the public is less fragile than their own.