Wednesday, October 27

José Val del Omar and the art of taking sides | Babelia

In his criticism of the album The distance between mud and electronics by Niño de Elche, published in Babelia On January 30, 2021, Carlos García Simón offers the reader a peculiar profile of the filmmaker José Val del Omar. García Simón emphasizes that “it is always advisable to keep in mind” that Val del Omar was “an openly reactionary filmmaker, an Old Testament Catholic national” whose objective was the “propping up of, specifically, the Catholic religion.” This religious substratum is connected, according to the critic, with the anti-rationalist strategies of fascism: the recording and projection systems invented by Val del Omar “are nothing other than techniques of totalitarian vocation, that is, they seek to erase their own limits, which make it difficult the viewer is placed in an external framework from which to try to understand critically, rationally. García Simón’s interpretation is not only supported by a partial biographical reading, but the idea of ​​a monolithic Francoism underlies his criticism, resulting from extrapolating the division of the sides of the Civil War to the 40 years of dictatorship.

Val del Omar’s artistic career began in the early thirties with his incorporation as a projectionist and documentary maker to the Pedagogical Missions. This ambitious republican initiative aimed to bring to the less developed regions a culture linked to the mass media, in full effervescence in the cities. The filmmaker profusely photographed the ecstatic reaction that the action of the cinematograph or the gramophone produced in the inhabitants of these towns. This experience was key in Val del Omar’s conception of cinema as an emancipatory art, although he later criticized the paternalism and propaganda purposes of the Missions. In 1939, Franco’s troops captured Val del Omar, who had spent the Civil War protecting the Republic’s audiovisual instruments, at his entrance to the city of Valencia.

The conditions under which he negotiated his incorporation as an audiovisual technician into the Francoist ranks remain to be clarified, taking into account that many missionaries were subjected to arduous purification processes, forced into exile, or even sentenced to death. It is in this climate of terror and repression that the filmmaker will collaborate with the Periphonic Circuit of Valencia, a sound installation with more than 35 loudspeakers distributed in streets and squares for advertising and propaganda purposes. The Falange will call on the technical staff of the Circuit to supervise the sound installation of the great manifestation of the party that will take place in the city in 1940; a fact that is enough for García Simón to demonstrate an alleged ascription of Val del Omar to fascist postulates. This schizophrenic participation in ideologically opposed initiatives will mark the filmmaker’s production from the forties on, concerned about the fine line that separates pedagogy and emancipation from propaganda and control.

José Val del Omar, Andalusian Children in the Cinema of the Pedagogical Missions.
José Val del Omar, Andalusian Children in the Cinema of the Pedagogical Missions.Courtesy of the Val del Omar Archive

In 1942, Val del Omar began a long journey as an audiovisual technician for different official institutions such as Radio Nacional de España or the Institute of Hispanic Culture, among others. Starting with the Second World War, the filmmaker identified this “misuse of psychophysiological techniques” of the media with the Hollywood industry, then in full transformation due to the growing popularity of television. According to Val del Omar, the three-dimensional illusionism of techniques such as Cinemascope, Cinerama and Stereophony shook the viewers’ bodies, individualizing them and preventing their critical positioning. Through inventions such as Diaphonic Sound, TactileVision or Apanoric Overflow, the filmmaker sought to connect with the psychology of the viewer, forcing him to “take sides”. Val del Omar is fully aware of the political frictions that exist between his understanding of cinema as a liberating element and the reactionary institutions in which he found shelter. In the presentation of Diaphonic Sound at UNESCO in 1955, the filmmaker claims to star in “the paradox that a country in dictatorship officially proposed” a sound technique that intended to dialogue with the psychology of the viewer, “in the face of irreversible authoritarian directional communication and not diagonal ”of democratic countries. For all these reasons, García Simón’s conviction that, in Val del Omar, “society disappears, with its conflicts and interests,” is strange.

These arguments are one more example of the dichotomy that has governed the approach to art and culture produced during the Franco regime for years, avoiding the heterogeneity of experiences and positions that made up more than four decades of the history of this country. Val del Omar has often been the victim of this simplification: his work has been distorted until it can be seamlessly integrated into either the cultural left or the cultural right. This filmmaker now attracts a new generation of artists who see in the multidisciplinary deployment that makes its contradictions a more useful reference than any heroic fiction. At a time when artistic activity can rarely escape the clutches of voracious neoliberalism, Val del Omar’s work offers us new strategies for operating in politics.

Lluís Alexandre Casanovas Blanco you are an architect, art curator and researcher.

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