Julio Medem's fourth film, "Lovers of the Arctic Circle," has brought the Spanish director full circle in his own life. The film, written by Medem, has autobiographical traces--from the anguish of being a lovesick adolescent to a man trying to find peace with his difficult father.
The film, which opens today in Los Angeles, narrates the story of two young lovers, Ana and Otto, struggling to nurture their love for each other while destiny keeps them apart. They meet and fall in love as children, eventually growing into adolescence together, before ending up at the ends of the Earth, literally and metaphorically.
"In everything you do there is a sense of searching for something," he said over lunch recently in Los Angeles. "You begin your search that way and with film I'm able to find a voice. I found that this was a way I could use to show things that I could not express with words."
"Lovers," an intense, metaphysical film, has been a surprise hit in Spain and confirmed Medem's place as one of that country's most talented directors.
Medem's first film in 1992, "Vacas" (Cows), won him a Goya (Spain's Oscar) for best new director, while his second feature, "La Ardilla Roja" (The Red Squirrel), won the Audience Award and the Young Audience Award for best foreign film at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. His third film, "Tierra" (Earth), was an official selection at the 1996 Cannes festival.
"Lovers" is a very personal story of redemption and forgiveness for Medem. The 40-year-old director, born of a Basque mother and a German father, has found film to be a cathartic medium where the demons of his past can play themselves out.
In directing "Lovers," Medem didn't follow a formal script. Instead, he let his intuition guide him.
"When I started 'Lovers' I wanted to tell a love story from two different perspectives," Medem said. "I didn't know what story I was going to tell. So I started out thinking like a child, clearly, with a simple story. There is a boy at school and he's chasing after a ball. Then as he's chasing the ball he's suddenly chasing after a girl. They are running away. What are they running away from?"
Medem said he was painfully familiar with the story. As a shy and rail-thin teenager, he fell madly in love with his neighbor, a young girl who did not show the least bit of interest in him. He wrote her poems, dreamed about her, lived and breathed for her--always keeping his obsession to himself. Four years later he was able to move on with his life, but the scars of an impossible love remained.
"It was like I was a hostage of the situation because I would do everything for her," he said with a faint smile. "I idealized her in my mind without her ever knowing I was madly in love with her."
Medem's film, however, does not deal solely with the heartbreak of love. It is also an ode to his father, with whom he had a troubled relationship. Medem's life is an example of how the personal and the political often mix.
Growing up in dictator Francisco Franco's Spain, sent to elite private Catholic boys' schools, Medem was always the outsider. He identified strongly with his mother's family and their vigorous belief in Basque independence. This naturally put him at odds with his German father, who although not a fascist, agreed with Franco's iron rule and discipline.
"My school in Madrid was fundamentally Franquista," he said. "It was horrible. I have very bad memories of my schooling."
It was only two years ago, as the elder Medem lay dying, that they attempted to heal some of the wounds caused by their differences. As time passes, Medem has found it helpful to be at peace with his father and his memory.
"He is my father and I am his son and we have to forgive," he said in a hushed voice, the traces of that tormented little boy bubbling to the surface. "I really wanted the film to get there. I want all of us to forgive a little more. Especially among the Basque. We need to be able to forgive."
In "Lovers," Otto's Basque grandfather rescues a German pilot stranded atop a tree when he parachuted from his airplane during the Spanish Civil War. This act of kindness was done despite the fact that German planes had bombed a crowded market in the Basque town of Guernica--a moment dramatically captured in Pablo Picasso's famous painting. The two men strike up a friendship, forever remembered when Otto is born and named after the German. Medem's son Peru plays the younger Otto.
Raised in Madrid, Medem fled the capital for the Basque region when he entered college. Through his relatives in the Basque country he understood the political oppression caused by Franco's dictatorship. Medem studied medicine for several years there, but soon became more interested in expressing himself creatively. He started filming shorts on Super-8 and writing short stories.
Later while working as a film critic he met Basque directors who saw his shorts and encouraged him to become a filmmaker. Within a few years, he was filming "Vacas." In that film, Medem delves into the generational and tribal conflict in the Basque region, beginning in the 19th century and ending in 1936 with the Spanish Civil War.
In "Vacas" two feuding families find their fate intertwined, their lives governed by violence and mistrust of each other for six decades. The hatred becomes a birthright; the grandchildren do not even know why they must hate their neighbor. Medem's two young heroes in that movie do not accept that violence as their fate.
"What worries me is not the violence coming from the outside, but the internal violence among the Basque people that is so ancient," he said. "There is a point where you stop having an ideological reason for your hatred and it becomes more intimate and visceral--it comes from what families have done for centuries. So it is necessary to leave. This is a good message though--that there is a way to cross over to the other side and survive."
Similarly, the characters in "Lovers" continue to push forward hoping that one day fortune will smile on them, even when that doesn't seem to be their destiny.
"While making the film I realized that both characters were after something in each other that didn't exist in reality," Medem said. "They are always going against the current. But love creates an impenetrable space between two people. My characters never stop being adolescents. They have a heroic energy that comes with innocence."