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Telmo Esnal • Director of URtzen

“You can’t stick a label on this film with a single adjective”


- The Basque filmmaker talks about his latest documentary, presented with Greenpeace’s Lurra Award at San Sebastian for its environmental message and on general release in Spain from Friday

Telmo Esnal • Director of URtzen

The last time we spoke to Telmo Esnal (Zarauz, 1966) was in person, at the 2018 San Sebastián International Film Festival (read more here), the year that he was promoting Dantza [+see also:
making of
interview: Telmo Esnal
film profile
. This time, thanks to the pandemic we had no choice but to pick up the phone to find out all about his latest film, URtzen [+see also:
interview: Telmo Esnal
film profile
, ahead of its premiere on Friday. The project has already had an outing in the Zinemira section at San Sebastián in 2020, leaving with the Lurra Award, presented by Greenpeace to the film most fully embodying the values of sustainability and peace. The jury was particularly impressed by Esnal’s reflection on the importance of water as an essential element for life on Earth. You can catch it from tomorrow in cinemas across Spain, distributed by Atera Films.

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Cineuropa: Where did the urge to make this film come from, in the midst of last year’s lockdown?
Telmo Esnal:
It was just as the film portrays it. Back when I was working on Dantza, Pablo Azkue told me about his story, UR; I read it and did an interview with him just to see what would rise to the surface, but nothing came of it at the time. During the pandemic, I went back over my notes and I took a liking to the philosophy behind the story: both we and the planet are 70% water, and that water circulates, so if the water out in the world is polluted, the water inside our bodies is polluted as well. I was really intrigued by that idea, but I didn’t know how to take it forward. I had done three interviews with Pablo and I had a ton of images, but I didn’t know what I was searching for. When the lockdown came in, I was busy writing another screenplay, but as soon as that was done, I found myself, like everyone else, cleaning my windows, reading and watching films. Out of the blue, I happened to hear a radio interview with Martín Caparrós. It opened my eyes and I suddenly saw how I could reuse some of the images I already had to construct a coherent narrative around Pablo’s short story. At that point I also started to play around with things that I came across on the internet: interviews with scientists and philosophers, and so on. Before I knew it, I had a mountain of material for the film.

What a radically different experience you had with this documentary, compared to making Dantza...
Poles apart, although I definitely got a lot out of Dantza, because afterwards I made seven documentaries all elaborating on different themes from that one feature. That was an added bonus that didn’t cost me a penny, and I learned to use the program Final Cut, which is what allowed me to make URtzen sitting at home in front of a regular computer. Recently, it’s all been about self-sufficiency: we filmmakers have always depended on an army of other people, but URtzen is this small, lovely thing, and I think it has a really potent message with some fascinating testimonies. This film has given me so much — not money, obviously, but that wasn’t the point, nor would it be in keeping with the message of the film, which is that we need to take a pause and live life at a slower pace, because this constant drive for growth just can’t go on.

How would you personally describe the film?
I knew from the outset that people would stick labels on it, so I tried to get ahead of it by calling it a collage and a cinematic essay. It’s a compilation of reflections on the world, science and existence. Obviously, it’s a documentary with a fictional element, because it’s based on UR. It was the same with Dantza, which was a story told through dance. There are some things you can’t stick a label on with a single adjective, and this film is one of them.

What would you like viewers to take away from the film?
I would love it if it prompted people to reflect a little bit about the world we live in, what we want to become and what we’re going to leave behind for those who follow us. We’ll be here for 100 years at most, but the planet will remain after we’ve gone. When I was a kid, I was taught to leave places as I found them, or even better, and I feel like we’re going to leave our children with something much worse than it was before. If the film makes people think about that, and we can make some tiny contribution to cleaning up this mess, then that’s all I can ask. Some audiences get quite emotional when they watch it, and that means a lot to me. It’s a small film, but it has value in that viewers identify with its message. It tells them that we can do better — each of us can make some small difference in our own way. This film is just a drop in the ocean, but as Pablo Azkue said: one drop is nothing, but many drops make an ocean, and an ocean can change everything.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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