A new film about our recent history
A quite significant historical documentary called ‘Times of Closure’ of our border with Spain has recently been shown at Leisure Cinemas. The two hour film brilliantly put together by former GBC TV producer and freelance cameraman Stephen Cumming over a period of twenty years, first started life as a documentary highlighting 300 years of British rule here. Budgetary constraints throughout the early production schedule resulted in delays and storyboard adjustments so that the intended 2004 screening was never met. Other projected screening dates were missed too but perhaps this has been fortuitous for the film’s relevance as we now sit at the doorstep of a ‘new treaty’ which will supersede the scope of the Treaty of Utrecht. With the United Kingdom and Gibraltar now out of Europe, a new treaty with our neighbours to the north seems the only way forward.
As Stephen delved deeper into political research for ‘Times of Closure’ he discovered other angles that he explored through interviews with key political players of the era and also at a human level, the La Linea workers who were the hardest hit by General Franco’s draconian policy to close the frontier, in a what turned out to be a failed attempt to bring Gibraltar to its knees. The original storyboard grew exponentially with every new historical thread uncovered and as new material was filmed, the scope of the film’s original remit was widened to accommodate new footage and the ever changing political dimension that is the perennial ‘Gibraltar Problem.’
We spoke with Stephen Cumming to learn further about his crusade to bring the closed border story to the silver screen. “The final script evolved from one that I had started writing in 2000. I was hoping to produce something for 2004 and the anniversary of the capture of Gibraltar in 1704. It covered the whole story in less detail than this film. It was not to be, so when the frontier closure anniversary arrived, I literally extracted that part of the script and expanded it. I drew on sources like the public archives, historians and academics. People like Dr. Jenifer Ballantine Perera of the Gibraltar Garrison Library and UK based researcher Tommy Norton at University of Nottingham. Both of whom had carried out a great deal of work on this already. In true TV style the script was still being developed right up to the last few weeks as more information was found.”
“The public response to the film has been generously positive. I’m not sure if it’s because I know most of the audience personally, but seriously, I think people have been suitably impressed and interestingly, for different reasons. Some were impressed by the nostalgia that the archive images bring, others by the beautiful imagery that the cinema screen affords and others by the sheer volume of information that the documentary delivers.”
When I saw the film at its premiere my first thoughts were that such an admirable effort to bring together the story of the closed border years through the eyes of politicians, historians and other key players cannot be limited by reasons of copyright constraints to a cinema viewing public only. This is a historical document that has to be shared with the wider local public and perhaps even included in our school curriculum. That raises the problem of licensing the archive film clips, which bring to life the narrative illustrating and also punctuating the interviews as the film unfolds. We touched on the complex licensing arrangements that still lie ahead for Stephen Cumming as he now tries to find a way to exploit the film outside of our shores, through Blu-ray for home ownership and importantly for local educational purposes.
“My growing concern was to get the film finished this year and after I had edited the footage I set about securing the licensing agreements for cinema only. It was a nightmare to get the licensing agreed. The archive and library footage probably takes the biggest bite out of the overall budget. I found them from over thirty sources worldwide. Each source has its own licensing agreement and coverage restrictions. This turns the whole exercise into a veritable nightmare. The result though has been worth it. It’s such a joy to see Gibraltar as it was at the time. It also brings a sense of reality and sadness when you watch the classic ‘closed frontier’ scenes. For this and for all the other costs I think Gibraltar owes a debt of gratitude to our partners in this project, the Government of Gibraltar, Hassans, Imperial Group, MH Bland, Parasol Foundation and Bassadone Motors. Also my business partner, Odette Benatar’s efforts in securing this support has been absolutely crucial.”
Among significant discoveries made by researchers stands out the fact that the 1967 referendum idea for Gibraltar was first promoted by the Americans and not the British as is widely thought. Their wider strategic interests included control of the strait and their base at Rota against the backdrop of the Cold War, so the continued British presence in Gibraltar had to be secured by a mandate from the inhabitants of the Rock who voted overwhelmingly to remain British. At present Stephen is involved trying to edit down the film to an hour for TV consumption in the UK the US and in Spain. This involves redoing the narrative in Spanish. He believes that due to its length perhaps only Canal Sur would be interested in screening the full two hour version of the film.
“There may also be an option to do a limited run of 1000 Blu-ray copies for local consumption in the run up to Christmas, that would be ideal but again licensing is complicated. What that format would include would be the full interviews and some of those interviews are a joy to watch for history buffs.” I remarked on how well the former Spanish Vice President Alfonso Guerra comes across… “You have no idea just how good that interview was. We discovered as soon as we started it that here was a top level politician who is also a very learned man and a key player in the PSOE policy that eventually unlocked the border and saw improved relations between the Rock and Spain.”
“The Pandemic and the subsequent lockdown helped tremendously in that long hours of editing were done at home, where I first had to learn to use my new camera that filmed everything in 4K. I soon discovered that 4K files are massive and I quickly run out of storage space and had to acquire a great deal more. That was a huge learning curve. I am hugely indebted to Beatriz Galeano a Spanish TV reporter friend who helped me set up the Spanish interviews including Alfonso Guerra and with academics and former diplomats in Spain”
By a wonderful coincidence, as the film starts with the Treaty of Utrecht, the EU commission, Spain and the British are now at the point of drawing up a new treaty on Gibraltar three hundred and eight years later. This could be a major treaty that will impact on our future and that of the hinterland and it remains to be seen how that will unfold, as the interests of the players are bound to present great difficulties to those tasked with drafting a complex and forward looking agreement which will shape our lives for generations to come.
“People might expect the story of the film to be Gibraltar centred and only about how bad things got here but because La Linea got the worst deal out of the closed border, we had to look at how work suddenly dried up there. Don’t forget that La Linea was born out of Gibraltar’s labour requirements and it survives because of Gibraltar’s work and when the Spanish government creates a choke point at the border they deny their own people in La Linea the right to a peaceful and prosperous relationship with Gibraltar.”
If you have not yet seen ‘Times of Closure’ and have a keen interest in our recent political history, especially in the period of the closed frontier days, you will enjoy learning about the background of the geo-strategic considerations of the Americans and the British in keeping the Rock British in the face of a pressing Spanish claim which remains firm to this date. If the film eventually makes its way to our television screens and our schools it will be a triumph to the tenacity if its creator who has spent the last three years editing a wealth of material which should not be confined to gather dust in the editing room floor. The regular screening will soon move to ‘The Queens Picturehouse and Eatery’ at Casemates Square.
I for one look forward to the prospect of owning a Blu-ray version of it and watching the full interviews of some of the players who helped make the film what it is, a well researched historical document for which Stephen Cumming does not want full credit for but fully deserves it. The film succeeds on many levels and deserves to be widely seen and acclaimed as a high water mark in documenting an important part of our fascinating history.