30 Years of Darkness (30 años de oscuridad) tells the story of the ‘moles’ left in hiding from the Franco regime after the Spanish Civil War. I must confess as despite having a history degree, I am completely ignorant of the history behind this war. Fortunately, 30 Years of Darkness enlightens me to the story of this bloody conflict and the remarkable strength of some of its victims for whom the war lasted much, much longer.
Told through interviews, archive footage and animation, the film centres on Manuel Cortes, the socialist Mayor of Malaga. Cortes was forced into hiding in 1939, returning to his town in disguise. He began a long self-imposed confinement in fear of being killed by Franco’s fascist forces – which he could not have imagined would last 30 years.
Co-author of the book that tells Cortes’ story, Jesus Torbado, opens the film with a chilling parallel to the story of another exile – Anne Frank. He recurs during the film along with different historians, all of whom drip with detail about the period that makes this complex subject easily accessible.
This is a story of disappearance and loss. Cortes’ wife burns photos of her husband in an attempt to eliminate all trace of him; communities are fractured by the betrayal of neighbours and friends. To survive, you have to have all trace of you removed. But it is one of Cortes’ neighbours that gives a photo of him to the authorities. This endemic lack of trust is, paradoxically, what holds families together in their enormous self-sacrifices to keep the ‘moles’ hidden.
Director Manuel H. Martin’s belief that comic books can tell more adult stories is evident through his choice of using graphics to tell the story. Indeed, there are many affecting examples where comics deal with particularly hard-hitting and real stories such as Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Kunwu/Ôtié’s A Chinese Life.
And it is this animation that is central to the presentation of the film. It may divide some due to its nature, but it is sympathetically executed to portray the violence in such a way that doesn’t undermine the points being made. Not only that, but it is beautifully rendered giving some visual cues that would have been unachievable in traditional methods.
However, I’m not sure I agree that there should be a ‘touch of thriller’ to Martin’s presentation of the story. With these events in living memory, it is still clearly a very raw thing – especially for the relatives recounting their family stories on film.
30 Years of Darkness is essential viewing for a critical window into Spain’s unexplored fascist past. Breathtaking and inspiring in equal measure, it is a heartbreaking examination of an impossible situation.