Julio Medem’s documentary opens with the exciting visual (and aural) experience of a pelota match in full swing. If you don’t know what pelota is, Medem isn’t going to explain it, and the closest you’ll get to finding out what it is through this film is via an inserted piece of archive material that features a stilted exchange between Orson Welles and a young boy. Strange, really, that the sport that forms the basis for the film’s title isn’t adequately explained; for those that don’t know, it’s an energetic, frantic squash-like game that is played with one of three implements: a plain wooden bat, a basket-like racquet, or the bare hand. After this fizzing credits sequence, the entire film sees Medem habitually cutting away to pelota footage, which almost always provides a welcome, kinetic counterpoint to the plethora of static talking heads that sandwich such clips.
Basque Ball deals exclusively with the problems surrounding the conflict in the Basque region, which straddles France and Spain. Its indigenous people have long since tantalised us with the air of mystery that surrounds their origins: exactly where they came from cannot be determined, and the Basque language stood firm against the tide of Latin that swept over Europe, effectively making it a tongue related to no other. And while Medem wastes little time on explaining a popular Basque sport, he does take some moments to pause on the geographic and linguistic history of the Basques. Medem then pushes the question of identity, trying to establish how many people in Basque country feel Basque above anything else, and gathers a range of opinions on the theory of an independent Basque state.
Medem has come in for some well-publicised criticism for daring to make Basque Ball (and given that the director was born in Basque country, this was somewhat inevitable), but in truth it’s a remarkably even-handed treatment of an inflammatory subject matter. The long list of interviewees trotted out for the film appears to be as balanced as possible; for every scene of a wife of an interned ETA member, we’re also shown a victim of terrorist violence. The spirit of the film reveals the filmmaker to have no agenda other than a real desire to move towards a resolution for what is a long-running, bloody and messy conflict.
While Medem’s aims are admirable, Basque Ball could be a better film. The minor point regarding pelota aside, the film presents any viewer who doesn’t know the basics of the conflict with a remarkably steep learning curve, with little exposition en route. Even for those with a little more knowledge, Medem has thrown far too many interview subjects in front of the camera – while this is no doubt to gain as wide a range of opinion as possible, it also serves to provide the viewer with little in the way of reference points, and the cumulative feeling is akin to standing on a railway platform and seeing the faces of those aboard a non-stopping train flash by. It’s also disappointing to see the way in which the film skims over French Basque country – many are aware that most of the trouble (particularly terrorist activity) has occurred outside of France, but the film comes far too close to perpetuating the notion that Basque country is situated only in Spain; in a world where many interchange ‘England’ with ‘Britain’, Medem really should have been clearer.