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A must-watch movie: ‘Modelo 77’

“Every prisoner has the right to escape!”

Adolf Hitler’s affliction upon Germany might have been a misfortune that the world could possibly tolerate. However, the rise to power of similar fascist-minded leaders in many countries during the same period caused the world to suffer unprecedented pains.

Indeed, Hitler was the epitome of evil. However, fascist dictators like Benito Mussolini, Hideki Tojo, and Ion Antonescu, who were in power during the same period, not only made their own people suffer but also became a scourge to the world. Perhaps the most significant of these was Francisco Franco, the fascist leader of Spain.

Franco’s regime in Spain was a totalitarian period that profoundly affected the political, social, and cultural structure of Spain in the mid-20th century. Spain transitioned from a monarchy to a republic in 1931. While people were happy about the transition to the republic, the fascist leader had his own agenda. This period began to be marked by political instability, social conflicts, and regional tensions.

While the world was in the throes of World War II, Franco, as the leader of the nationalist forces, started the Spanish Civil War in 1936. This war was a bloody conflict between left-wing and right-wing forces against the Republican government. Three years later, when the civil war ended with Franco’s victory, a fascist dictatorship was established in Spain. Franco violently suppressed political opponents, socialists, communists, and other left-wing groups. Censorship, political imprisonments, and executions were widespread.

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Spain, like Turkey, was to remain neutral in World War II, but the Spanish were not as fortunate as the Turks. Franco made his people pay a heavier price than the war itself. Moreover, Franco, while ostensibly remaining neutral, cooperated with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to some extent.

Look at the similarities with today’s regime, and you will be surprised.

Franco’s regime was based on nationalist and conservative values, supported by the Catholic Church. When Spain rapidly entered an economic crisis, Franco was forced to somewhat relax and liberalize his policies. Starting from the 1950s, he began to liberalize the economy and encourage foreign investment, leading to economic growth. On the other hand, Franco maintained strict control over Spanish culture and languages, restricting the use of local languages such as Catalan, Basque, and Galician.

Franco’s health deteriorated in the mid-1970s, and he died in 1975. His regime had overturned the country’s entire balance and system for nearly 40 years, turning it into a complete autocracy. However, Franco’s dictatorship had a long-lasting impact on Spain’s political and social structure.

The period known as “La Transición Española” (The Spanish Transition) was painful and difficult. The country’s law and economy were destroyed, the media suffered fatal blows, and the military and security forces were all tied to one man. The first free elections were held immediately after his death (1977), but it took many years for the country to become a democratic state. Prisons were full of opponents because of Franco’s lawyers; judges and prosecutors. Mistreatment and torture were rampant, and prisons were in terrible condition. Thousands of unsolved murders were committed, and the number of people who died in prisons under poor conditions was not even recorded. In 1986, 15 years after Franco’s death, Spain joined the European Union, modernized its economy, and liberalized its administration. The European Economic Community rapidly strengthened Spain economically.

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And in Spain, criminals of the Franco regime began to be tried. Many of Franco’s judges, who had arbitrarily imposed punishments, started to be held accountable before the law. Almost all of them claimed, “We were just following orders,” but this excuse was not enough to save them from the crimes against humanity they committed. Although the people were not very satisfied with the retribution, it was valuable to know that the same pains would not be experienced again.

Alberto Rodríguez Librero, a Spaniard born in Seville during the last days of Franco’s tyranny. He studied communications at the university in his hometown. In 1997 (at the age of 26), he and his buddy Santiago Amodeo shot a short film called “Bancos” with just 30,000 Pesetas (1 Dollar was about 150 Pesetas at that time.). This striking film was very successful, winning awards from more than 15 festivals, prompting them to enter the feature film industry. Their first job was to turn their short film into a feature, for which they found a budget of 4 million. Then came TV series and other films.

Alberto Rodríguez Librero’s latest film is set in a prison in 1977, just after Franco’s death, when fascism continued with all its weight and cruelty. The film is a compilation of real stories and heroes. There’s no situation where the entire story takes place in a single prison, but all the events narrated happened in different places. This is evident in the documentary footage at the end of the film.

Terror Blanco!

Unfortunately, the concept of fascism is so misused by the left and socialist/communist factions in our country that it seems to have lost its meaning. So, I think we don’t really know what true fascism is. According to our communists, everyone who is not like them is fascist. At least there’s that potential! Just like how the authoritarian sees everyone who is not like them as a terrorist.

In Spain, especially during the period when Franco was consolidating his power, there was a concept he invented: White Terror!

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Known in the literature as “Terror Blanco,” it’s also known as “Francoist Repression/ la Represión franquista.”

This term, describing the political oppression, executions, and rapes carried out by the Nationalist side during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), also continued during the first nine years of General Francisco Franco’s regime. From 1936 to 1975, the official enemies of Francoist Spain were numerous: those loyal to the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939), liberals, socialists of different lines, Protestants, intellectuals, homosexuals, Masons, Romani people, Jews, Basque, Catalan, Andalusian, and Galician nationalists. The list goes on and on…

Mass graves accidentally discovered in 2014 are a product of Franco’s White Terror. Francoist Repression was motivated by the right-wing idea of social cleansing (limpieza social), meaning the purification of society. This project meant the killing of people seen as enemies of the state immediately after the Nationalists captured a place. The Spanish Catholic Church, Civil Guards (national police), and Falange legitimized the executions carried out during the Red Terror as a defense of Christianity.

The repression deeply embedded in the Francoist regime is described by Spanish historian Prof. Ramón Arnabat as “turning the entire country into a vast prison”: “The loyal defenders of the Republic faced charges of ‘loyalty to rebellion,’ ‘aiding rebellion,’ or ‘military insurrection,’ ironically setting a trap by turning the tables. During Franco’s government (1 October 1936 – 20 November 1975), the Law of Political Responsibilities (Ley de Responsabilidades Políticas), proclaimed in 1939, reformed in 1942, and in force until 1966, gave a legal appearance to the political repression characterizing the defeat and dissolution of the Second Spanish Republic and was used to punish Republican Spaniards.”

Historians like Stanley Payne believe that the number of deaths resulting from the White Terror was higher than those of the Red Terror, its exact opposite.

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Back to our film…

On June 2, 1978, just one year after the first democratic elections in post-Franco Spain, 45 prisoners made a striking escape from Barcelona’s Modelo Prison. This event was the starting point for Alberto Rodríguez and screenwriter Rafael Cobos to develop the first draft of their project titled Modelo 77, which they had been working on since 2005: “We started developing that escape story and noticed the strong sense of unity among the prisoners in such an isolated place like a prison, even to the point of staging joint protests.”

This paradox led the Sevillian director to expand the horizons of the story and give it a political dimension, thus narrating the events that took place in that prison during the early stages of the transition period.

What were these events?

During this period, a collective called Coordinadora de Presos En Lucha (COPEL), created by ordinary prisoners wanting to benefit from the Amnesty Law for political prisoners, emerged. According to Rodríguez, “a prison is always a reflection of society, and in 1977, the cry for freedom heard on the streets also reached the prisons.”

Manuel, a young accountant, is falsely accused and imprisoned in Barcelona’s Modelo prison in 1977 for a crime he did not commit. While awaiting trial, he unexpectedly faces a 20-year sentence for this uncommitted crime. During his time in prison, he is beaten and subjected to unbearable torture. The years 1976/78 mark La Transicion, the transition to democracy period.

This period represents a regime change in modern Spanish history. Although many prisoners have submitted to the system due to the disproportionate force and torture in prisons, young Manuel refuses to submit to the system despite being tortured repeatedly. Through his cellmate Pino, Manuel meets the leader of a group called Copel, which fights for the rights and amnesty requests of ordinary prisoners like him. According to them, every prisoner under such conditions has the right to escape from prison.

Manuel, through his girlfriend who frequently visits him, manages to leak the tortures in prison to the press, igniting a struggle that resonates with both the prisoners and the civilian population outside. Manuel quickly becomes the leader of the resistance movement. During Spain’s transition to democracy, Manuel starts a struggle that will unite prisoners in all Spanish prisons against the system and forever change prison laws.

The narration is so realistic and most importantly, so universal that if you change the names, you might think it’s any country under fascist rule. Therefore, there are many parallels between this and the current and near future of Turkey in Modelo 77.

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The film’s two lead actors, Javier Gutiérrez and Miguel Herrán, when asked about the still palpable echoes of that past in Spain, represent an intergenerational gap almost parallel to what their characters experienced in the film. Javier Gutiérrez, more skeptical than his colleague, says, “The rise of the far right that we are experiencing in Europe does not make me very optimistic. The transition period was more filled with grays, but when I look from a perspective, I feel a certain jealousy when I see characters like those in this film come together and succeed despite everything. Also, it’s true that Modelo was a prison in the center of a city like Barcelona. Today, prisons are isolated, just like ourselves; the pandemic has made us more individualistic.”

Despite inviting the audience to a clear political reading with its balanced story, authenticity of characters, and calm language, the director says, “This reading is secondary and belongs to the viewer. We wanted to make a very strong human story and make it enjoyable,” reminding us that humanity is what matters most.

The film representing Spain at the Oscars this year is another story about humanity, both painful and tragic, La Sociedad de la nieve / The Snow Society. Modelo 77’s misfortune, it seems, is being released in the same year as this film.

If you want to form an opinion about the current pitiful state of Turkey, the rottenness of its prisons and legal system, and what may happen in the near future, you must watch Modelo 77!

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