Carlos Molinero, Savages (Salvajes), 2001
By Cristina Garrigós
Salvajes addresses the violence and racism in contemporary Spanish society. Even though it was filmed almost twenty years ago, the issues it discusses are still relevant today, with the current rise of extreme right-wing parties often explained as a response to the arrival of immigrants considered to be a threat to Spain. People from sub-Saharan Africa (Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, or Mali, among other countries) cross the Strait of Gibraltar in their hundreds every year, often dying in the attempt. Of those who succeed, some remain in Spain to find work and make a living, while others continue their trip to the North of Europe (France, Germany), travelling in inhuman conditions and at the mercy of human trafficking mafias. Such migrants are considered different, inferior and lacking the right to live in a country that some believe should belong to white Europeans only. The rejection that these immigrants, often war refugees, encounter among the local population is due not only to the different color of their skin, their different religion and cultural habits, but also conceals a fear of the Other. However, as Mustafa Dikeç points out, citing Honig, the different is not simply different from us: the different ‘troubles identity’ itself and the order within (Honig 257–8 in Dikeç 2002, 22 9). This troubling of identity and order produces violence.
Violence thus results from the ignorance of those who forget that some of those that risk their lives to come to Europe are travelling from former colonies, and that in the past many Europeans followed the same road when fleeing from their countries due to war or a dire economic situation. They forget that, as Stuart Hall said, “we are all, in some way, recently migrated” (439). But violence is present not only in openly hostile racist groups. Violence and racism are hidden in a society where parents beat their children, men abuse women, and people are afraid to provide hospitality to strangers because they think they are a threat to their identity and to the security of the nation. As Manzanas and Benito point out, as opposed to tourists, the migrants are “nobody’s guests, and they are perceived as a threatening tide traversing the routes of illegality from Africa to Europe. They are never perceived as a singularity but as a generalized type (Friese 2004, 73), and are hence narrativized within the frame of linguistic hostility” (1).
Salvajes is an adaptation of a play by José Luis Alonso de Santos, the author of other works which also became successful films, such as La estanquera de Vallecas (Eloy de la Iglesia, 1987) or Bajarse al moro (Fernando Colomo, 1989). These texts share a depiction of contemporary Spanish society from a perspective which Gutiérrez Carbajo considers antifundamentalist and antidogmatic (177). This does not mean that the author does not condemn racist attitudes, but rather, as Gutiérrez Carbajo notices, “What happens is that this awful behaviour is not considered to be exclusive to a particular social group, however marginalized or antisocial it may be. Nobody is exempt from their share of responsibility.” (177). In the case of Salvajes, the movie proves that racism, violence and open hostility towards the Other are not only to be found explicitly, but they are also concealed within the very institutions that should promote hospitality and offer protection, such as the police, the health services and the family.
Berta (Marisa Paredes) is a nurse who takes care of her two orphaned nephews and one niece in a Spanish city on the coast; Guillermo (Roger Casamajor) and Raúl (Alberto Ferreiro) are two violent young men with Neo-Nazi affinities; Lucía (María Isasi) is in love with a local mafia boss involved in human trafficking. Eduardo (Imanol Arias) is a policeman with significant health problems, in charge of finding out who is responsible for the beating of Omar, an African worker. Berta and Eduardo start a relationship, but Eduardo suspects that Berta’s nephews were involved in the attack on the African man.
Hospitality and violence
Human trafficking is key to the film. Guillermo organizes the beating of Omar, an African who, like him, works night shifts at the port. Both are linked to Fausto, the mob boss who brings migrants into Spain and sends them on to France. Omar’s job is to bring them water – they don’t give the migrants any food – and talk to them while they are crammed into containers. Omar owes money to Fausto, so he pays Guillermo to organize the beating to teach him a lesson. The film opens with the sound and images of trucks driving at night, thus conveying the idea of transportation – and soon we will learn that there are indeed people in those trucks. The port is a place of transit for goods and also for the Sub-Saharans, who are treated as merchandise. The night scenes at the port mean that the viewer is able to make out only dark figures with their hands sticking out of containers as they seek food and water, a reminder of the zombie image of the migrant proposed by Papastergiadis (2003). The immigrants are received in the new country, but the hospitality is not what they were expecting. Their stay is provisional: they are in transit. Like them, the white characters dream of travelling elsewhere, but their journeys are different: Raúl wants to be a paratrooper and go to Bosnia, Eduardo dreams of taking Berta to Murcia to meet his mother, and Lucia actually leaves with Fausto in a convertible car that takes them to France to get married. As Dikeç et al. point out, in this global society “some of us enjoy the benefits of easy connection and extensive mobility, while others are locked in place or coerced into motion by dire economic and political pressures” (2009, 2). “This is paradise,” Omar says. “Africa also has the right to paradise”.
The cemetery scene at the at the very beginning of the movie, where the gang vandalizes the tombs of those with foreign names “para que esos judíos y negros de mierda sepan que no pueden contaminar a nuestros muertos (“so that these Jews and shitty blacks know that they cannot contaminate our dead”)sets the tone for the open hostility of Neo-Nazis against any foreigner, a hate that goes on even beyond the end of life. However, there is still room for doubt, as one of them naively asks: “Si se mueren aquí, ¿dónde los van a enterrar?” (But if they die here, where will they bury them?) Que se mueran allí, ¡no te jode!” (“They have cemeteries in their own countries. Let them die there, for fuck’s sake!”), Santi, the leader, replies. The parallel cemetery scene at the end of the movie, during Raúl’s burial, alerts us to its implicit irony. At the beginning, Raul is praying before his parents’ tomb; in the final scene he is the corpse, since he has provoked his own death by challenging one of his Neo-Nazi friends with the hand-knife which belonged to his father, given to him by Guillermo for his eighteenth birthday. For Gutiérrez Carbajo, Molinero emphasizes the stereotype of the aggressor to immediately deconstruct it (175). The film becomes, according to this critic, a “rejection of moral Manicheism, a defense of ethical perplexity and of a multicultural anthropological position” (182).
The setting of the movie emphasizes the clash between open spaces (particularly the sea and the beaches where the immigrants arrive) and closed, symbols of both failed hospitality and open hostility. The urban spaces, with concrete streets and dark alleys, bespeak loneliness and desolation; they do not provide relief, but rather its opposite. As a site of supposed welcome and hospitality – since it shares the same etymological root and was originally a place of sanctuary for the poor – the hospital is the place that receives Omar’s beaten body, but it also becomes a space of hostility when Moris (Eduardo’s police colleague) attacks Omar’s wife and children for being there, using what Moris considers to be Spaniards-only privileges. The hospital is also a work space for Berta, who receives the suffering Eduardo so as to give him shots. In one of his visits Eduardo brings a cactus, because he notices that Berta likes this type of plant; the spikes of the cactuses become a metaphor for Berta’s refusal to have close personal relationships.
Berta’s house is where the three nephews find refuge, although all three will end up leaving – by death, by exile and by running away from the law respectively. The décor of Guillermo and Raúl’s room in Berta’s house evidences their Neo-Nazi sympathies: swastikas, pictures of Hitler and Franco, Spanish flags. Likewise, the premises where the Neo-Nazis meet are decorated with a profusion of skinhead symbols and German iconography. In this environment, “masculine” activities such as boxing, watching football, drinking and taking pills are part of the brotherhood rites of this gang of “savages”. When Berta throws Raúl´s Nazi paraphernalia away, telling him that they are no longer welcome in her house – that she won’t host them – she confronts Raúl for his hatred of the Chinese, black people, and Jews. He replies, trying to physically attack her, that he hates her, implying that his hate goes beyond racism to the very origins of society: he is angry about the death of his parents and resents her love.
In contrast to the primitiveness of the cave-like meeting place of the gang, and Berta’s “feminine” domestic space – the lace and flower-decorated kitchen – Eduardo spends his time either drinking in bars or alone in his sparserly furnished hotel room. His room is a space of transit (he has been provisionally relocated from Murcia), where only Berta is made welcome to ease his loneliness and to sooth his physical and spiritual pain. When not in his room or in bars, Eduardo is at the police station.
As a place of order, the police station is crowded with black people who are criminalized. One exception to this is Omar’s son, who patiently waits outside for hours, eating an ice cream with the money that Eduardo has given him. Omar’s son represents a new generation of immigrants who will be integrated into Spanish society, thus opening a doorway for optimism in the narrative.
Language and violence
If for Levinas “the essence of language is hospitality” (305), an idea which Derrida confirms (51), in the case of Salvajes language is the epitome of hostility. The dialogue of the movie is full of hostile references towards black people, Chinese, Arabs and women, representing verbal violence towards all the characters without exception. After the Neo-Nazis beat Omar, they leave money inside his mouth: “Tú ya has robado en este país todo lo que tenías que robar, así que para tu pueblo, con los monos” (“In this country you’ve already stolen all that you had to steal, so get back to where you belong, with the apes”), or Santi’s comments such as “putos migrantes” (“fucking migrants”). “25000 kilos se quieren gastar en vigilar el estrecho. Como si no hubiese otra manera más fácil de acabar con este cáncer. Y eso que se ahogan la mayoría. Pero, ¿serán jilipollas? Mira que tirarse al agua sin saber nadar. Pero hay que enseñarles de una vez por todas que no pueden venir aquí a robarnos el pan e irse de rositas”. (“They want to spend 25 million (pesetas) keeping watch over the strait. As though there wasn’t an easier way of getting rid of this cancer. And most of them drown anyway. Are they stupid? Throwing themselves into the water when they don’t know how to swim… We have to teach them once and for all that they can’t come here to steal our food from us and then just happily leave”).
Following the beating, the gang assumes they are safe because the police will not be concerned about a black man. And the police are indeed also racist, except for Eduardo, whose attitude is ambiguous: for instance, he calls Omar’s wife “sultana” and tells her that it’s better for her “darle vueltas al estropajo”, meaning that it is better for her to speak out, but when he takes Berta to show her what her nephews are up to, he says (“Eso es un hombre”) “That one there’s a real man”. The policemen refer to Omar as “El Congo” when they find him, and when Omar awakens and is able to tell them who did it, the news reaches Moris and Eduardo as they are celebrating Moris’s 25th wedding anniversary: el negro se ha despertado. Nos ha jodido la fiesta” (“the black one’s woken up. He’s screwed up our party”). But when Omar makes his statement at the police station, he doesn’t dare to openly recognize any of the men for fear of the consequences for him and his family: “No los pude ver. Seguro que han sido los moros” (“I couldn’t see them. I’m sure it was the Arabs that did it”), which handily provides the police with a racist alternative he thinks they will endorse. Racism and misogyny go hand in hand, and as such, a ¨white man who works with Omar says: “Si a las chicas españolas les gustara más follar habría más niños, más mano de obra y no haría falta importar extranjeros”. (“If Spanish girls liked to fuck more, there’d be more kids and more labour, and importing foreigners wouldn’t be necessary”).The verbal violence in the movie precludes the need for actual physical violence, and is an obstacle to what Paul Ricoeur has called “narrative hospitality” (7) since the ethos of flexibility and plurality, i.e. of showing interest in the stories of the others, cannot occur when there is a narrative of hate and hostility.
Realism and Metafiction
The use of hand-held camera, natural lighting, frequent close ups, and the use of voice montage are cinematographic resources that Molinero uses to bring the spectator to an awareness of the artificiality of the product we are viewing while pretending to come as close to reality as possible. Thus, the film displays affinities with the aesthetics and ideological program of Dogma95, and as Gutiérrez Carbajo points out, we can also find references to the Nouvelle Vague (films such as A Bout de Souffle), the work of John Cassavetes, or Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (Hate) (1996). In a postmodernist metafictional loop, two minutes before the ending, the actual recording of the film is displayed, showing movie workers and cameras in action. This strategy allows for an extradiegetic narrative, including commentaries from men from Cameroon, Senegal and Guinea. As they state, they are participating in this movie to make people aware of the situation of immigrants in Spain and of the hostile environment that they encounter on arrival. They also remind Spanish people of their debt towards their former colonies by telling us that Guinea, for instance, was part of Spain until 1968. The speakers insist that racism is not only what is explicit, but that it is also hidden in all of us, and they remind the viewer of the need to do something about the violence towards and rejection of the immigrants. They beg us to host them in our countries and to give them “papeles” (“documentation”) – in other words, to open our doors and make them legal citizens, because they are people who are seeking only to flee from a difficult situation in search of a better future.
Alonso de Santos, José Luis. 2001. Yonquis y yanquis. Salvajes (Dos tragedias cotidianas). Ed. César Oliva. Madrid: Castalia.
Derrida, Jacques. 1999. Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Dikeç, Mustafa. “Pera Peras Poros: Longings for Spaces of Hospitality” Theory Culture Society 2002 19: 227-247.
Dikec, Mustafa; Clark, Nigel and Barnett, Clive. 2009. “Extending hospitality: Giving Space, Taking time” Paragraph, 32.1: 1–14.
Friese, Heidrun. Trans, James Keye. 2004. “Spaces of Hospitality” Angelaki Journal of Theoretical Humanities 9.2:67-79.
Gutiérrez Carbajo, Francisco. 2004. “Carlos Molinero y su interpretación fílmica de la obra teatral “Salvajes” de José Luis Alonso de Santos”. Signa. Revista de la Asociación Española de Semiótica.13: 173-184.
Hall, Stuart. 1987.“Minimal Selves,” ICA Documents 6: 44-48.
Honig, Bonnie. 1996 “Difference, Dilemmas, and the Politics of Home” Seyla Benhabib (ed.) Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Pp. 257–77.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969.
Manzanas, Ana and Benito, Jesús. 2016. Hospitality in American Literature and Culture: Spaces, Bodies, Borders. Routledge UP.
Papastergiadis, Nikos. 2013. “Hospitality and the Zombification of the Other” The Conditions of Hospitality: Ethics, Politcs and Aesthetics on the Threshold of the Possible. Thomas Claviez, ed. New York: Fordham UP. Pp.145-167.
Ricoeur, Paul.1996. “Reflections on a New Ethos for Europe”. Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action. Richard Kearney, ed. London: Sage. Pp.3-13.
 Michel Foucault studies the evolution of modern hospitals in « La politique de la santé au XVIIIe siècle », Les Machines à guérir, aux origines de l’hôpital moderne; dossiers et documents, Paris, Institut de l’environnement, 1976, pp. 11-21.