Cinéma du Réel review: The Year of the Discovery (Luis López Carrasco)

Editor’s note: Like so many events, the Paris-based documentary festival Cinéma du réel was cancelled because of the measures taken to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The festival, however, graciously provided accredited critics with a number of films online that were supposed to play in its various sections. It even managed to hold its competition and awards online. Our own Cédric Succivalli reviews the winner of the festival’s main award, the Cinéma du réel Grand Prix: The Year of the Discovery by Luis López Carrasco.

In 1992 Spain showed its best side to the world. The Barcelona Summer Olympics and the Sevilla Expo presented a modern country of sun, beaches, and ever-smiling people. It didn’t show its worst side. In the city of Cartagena on the country’s South-Eastern coast, unionists and protesters clashed over the closing down of the city’s metal and shipbuilding industries as Spain de-industrialized. The clashes culminated in the burning down of the regional parliament. Director Luis López Carrasco takes this moment in time as the starting point for his documentary The Year of the Discovery, in which he lets those who lived and witnessed the events (and also younger generations who didn’t) discuss life in Cartagena in the years between the end of the dictatorial Franco regime and the events in 1992, and how decisions made in this period led to the violent clashes. He situates the discussions and interviews in a local neigborhood bar, where people talk about work conditions, pollution, class consciousness, economic crises, addiction, and a number of other subjects that come up.

The film’s 200-minute runtime may seem daunting, certainly because it literally is over three hours of ‘talking heads’. But the people Carrasco puts in front of the camera are without exception engaging, passionate talkers with a story to tell. He also applies a cinematic trick to further engagement: the screen is split in two, where the person interviewed is on one side, and the other side shows people elsewhere in the bar. Combined with the ambient bar sounds, over time this makes the viewer feel as if they are in the place themselves, eavesdropping on everyday conversations. Shooting in Hi8 format creates even more intimity and serves as a bridge to connect the past to the present. Because as a whole, The Year of the Discovery is not just about those fateful events in February 1992; it is as much about a more recent crisis, that of 2010. It’s interesting to see the differences between the generations in this regard when it comes to workers’ rights and unionization, and those differences can lead to heated discussions at times.

The Year of the Discovery is a film that slowly draws you in, getting you up close with a community of hardworking people in a corner of Spain. Hardworking people that you shouldn’t corner, because Cartagena and its surrounding area has a reputation for resistance. The last part of the film features the men who were in the front lines in 1992. What they describe is akin to war, and some of them have been marked for life, certainly psychologically. A lot of them battled depression in the years after. The loss of jobs made them cynical, with little trust for government or corporate Spain. What Luis López Carrasco wanted to do was finally give them a voice, and they take the opportunity. The Year of the Discovery is a fascinating piece of cinema because of its concept, but it is gripping because of its people.