Locarno 2023 review: Negu Hurbilak (Colectivo Negu)

“The more the heroine fades into nothingness, the more intensely the film makes us sense what it is to live all these different lives.”

Negu Hurbilak is a very unconventional project, as its main guidelines are anonymity and the disappearance of any individual identity, starting behind the camera. The credits for writing and directing are in the name of ‘Colectivo Negu’, ensuring a strong consistency between the means of production of the film and the background of its story: the armed struggle for Basque Country independence from Spain led by the ETA throughout the second half of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st. ETA sections and members worked under secrecy, their identity, roles, and names never being openly made known, as is the case with the main character of Negu Hurbilak. Neither the audience of the film nor the inhabitants of the town she stays in happen to know her name, her function, and what or where she is fleeing from.

A nameless, clandestine fugitive stranded in a small village isolated in the mountains, the young woman is not much more than a ghost wandering around the place, barely inhabiting the fringes of the film. Therefore, the camera of Negu Hurbilak mostly spends its time recording everything but her scarce actions. What we see unravelling before our eyes has all the distinctive traits of a documentary feature set in a remote and uneventful countryside place. The Colectivo Negu captures the daily life of the townsfolk, farmers, car mechanics, local grocery store owners, mostly old (the younger ones probably left for the big cities or joined the ETA), in the style of observational cinema. Many scenes remind us of the subtle and acute work of directors such as Raymond Depardon when he goes on the road to film France’s forgotten rural areas.

France is where the heroine of Negu Hurbilak wishes to flee, like so many of her peers before her; but her exile is made impossible since it takes place at the time when ETA announced the cessation of its armed activities, making its members all the more exposed to the operations of Spanish and French police. What was supposed to be a short stopover on her journey becomes the end of the line, giving a double meaning to the title of the film. In Basque, ‘negu’ means ‘winter’ and ‘hurbilak’ is ‘close one’ or ‘approaching’. The perspective of winter for the main character is practical, as time goes by; and symbolic, as her existence seems to have become frozen in the middle of nowhere following this twist of fate. The stretching of time that ensues gives weight and intensity to the movie. It does this in bits of suspense: the strategies put in place to move the fugitive around can change without warning, converting any everyday scene into a moment taken from a spy movie. It also does this through an abundant display of human interactions and emotions. The more the heroine fades into nothingness, the more intensely the film makes us sense what it is to live all these different lives – hers as well as the lives of the townsfolk – and the richness of their connections, as trivial as they can seem.