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Special Interview Feature

“My film’s message is simple: our home is worth fighting for”

Gibraltarian filmmaker Ana Garcia speaks to the New Statesman about her most personal project to date

In June 2010, filmmaker Ana Garcia returned home to Gibraltar to get married. She found herself compelled to create a film that shared the story of her family and her birthplace, and the subsequent release “Gibraltar: My Rock” (picked up and broadcast by the BBC in 2013) mapped a history of the territory which was personal, political, and bounded by place.

Here, Garcia speaks with the New Statesman about the inspiration behind her film and the untold side of Gibraltar it reveals.

New Statesman: How did you become a filmmaker?

Ana Garcia: I studied TV, film and theatre throughout my education, finally specialising in film at the University of Bristol. I also spent a year studying Italian cinema in Italy, and got my first job on a documentary about Italy for the Discovery Channel. Like most people, I started out making tea and now I produce and direct documentaries for broadcast TV in the UK, while pushing my own independent films forward.

NS: Tell me a bit about the inspiration behind your film “Gibraltar: My Rock”. Why did you decide to make it?

AG: The film’s purpose is to bring Gibraltar’s story to light and make it real for an international audience. As with most news stories, Gibraltar is often represented in terms of numbers, facts and figures: 30,000 people, 2.3 square miles, six hour queues at the frontier. None of this means anything to the average reader, sipping their cup of coffee on their way to work.

I made this film for so many reasons. I was an impressionable 10 year old girl when I first noticed how a Spanish customs officer at the frontier pawed over my mother’s passport at a slow, threatening pace.  There was, and still is, a sense of lawlessness at the border and I promised myself then that if nothing else, I would tell the story. The film’s message is very simple; our land, our home, our family, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant to the rest of the world, is always worth fighting for.

NS: In the film you piece together a history of Gibraltar that is both personal and political. How is politics a part of your family history?

AG: Gibraltar is like one big family, so the film introduces us to the Gibraltarians through my own family. I made it personal to show that we’re talking about 30,000 brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, sons and daughters being bullied at the frontier, every day.

My great-grandfather was Albert Richard Isola, the first member of the Legislative Council in Gibraltar. My grandfather was Peter Isola, the leader of the DPBG (Democratic Party for a British Gibraltar) and twice Leader of the Opposition. The Chief Minister at the time, Sir Joshua Hassan, was an old rival of my grandfather’s and yet the two men put their differences aside when [General] Franco began his onslaught on Gibraltar. He made two trips to the United Nations with Sir Joshua Hassan, in 1963 and 1964, to plead Gibraltar’s case.

Ana Garcia's grandparents, Peter and Rosie Isola

NS: What was your family’s experience during the years of the closed border under Franco?

AG: Just to put this in to perspective for those who don’t know; the frontier was shut by land, sea and air in 1969. Franco died in 1975 but the frontier was not fully reopened until 1985 (it opened to pedestrians only in 1983). So that’s 16 years of life locked up on 2.3 square miles of land.

My family’s experience of the closed border years was much like everyone else’s. When I began researching my film, I expected tales of horror, frustration and hardship during those 16 years of imprisoned life.  There was hardship, but more than that were tales of some of the happiest memories. Life during those years was safe, wholesome and united. The people would endure anything to resist defeat. So despite the housing issues, overcrowding and huge holes in our workforce (many of our workers had come from Spain), Gibraltarians describe this period like a giant party. Everyone knew everyone, there was a great sense of community and support, creativity and purpose.

NS: Was there another side to things as well?

AG: Yes, there were painful separations, and daily tragic scenes at the gates. People don’t really talk about that.

When the border shut, family members had to make tough choices. Spaniards married to Gibraltarians, and vice versa, had lives and families on both sides. My grandmother’s sister was married to a Spaniard and she had to stay in Spain with her three young children, who were like siblings to my mother and uncles.

Just imagine what that would have been like. You are used to seeing your family every day, suddenly they’re gone. The phone lines have been cut off, there is no post, no email. You make the sullen trip to the frontier and walk toward the crowded black gates that remind you, you are a prisoner in your own home. You touch the hot iron black gate and peer through the gaps between the bars. You have to jostle for space. You strain your eyes to search the crowd on the other side. A hundred feet away - there she is, waving frantically but you can’t hear her. You scream across but your voice is lost with all the other screams. She has stopped waving and shouting, you stop too. She’s just there, so close, you could almost touch her, hug her. It’s too much. Eventually you walk away. You never go back. In a lot of cases, family members died before the gates opened again. 

These are the stories you hear but it’s hard to get anyone to really talk about it. Everyone cries.

NS: What misconceptions do you think people have about Gibraltar?

AG: People think we’re a tax-free haven – we’re not. Spaniards think we’re a centre for drug smuggling – we’re not. There are programmes like the TV show “Gibraltar: Britain in the sun” which are fun, but they focus very much on the English expats, rather than the local Gibraltarians. Like the average news article, they overlook the indigenous population, our culture and heart. It’s entertaining, but it’s not Gibraltar.