Paul Urkijo: “I’d like other people to be interested in exploring this topic”
Euskara. Kultura. Mundura.
Paul Urkijo: “I’d like other people to be interested in exploring this topic”
In February, the film ´Irati´ directed by Paul Urkijo was released in cinemas. It is currently running in cinemas nationwide and is also accessible on Amazon Prime, offering both dubbed and original version (Basque) viewing options. Last month, the publishing house Erein reissued ´El ciclo de Irati,´ the comic book that served as the origin for ‘Irati’. The film, being the biggest Basque production to date, has had a significant positive impact on Basque cinema, garnering tremendous success both in cinemas and at national and international festivals.
It has also enjoyed considerable public acclaim. The film has won the audience award at several festivals and in just a few weeks became the most widely viewed Basque language film.
‘Irati´ features characters from Basque mythology including ´Mari´ (personification of Mother Nature, mother of all and maximum divinity), ´Aker´ (spirit in the form of a goat, guardian of animals), ´Sugaar´ (Mari’s husband and deity in the form of a snake), Lamiak´ (women with the legs of aquatic beings, akin to mermaids or nymphs), ´Gentilak´ (giant pre-Christianity inhabitants of the Basque Country), ´Basajaun´ (protector of the forest), ´Zezengorri´ (god in the form of a bull, protector of Mari´s dwelling), and ´Tartalo´ (cyclops that lives in caves). Urkijo introduces us to various characters who enable us to explore Basque mythology, emphasizing the deep connection between Basque society, nature, and its ancient beliefs.
We spoke with Paul Urkijo about topics such as the origin of the film ´Irati´, Basque culture and the making of a fantasy film in Basque from an industrial perspective.
What is the origen of ‘Irati’ How did you shape this narrative about Basque mythology?
The original concept of the film was inherited from childhood and the stories my parents would tell me when we went to the mountains. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a special interest in these characters. My interest in the tradition of my culture sparked the idea to create ´Irati´. I began to explore the subject of mythology with my first feature film, ‘Errementari’ (‘The Devil and the Blacksmith’, 2017). After that project I wanted to revive more ancient myths and legends from Basque culture, and above all to write a story about the figure of Mari and her Pantheon.
The 1980s comic ´El ciclo de Irati´ served as a great inspiration for me in creating the film. In a fantasy tone, the comic ´El ciclo de Irati´ narrates the story of Eneko and Irati, a nobleman and a pagan woman, from a perspective tailored for children and young readers. It’s similar to the Asterix and Obelix comics, it has that French style. I wanted to make an epic film based on Basque mythology. I wanted to cultivate the genre but geared to a more adult audience. Drawing from the comic, my aim was to explore the duality within the characters and their narratives, while also providing a historical context: 13th century Basque Country in the Kingdom of Pamplona at the Battle of Roncesvalles.
The characters in the film speak old Basque. What was it like working in the Basque language and especially the language used in the film?
The decision to make the film in Basque was clear to me from the beginning, firstly because it is my language and I want to live in Basque. So, why shouldn´t I make a film like this in Basque? It was obvious to me. The concept of the film and all the legends, songs, and names of characters involved are firmly rooted in the Basque language.
The rich history and cultural heritage of the Basque people have been preserved and passed down to us through the Basque language. Jose Miguel Barandiaran (famous Basque ethnographer) collected these stories in Basque from village to village. They then became children´s stories, also in Basque. I feel that I’m just another link in the chain. I’ve had the opportunity to make my contribution through this film and, of course, I did it in Basque. Thanks to the Basque language we have collected this legacy, and that for me is something that must not be lost.
In order to stay true to historical accuracy, we made the deliberate choice to utilize old Basque, reflecting the language of that period. We wanted to recover medieval Basque. I worked on it again with Gorka Lazkano. He had previously worked with Lazkano on the film ´Errementari´ (Paul Urkijo, 2017) to work in the old Basque language spoken in Alava. Gorka collaborated closely with numerous philologists during the scriptwriting process for ´Irati´ to ensure a respectful and meticulous approach to the project. The aim was also to make the film easy to understand. While Gorka has done an excellent job infusing the ancient language into the film, the main objective throughout the process was to ensure that the audience could understand and engage with the story.
The motto of the film and the main theme of the soundtrack is ´What has a name exists´. What message do you want to convey to viewers?
´What has a name exists´ is a message that exists in Basque mythology and in several ancient languages. Everything we name exists. I think this phrase encapsulates the whole concept and meaning of ´Irati´. I want to send a message of preservation: the protection of Basque mythology, the preservation of characters, the perpetuation of beliefs. I also want to convey a message regarding the protection and preservation of nature. The characters and the ancient legends of Basque mythology are closely linked to nature. The dualisms portrayed in the film also serve as a means to emphasize the importance of respecting and valuing nature. The use of the Basque language also relates to this concept.
My intention is not only to raise awareness about this topic but also to inspire others to explore it. Additionally, I aim to inject fresh energy into the fantasy genre in filmmaking.
What was it like to make ´Irati´?
Obtaining financing for the project was a complex process from the outset. Given that the budget for ´Irati´ falls within the range of a medium-sized film in Spain, it was quite challenging to create the epic film we’d envisioned. It’s a genre that’s not easy to distribute and making the film in Basque didn’t make our work any easier. And After securing the necessary funding, the production process of ´Irati´ proved to be complex and time-consuming, primarily due to the specific requirements of the genre. One notable example was the filming of the Battle of Roncesvalles. During the film I had to use various artistic solutions to achieve the desired result. We also relied a lot on nature, on natural spaces and beautiful landscapes. Our intention was to embrace and capture the beauty that nature provides, utilizing it to enhance the visual experience of the film.
How is the progress and reception of the film going?
We’re very pleased with the film´s journey. To be honest, I had low expectations, because the fantasy genre is difficult, and I didn´t want get my hopes up. I didn´t know how the public would receive ´Irati´. It´s a film I´ve made about something I love. I try to put myself in the place of the audience and I´ve made something I´d like to see.
When we had the first screening at the Sitges Festival, it was wonderful to see how the audience received the film. We didn´t expect it. In addition, ´Irati´ received a warm reception at the San Sebastian Horror and Fantasy Film Week, where it was honored with both critical acclaim and the audience award. In other film festivals such as Malaga, Tenerife we also received the audience award. The film is generating a highly positive response both within the Basque Country and on a national level. I make films for the public so being give the audience award is the most enriching thing I can take away.
Are you making an effort to expand the film´s distribution on an international scale?
Yes, of course. After the film´s release in cinemas, we started to take ‘Irati’ to festivals abroad. For example, in March we were at the FrightFest in Glasgow; in April at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, Fantaspoa in Brazil and the Fantastic Filmfestival in Australia; in May we took the film to the International Film Festival in Seattle. We’re working on going to more foreign festivals too, so yes, it´s something we want to do.