Sex, Drugs and Vicious Architecture: Spanish cine quinqui movies 1977-1987
El Vaquilla got his nickname (young calf) for his habit of headbutting cops or anyone else who stood in his way. A ‘professional’ thief from the age of nine, he was infamous for his high-speed car chases with the police in Barcelona in the mid-1970s. In fact, he was so young he had to use pillows and stilts to reach the pedals. At 12 he accidentally killed a woman while trying to snatch her bag from a moving car. And because reform schools clearly couldn’t cope with him, the State put him into a prison for adult criminals when he was only 15. But instead of withering away in confinement, the spirit of this kid became the catalyst for a movie genre that smashed the separation between cinema and real life unlike any other movement in history.
Back in 1975 when the dictator of Spain, Generalísimo Franco, was on his deathbed, the country began to break open. For half a century it had been cut off from the rest of the world, in a state of suspended animation, with only a few superficial changes in the late sixties. But once Franco finally died, all the social changes that had passed the country by came rushing in all at once.
Cinema was no exception. A perfect example of a film that was unthinkable only two years earlier is Cambio de sexo (1977) which stars a young Victoria Abril as a seventeen-year old boy who has a sex-change operation. Since the film was being sold as a sort of low-brow freakish sex film, you can imagine the bewildering culture shock the audience suffered when confronted with such wildly progressive imagery.
But in the same year, there was also another kind of cinema that burst onto the scene. The movement is hardly known outside of its home country, partly because critics and academics don’t usually like to acknowledge such kinds of cutting-edge cinema. Although films like these had existed before in other counties from time to time, it was only in Spain that these films exploded into a huge genre. And they gave it a name: cine quinqui.
“Quinqui fever” was first inoculated through a little flick called Perros callejeros (Street Dogs). There were two key aspects in this film that would become fundamental for this new genre. The first was its focus on the youth criminality that was rampant throughout the country. Secondly, and crucially, these films starred real-life teenage hoodlums. The plot was based on the life of El Vaquilla, mentioned in the introduction. The director wanted the young boy to play himself, but he was imprisoned while the movie was being shot, so his best buddy stepped in to play his role. Street Dogs became a sensation when it hit the Spanish movie screens, and is still regularly shown on late-night TV for cult audiences. Soon, other directors started knocking out similar feral films. But it would still take a few years before another jaded B-movie director would steal the crown and take these quinqui movies into radically new areas. His name was Eloy de la Iglesia.
A Communist and a homosexual, Eloy had been slipping both politics and bisexual imagery in his thrillers since the late sixties. His first entry into cine quinqui was Navajeros (1980), where he gave the starring role to his young muse, Jose Luis Manzano, an illiterate teenager who Eloy had met one night when the young boy tried to mug him on the streets of Madrid. This film was fierce and visionary, a youth rebellion movie that climaxes in an unbelievable ending that is both symbolic and visceral. Eloy would soon follow it up with a legendary flick that once again knocked everything to new heights. It was called El Pico (1982), and besides opening the genre to homosexual impulses and giving it a fresh political perspective, it introduced a new theme that immediately became a trademark of quinqui cinema - heroin. This film reflected the flood of junk that was flowing wildly, something that mainstream movies were trying to pretend didn’t exist. Soon junkies and scenes of needle injections were being splashed across the screens throughout the country.
These films were like bonfires. Set to a devilishly fresh new form of flamenco called rumba pop, quinqui films became the cinema of the disinherited, of the marginalized youth who were stuffed into the vertical shanty-towns on the outskirts of big cities –photographed mercilessly in Colegas (1982). The young actors came from poverty-stricken housing blocks, and many of them became celebrities in the national magazines. For some, these films helped to start a new code of ethics - when the rules of the game are stacked against you, you make your own rules. In any case, this didn’t only result in a new wave of cinema, but provided role models for all those who were being left behind by modernisation, fueling further rebellions and unrest through the entire culture and society. They pitted restless youth against an emerging passive consumerist world, and also helped expose a corrupt police system that was little different than the one under the dictatorship.
Starting in October, the underground cinemas in Amsterdam will help unpack cine quinqui with a series of rare screenings dedicated to this forbidden genre. Along with every screening there will be a free guide booklet available that will outline the themes and history of this volatile movement.