Almost a century after it was shot, a brief but beautifully made documentary that could be the first talking picture directed by a woman in Spain has been discovered. The forgotten and miscatalogued footage was reexamined during the coronavirus lockdown.

Mallorca, an eight-minute, black-and-white sweep across the Balearic island inspired by the music of the Spanish composer Isaac Albeñiz, was donated to the national film archive in 1982 by a man who ran a furniture storage business.

The man’s brother, a film producer, thought there might be something of interest to the archive and several cans of film were handed over to the Filmoteca Española.

For 38 years, Mallorca languished in the collection, wrongly identified as a silent 1926 film made by a male director. But as the lockdown kicked in, Filmoteca workers took another look at the documentary, which dwells, sometimes hypnotically, on fishermen aboard their boats, children playing in the streets, and a monk drawing water from a well.

Besides the soundtrack, they were struck by the director’s name: María Forteza. “We were looking at what we had on hard disk and when we sat down to watch the film we went, ‘Hang on! This doesn’t fit together properly,’” said Josetxo Cerdán, the head of the national archive. “The most surprising thing was seeing that a woman’s name came up as director.”

The team set about investigating the director as best they could, but Forteza proved elusive. There were no traces of her in film archives, although the film’s camera operator, Ramón Úbeda, was known for working in the Balearic Islands.

The taxi that appears towards the beginning of the documentary – and the fact that Úbeda patented a specific sound system in 1935 that is not mentioned in the credits – has allowed researchers to date the film to somewhere between 1932 and 1934.

If their informed guess is correct, then Mallorca could be the first talking picture directed by a woman in Spain. Until now, Rosario Pi’s El gato montés (The Mountain Cat) was thought to be the first such film.

But for all their efforts and determination, Cerdán and his team couldn’t get any closer to the mysterious Forteza. The breakthrough was made earlier this week by Laura Jurado, a journalist for the film website Industrias del Cine.

After some intensive Googling, Jurado discovered that Forteza was a singer and variety artist – and the wife of Ramón Úbeda. She also tracked down some of the couple’s surviving relatives.

Cerdán, who is taking nothing for granted until the film is definitively dated, says it is well shot and structured, and far better than most of the “aesthetic documentaries” of the time that were intended to show off the beauties of the countryside and of historical monuments.

“They tend to be painfully dull: you get a monument, then another monument, then a mountain,” he said. “But this isn’t like that. You have the explanatory prologue and the little narrative of the boat arriving on the island and then the tour. The camera is also very well positioned in every shot.”

Headlines about Mallorca being the first soundtracked picture directed by a woman in Spain are all very well, added Cerdán. “But I think the important thing we need to ask ourselves is why, in 2020, are there still women’s names we aren’t familiar with when it comes to film directing? What’s happened for it to be this way? Six weeks ago, we thought the history had all been written and that this would have been impossible.”

The film, which can be watched online until 8 May as part of the Filmoteca’s lockdown season, is also evidence of the need for archives. “They can deliver a lot of surprises and a lot of stories we don’t know about. It helps us to understand the history of cinema, but also the history of this country,” said Cerdán.

Marta Selva, a retired professor of cinema and former co-director of the Barcelona International Women’s Film Festival, also admires the film and is pleased to see it finally emerge into the light. For her, too, it is proof of the need for archives – and of the value of always going back for a second look.

“For me the important thing is that they’ve taken the time to have another look at something that was thought to be by a male director,” said Selva. “They haven’t downplayed it and said, ‘Oh well, it’s only seven minutes and it’s a bit touristy.’ The film is important in its own right, but also because of its place in the history of Spanish documentary making.”

Watch the short film Mallorca here

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