Opposite ends of the earth: How Spanish culture is making waves in New Zealand

A Spanish film festival touring New Zealand, is revealing just how much Kiwis love Spanish culture. Nina Green takes a look.

Opposite ends of the earth: How Spanish culture is making waves in New Zealand
A still from the movie “También la lluvia” which is drawing audiences in NZ.

The presence of Spanish culture is being toured across New Zealand for the 17th annual Latin American and Spain Film Festival.

The non-profit festival visits 12 cities across New Zealand between September 5th to December 7th and aims to connect locals the rich and unique cultures of Spain and Latin America.

The festival screens films from 11 participating countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Spain, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay. The Spanish film this year is “También la lluvia” or “Even the Rain”. Directed by Icíar Bollaín, this 2010 historical drama highlights the real-life water wars that took place in Bolivia in 2000.

A Cultural Connection

The presence of a 3 month-long film festival prompts the question: Are there tangible traces of Spanish culture in New Zealand?

Geographically, Spain is the exact opposite side of the globe from New Zealand, yet there is significant cultural expression scattered across different aspects of the country.

Maria Ble-Herrero, a Senior Tutor of Spanish at the University of Waikato, is working in collaboration with the university to host the Hamilton leg of the festival this year and sat down with The Local to share her own experience.  

Originally from Cordoba, Spain, Maria officially moved to New Zealand in 1991. She now lives in Hamilton, a city located in New Zealand’s North Island.

She first got involved with the film festival in 2013 when she saw on an advertisement that it came to many cities, but not her own. She contacted the Spanish Embassy to see what could be done. Maria then agreed to take on the responsibility of putting the festival together in her city.

As well as working at the University, she also teaches Spanish to children in the community on Mondays through the Waikato Hispano Latino Cultural Group, a non-profit Spanish and Latino organization, where she is on the executive board of trustees.

When asked if there was much interest for learning Spanish in such a geographically isolated nation she said:

“Yes there is a lot of interest in Spanish culture here! When I first came to New Zealand I put up posters at a small cafe offering private Spanish lessons, and in my first week I had 5 people book times to speak with me.”

“I have a lot of kiwi and international students who are either getting ready for a trip to Spain or South America, want to move to a Spanish speaking country, or they’re just drawn to the way it sounds and want to learn a beautiful language”, she explains.  

Embracing Change

While the Pacific is very different from Europe, Maria enjoys being a dual citizen of both Spain and New Zealand, saying adjusting was hard at first but now she feels lucky to live in another beautiful country.  

She goes on to say, “you can never expect to find the same things you do in Spain here in New Zealand. It’s the same anywhere you go, and that’s the beauty of traveling; I find it’s good to embrace the new things everywhere you go”.  

Maria emphasizes that even though she lives far away from home doesn’t mean she’s had to change or became less involved in her culture.

“Through my job, I’m in touch with my language almost everyday. It’s not just the language though, it’s the culture that comes with it. There are meanings behind the words we speak and they bring cultural significance”.

Maria also has two children, both of whom have grown up speaking Spanish and celebrating the cultures of both countries.

Changing Times

Maria says that when she first came to New Zealand over 20 years ago, she couldn’t find very much Spanish or European influence. But, in the last decade or so, things have changed drastically as European culture is adopted more and more.

“Now we have a little more Spanish cuisine here. Years ago you couldn’t get chorizo or jamón anywhere but now it’s more common and easy to find. Every year I miss Spain less and less in that way, because I can get more things from home here”.  

New Zealand and Spain’s Relations

The Local interviewed Fernando Curcio Ruigómez, Ambassador of Spain to New Zealand to further explore the connection between the two nations.

According to the Ambassador, “there are around 2,000 Spanish citizens registered in the Spanish Consulate as residents in New Zealand. In the last couple of years we have witnessed a regular increase of around 200 new residents per year”.

Spain is a substantial nation, with large cultural reach. With a population of 46.6 million people, it is ten times the size of New Zealand and almost 20,000 km away; yet that doesn’t stop citizens from becoming expats in the Pacific.

Kiwi’s and Spaniards alike are eligible for a two-way working holiday scheme that gives young citizens between the ages of 18-30 the opportunity to live, study and work in New Zealand and Spain.

Ambassador Ruigómez explains “It is one of the biggest successes of our bilateral relationship. We only have 200 visas per year and we receive 200 applications only in the first five minutes once the application system starts. I hope that we can convince New Zealand of the need to increase this quota, as I am sure that many more Spaniards would love to use that opportunity”.  

He goes on to say “We are witnessing also an increase in the number of New Zealand youngsters taking advantage of working holiday visas to travel to Spain and stay there for a longer period and make the most of their experience in our country.”

New Zealand and Spain also share many common values, especially when it comes to international peace and security and in international trade. Both countries have made substantial contributions to multilateral peace support operations including, most recently, in Afghanistan.

Messages to Spaniards Considering a Big Move   

Maria emphasizes that for Spaniards to make the big move they must “come with an openness to a completely different culture. It’s literally day and night; when people are waking up in Spain, we’re going to bed”.

“It can be hard for some Spaniards to adjust because in a way they didn’t want to leave their country but they had to because of job scarcity or money troubles. They’ll find New Zealand is a friendly and beautiful country but quite different to Spain”

She says when she first got here, “It was shocking to be so far away, 26 hours by plane. But then I fell in love with this country and it started to feel like home”.

She recalls a time where she was going through Customs at the airport and after showing her New Zealand passport, the officer said “welcome home” and that brought tears to her eyes because she had just “left home but was also coming home”.

“When you’re far from home you’re challenged and you may have an identity crisis, but that’s when you find yourself,” she says. “I am proud of my Spanish roots but I am also proud to be a New Zealander.”

Guest contributor Nina Green works in PR in Auckland, New Zealand. 


These were the five stand-out Spanish films of 2019

Dramatic, warlike and familiarly comic – the 231 Spanish films released in 2019 offer a remarkable variety of genres but very few truly memorable moments.

These were the five stand-out Spanish films of 2019
Photo: Sara Robertson/Flickr
Andrej Klemencic chooses his selection of the five stand out films of the year in Spanish cinema.
Pain and Glory

As he ages, Almodovar as name outgrows Almodovar as filmmaker and he becomes some kind of Spanish Martin Scorsese – revered when reverence is overdue.

Besides being flushed with nominations and awards when already lacking the something more, whatever, in Almodovar’s case that may have been, both directors have in common that the narrative in their films is delivered in such a way that even with no mastery at play, the experience is always a very filmic one and the viewer is kept entertained at all times.

Almodovar’s latest is no exception as a portrayal of a middle-aged film director, based to a certain point on his own path, who struggles with a colourful palette of obsessions, is dynamic enough and interesting enough to make for reasonably enjoyable viewing. Antonio Banderas performs expectedly well as one who lost touch with creativity and is through humorous and melodramatic circumstances seeing it come back to life.

Colour is vivid, and the supporting actors, including Penelope Cruz, paint a lifelike picture of the post-war Spain of director’s childhood and link it to contemporary Madrid. The lost Spain comes to life so vividly that one could almost recommend the film based on those sequences alone.

Rosalia also features singing beautifully by a river.

While at War

The second major film of the year is “Mientras dure la guerra” by Alejandro Amenabar. As with Almodovar, this director is becoming a household name around the globe. Despite the fact his breakthroughs, in Spain and internationally were colour suspense, Amenabar takes up one of the quintessential topics of contemporary Spain – the Civil War – and turns it into an hour and three quarters of more than passable filmmaking.

The film centers on Miguel de Unamuno,  an intellectual, writer, professor, who at the beginning of the Civil War was the rector of Salamanca University. The film on the one hand explores his inner struggles as he tries not to take sides, and on the other the viewers are shown how Franco emerged as the leader from a group of rebelling generals.

On the first front, the film makes it painfully clear that the Spanish Civil War, in the beginning, a battle between the nuances of grey, some darker and some containing more light, rather that a battle between the unquestionable good and absolute evil. The second interesting insight it provides, is that it attributes Francisco Franco’s ascent to power to a chain of events which seem to be more a fruit of chance rather than of meticulous planning to overthrow the system.

The aged intellectual de Unamuno is in the end forced to take sides, but in his rebellion whose aftermath takes place in a scene in which he is being driven with Franco’s wife in a car, much is said about what lies behind the veil of secrecy that makes so many Spanish ways mysterious to an outsider.

Santi Prego, the actor portraying General Franco is frightfully good and brings the character to screen in a way almost disturbingly real.

Elisa y Marcela

From director Isabel Coixet, considered by some as the leading art-house force of Spanish cinema comes a story of two women Elisa and Marcela who fall in love just before the 20th century begins and live their odyssey from La Coruña, via rural Galicia and Portugal to Argentina.

During one part of their struggle, one of the women takes on a man’s identity so the couple could get married in order for the village voices to leave them alone. Their marriage was never annulled and presented hope for many.

The director shot in black and white. Large landscape stills contrast the emotional and physical intimacy between the women. Some of the ways in which the director chooses to create the dynamics of their first encounters are beautiful and have as backdrop the pure waters of Galician beaches, the forests, mist and frequent but playful rain.

Greta Fernandez is convincing as the only seemingly fragile Marcela while Natalia de Molina does not do as good a job failing repeatedly to move out of the stiff, provincial theatre-like acting, not at all infrequent in Spanish films and on TV. Additionally, as many Spanish film actors for a reason that defies logic, seem not to be taught to enunciate, you will, with Elisa and Marcela, as with a vast majority of films made in Spain, welcome the subtitles even if you are a native speaker.

At some stage in the second part of the film, it becomes quite clear that Coixet is no grand filmmaker as she fails to recognize that some of the staggeringly static moments should never have made the final cut, and this makes the otherwise watchable film not quite easy to recommend wholeheartedly.

Who Would You Take With You on a Deserted Island?

Two couples, a Madrid apartment, a TV film and closeted homosexuality as the main topic. This unpretentious work is the second feature by director Jota Linares and talks about four youngsters moving out of a shared apartment after a decade or so of flatmating.

Different to the bravery of Elisa and Marcela, the same sex relationship between two characters is hidden from the viewers for the large part of this Netfix flick as well as from the remaining two roommates themselves.

Predictably enough, drama ensues as the revelation is made and the relationship between the four takes on a dimension seemingly leading into a tragic crescendo. Yet there is a half twist in the second part making the film not as predictable.

The four actors move between Greek tragedy and a modern urban drama. The interiors are naturalistic, and the direction does not get in the way of the narrative.

As a curiosity, actress Maria Pedraza who until accepting a role in the non-highly-rated series Toy Boy was seen as one of the rising stars of the Spanish cinema, pairs here for the third time with Jaime Lorenta with whom she shared TV screen in series Money Heist (2017) and Elite (2018).

Los Japon

Ocho Apellidos Vascos goes to Japan losing much of its humour along the way.

Since the film from 2014 with English title “Spanish Affair” capitalized on a long list of prejudice the residents of the Basque Country seem to have of Andalusians and vice versa, grossing more than 75 million dollars in box office, Spanish filmmakers have been trying to replicate the successful recipe.

While Ocho Apellidos Vascos was genuinely funny, its first sequel, Ocho Apellidos Catalanes was much less so, and the third attempt at stereotyping, this time moving to international waters, echoes little of the sparkles the original film brought.

This time an Andalusian, a descendant of a Japanese who centuries ago moved to a town close to Seville, turns out to be the only heir to the Japanese throne. He and his family move to Japan and you can pretty much figure out the rest.

Series of jokes, some a bit funny, are based mainly on basic stereotypes and are followed by jokes based on even more basic stereotypes and so on.

If you for some reason find Dani Rovira, the star of Ocho Apellidos Vascos irresistibly funny and you crack at every Andalusian joke you just may be able to get through the film.