Netflix row overshadows extraordinary true story of Spain’s first lesbian marriage

The first Netflix movie in competition at the Berlin film festival, telling the extraordinary true story of a gay marriage in Spain a century ago, premiered Wednesday amid a protest by German cinema operators.

Netflix row overshadows extraordinary true story of Spain's first lesbian marriage
DIrector Isabel Coixet on the red carpet at the Berlinale. Photo: AFP

One of Spain's most acclaimed directors, Isabel Coixet, presented “Elisa and Marcela”, a lushly photographed black-and-white lesbian love drama.   

But even before the film could be shown at the Berlinale, Europe's first major cinema showcase of the year, 160 German independent arthouse theatre operators fired off an open letter to Culture Minister Monika Gruetters and the festival demanding that the picture be yanked from the race.

“We… do not agree with a film that will not have normal theatrical distribution (in Germany) but will only be seen on Netflix, being screened,” they said.

“We therefore demand that the film be shown out of competition.”

The Berlinale rejected the appeal, which had also drawn support from the International Confederation of Art Cinemas.   

But outgoing chief Dieter Kosslick, who is leaving after 18 years at the helm, called for a summit of the top festivals including Cannes and Venice to resolve the issue roiling the industry.

“The international film festivals should take a common stance on how to deal with films from streaming platforms in the future,” he told AFP in an emailed statement.

Cannes has barred Netflix films from its vaunted competition in the name of protecting embattled cinemas, while the Berlinale has excluded movies from its race that do not have at least some theatrical distribution.

Meanwhile Venice has embraced streaming platforms and crowned the Netflix feature “Roma” with its top prize in September.

'Some kind of mafia'

At the Berlinale screening, there were both boos and cries of “bravo” as the red Netflix logo appeared on screen during the opening credits.   

Actors Natalia de Molina and Greta Fernandez with director Isabel Coixet at the premiere of “Elisa and Marcela” in Berlin. Photo: AFP

Speaking at a news conference later, Coixet reacted angrily to the German cinema operators' campaign, describing herself as a “struggling filmmaker” who needed to accept financing where she could find it.

“It certainly hurts. It's being done in the name of culture but I don't think it is. They have shown a lack of respect for the festival and my work,” said Coixet, who is known for English-language features such as “The Bookshop” and “My Life Without Me”.

“There's a supposition behind it as if we were some kind of mafia trying to smuggle our film in. They should have known it was happening.”   

Calling for a peaceful “coexistence” of platforms, she noted that the film would be shown in cinemas in markets including Spain and probably Brazil.   

“That is a country that's going to ban gay marriage so I think it's an important film to show there,” she said.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Brazil since 2013 but the country's new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has vowed to repeal the law.   

“Elisa and Marcela” dramatises the story of two girls — Elisa Sanchez Loriga and Marcela Gracia Ibeas — who developed a romantic relationship while at school in 1880s Spain.

They sought to share a life together in a Galician village but in the face of exclusion and mob protests, opted to get married.   

Elisa disguised herself as a man to dupe the local priest and exchanged vows with Marcela in church in 1901.

Despite their eventual arrest on blasphemy, “transvestitism” and document fraud charges, the marriage was never annulled, although the couple had to flee Spain for Portugal and ultimately Argentina, leaving Marcela's baby behind.

Coixet said she used contemporary newspaper accounts, letters between the women and a sole black-and-white wedding photo as inspiration in writing the screenplay.

Although Coixet hailed global progress in gay and lesbian rights, the film notes in its closing credits that only two dozen countries worldwide have legalised same-sex marriage.

“This still happens,” said actress Natalia de Molina, who plays Elisa, of the repression faced by the pair.

“There are so many Elisas and Marcelas around the world,” she added.

By AFP's Deborah Cole 

READ ALSO: Six Spanish Netflix series you need to see right now

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Online streaming giants face rise in tax to fund Spanish productions

Spain is preparing legislation that would impose a 5.0 percent tax on streaming giants like Netflix with the funds used to boost Spanish cinematic production, the government said on Friday.

Online streaming giants face rise in tax to fund Spanish productions
Founder and CEO of Netflix Reed Hastings speaks during a keynote speech at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 27, 2017. LLUIS GENE / AFP

The draft law, which would tax online entertainment platforms on the basis of earnings generated in Spain, seeks to bring existing legislation “in line with the reality of the market where new audiovisual players have multiplied as a result of new technologies”, an economy ministry statement said.

The reform is part of the government's Digital Spain 2025 strategy, one of whose aims is to improve the country's appeal as one of the most attractive locations for shooting films and series.

The text “extends the obligation to fund European audiovisual production to those providers offering services in Spain even if they're not based there” in a nod to platforms like Netflix, HBO, Disney and Amazon Prime Video.

“Providers with a turnover of more than 50 million euros generated from services in Spain must allocate 5.0 percent of these revenues to finance European audiovisual works or as a contribution to the Cinematography Protection Fund,” it says.

Of that amount, 70 percent must be used to finance audiovisual works by independent producers, and a minimum of 40 percent must be used to fund independent films “in any of Spain's official languages”.

For those earning under 50 million euros, that 5.0 percent can be diverted into buying the rights to finished European productions, but at least 70 percent must go towards works by independent producers.

Those earning under 10 million euros in Spain will be exempt from the proposed tax.

Global giants such as Amazon, Google and Netflix often pay very little tax in nations where they are not physically present, presenting a major challenge for many countries.

Early last month, the Spanish government gave final approval to a 3.0 percent tax on revenues generated by digital giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon which will come into effect within three months.

It will apply to all internet giants with annual global sales of over 750 million euros and 3.0 million euros in Spain.