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Signed report from a French closed camp

When Franco took power after the civil war, half a million Spaniards fled to France. Among them the Catalan artist Josep Bartoli. He is the pivotal figure in the handsome animation film ‘Josep’, which was awarded a César last weekend.

When Franco’s troops conquered Barcelona on January 26, 1939 and finally settled the Spanish Civil War in their favor, 450,000 frightened citizens and struggling Republicans crossed the border into France. This collective crossing – known in Spain as ‘La Retirada’ (the withdrawal) – had a major impact on the region around Perpignan.

That piece of history has been neglected in France. This has to do with the not very warm reception that the Spanish refugees received. Many were left to their own devices in closed camps where living conditions were as inhumane as the behavior of most of the guards.

France did not show its best side in the run-up to World War II and the Vichy regime. But when draftsman Aurel started looking for funding for an animation film that chose the period as the background, the local film fund immediately jumped on the cart.

Director / draftsman Aurel relies on Bartoli’s drawings to depict the diversity of life in the camp, both the horror and the unexpected warm moments.

“The Occitania Region, where the story takes place, where I live and where our production company is located, was eager to participate,” says Aurel. ‘After 80 years, everyone agrees that the French state acted shamefully at the time. In the south, that history continues to this day. Many in the area are descendants of the refugees of that time. The regional government was very happy that it had the opportunity to support an artistic project that makes it possible to talk about that period. ‘

Ken Loach

Aurel has had a keen interest in the Spanish Civil War since seeing Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom. In this way he discovered the life and work of the Catalan artist Josep Bartoli. In 2009 his cousin Georges Bartoli published the book ‘La Retirada’, an account of that odious time illustrated with Goya-like drawings and sketches made by his uncle while he was in a closed camp.

‘My main occupation is the same as Bartoli’s,’ says Aurel. ‘We are both press artists. We do what every journalist does: report on the world’s problems. We only convert our findings into drawings. ‘Josep’ is not a militant film, although there are moments that are hard and difficult to tell. By drawing them you automatically build in a distance. But then you still have to proceed with consultation. ‘


French animation film about the Catalan artist Josep Bartoli. He fled to France at the end of the Spanish Civil War. There he ended up in a closed camp, where he converted his life into expressive drawings.

In his debut as a director, the French press artist Aurel puts a forgotten piece of history in the spotlight. Like Bartoli, he captures a dark reality with a great sense of humanity.

Available from 17 March on, Sooner and Proximus Pickx.

That balance between a sober sense of reality and respect for human dignity is one of the film’s strengths. Aurel relies on Bartoli’s drawings to depict the diversity of life in the camp, both the horror and the unexpected warm moments. He does not dilute or hide the painful experiences of the refugees, but he also does not make a spectacle out of it.

Josep is more than a history lesson. The film has a lot to say about the way memory works, for example by jumping back and forth in time. Bartoli is the central figure, but the narrator is a fictional old Frenchman who worked as a guard in the camp and met the artist there. He later visited him in Mexico, where Bartoli ended up in 1943 and had an affair with the artist Frida Kahlo.

For a contemporary audience, a story about refugees automatically brings current events with it, but Aurel did not think about that when he made ‘Josep’. ‘We didn’t consciously incorporate that theme into the film,’ he says. But the current situation does enrich the way in which the public receives ‘Josep’. As a filmmaker you are fed by the world in which you live. Unfortunately, this story is very topical. At the same time, the sad truth is that we could say that at any time for the past 80 years. The streams of people leaving their homes to escape war, dictatorship or misery have always existed. Unfortunately, we have rarely succeeded in accommodating them with the necessary dignity. ‘

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