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Institut Ramon Llull is a consortium comprising the Government of Catalonia, the Government of the Balearic Islands, and the Barcelona City Council. Its mission is the support and promotion of Catalan language and culture abroad, in all its forms and means of expression.

Paco Poch: «You always remember a good documentary»

paperllull.  BARCELONA, 17/03/2021

Pacho Poch is a key figure to understand auteur and independent cinema during the last thirty years in our country. Being specially relevant within documentary filmmaking, Tolosa festival dedicated a retrospective series to his figure, edited in Gabriela Zea’s book 'Sobre el cinema documental'. An interview conducted by Esteve Plantada.

Professor, relentless conversationalist, entrepreneur, cinephile and cineclubber; but most of all, producer: Paco Poch (Igualada, 1951) is a key figure to understand auteur and independent cinema during the last three decades in our home country, specially in what refers to documentary filmmaking. His task in this field made him worthy to receive the retrospective series made by the Toulouse festival Cinespaña in 2016. He has worked with filmmakers such as Isaki Lacuesta, Patricio Guzmán, José Luís Guerín, Béla Tarr or Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, among others. Cinema, poetry and revolution.

– You graduated in modern history (Universiat de Barcelona) but you ended up with a professional career in the cinema industry.

I studied history but it actually was as if I studied humanities too: the programme had very different courses and I was able to draw upon many themes. When I finished my degree I did a master’s in economy and business management. I knew I wanted to work in the film production industry but I only had knowledge about culture, the World and people… And nothing at all about business! Later on I did my Ph.D. in audiovisual production at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. I’m glad about the education I had because it has some coherence: there is some photography, humanities, business and also audiovisual production.

– You started as a cultural photographer.

At that time you couldn’t study cinema so I started working as a photographer with Manuel Muntaner, mainly culture pictures. I was a bad photographer [he laughs]. But I took the black and white pictures of Ovidi Montllor’s Crònica d’un temps, or some of Quico pi de la Serra.

– When did you realise that cinema was your vocation?

When I was sixteen at the Cineclub Mirador del Fòrum Vergés, where nowadays is the Balmes building of Universitat Pompeu Fabra. I watched Pasolini’s Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964), Godard’s A bout de soufflé (1960), with that shocking sequence with Jean-Paul Belmondo trying to take Jean Seberg’s shirt off under Picasso’s Guernica. I wanted to take it off too! This is what caught me the most from the world of cinema. And the fact that during the movie the character Seberg never lets taking his shirt off of him. I love it! It’s the idea of recognition: when the movie starts you are already in, totally hooked. They also showed Pierrot le fou (Godard, 1965) and I was also very identified with Pierrot: everybody told me I was like him!

– None commercial cinema at all?

The most commercial movie played at the cineclub was Hitchcock’s The birds (1963), which is very interesting on a psychological level. Everything was a huge breakthrough. I kept going and I also got to know the cinema from the East of Europe, mostly Czech cinema, with Milos Forman’s first work such as Lasky jedné plavovlásky (1965); Swedish movies like Elvira Madigan (Bo Widerberg, 1967), art cinema, and Italian movies such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s and the first Fellini, or Marco Bellocchio’s I pugni in tasca (1965)… Or Glauber Rocha and Deus e o Diablo na terra do sol (1964). I was astonished, extremely impressed by all these movies. It was really shocking!

– The breakthrough came along with very powerful social and cultural times…

It was the time of semiotics, Marxism, philosophical anthropology… You ended up with a very interesting combo. And on top of that you had the very recent May 68 and the Black Panthers about to start a revolution. The World was burning!

– Doesn’t scare you to realise we haven’t moved forward so much in some social areas? If you think about it, it seems we are still at the same point…

[He laughs] We are just like then! A few days ago Universitat Pompeu Fabra invested Angela Davis as Doctor Honoris Causa. She is a hyperactive figure that has it all: racial and social fight, feminism… And she never stops. Maybe we haven’t move forward so much, but all these fights have been useful to avoid going back. That’s it: more than moving forward, what we do is avoid going back. The struggle prevents fascism and dictatorship to keep growing.

– How did you get to documentary filmmaking during those times?

During my training as a professional in the cinema world I only remember a few documentaries. I remember Peter Watkins’ The War Game about the atomic bomb. Or Jack Hazan’s A bigger splash, the story around the famous David Hockney’s painting. There were only a few works, but very good ones. Now there are many more, and some of them are shocking documentaries like Wim Wenders works, such as The Salt of the Earth (2014).

– The Toulouse festival Cinespaña dedicated a retrospective series to you because of your contribution to the documentary genre, where your influence is crucial. What is it that we like so much about documentaries?

I have worked a lot in mockumentary projects, which I find very interesting. The thing about a good documentary is that you always remember it and it is always useful to you. I don’t think it’s a greater trend than it was in the past but more that nowadays everybody has watched a shocking documentary that has been useful and interesting to them.

– Did you have any kind of relation with cinema as a kid? Where does this passion come from?

My dad made sweaters in a company called Mallerich. He was a very meticulous person and developed the advertisement of the company during the sixties, with a quite innovative system for that time: he used all the American actors who came here to shoot (Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner, Liz Taylor, etc.) to make a catalogue with the slogan in Spanish “Mallerich dresses the stars”. It was a staging. Besides this, my dad had written some articles on the influence of cinema in fashion, and we also had a camera and a projector at home where we watched Charlot movies. All this leaves its mark…

– What was the key moment during your cinema education?

When you widen your own human horizon with the movies you watch, when this allows you to see other countries and other worlds, and when you realise that people from other places’ problems are also your problems. Once in college, in the middle of the Nixon and Vietnam War era, we watched the banners of “Nixon murderer” and then we did the same here but adapted: “Franco asesino” (Franco murderer). One time we got caught in one of these demos. I was walking with a friend in front of the police station from Paris’ street in Barcelona, when people were throwing stones to the Atlantic Bank. And we were caught.

– Were you arrested?

A week in prison! Fortunately nothing happened to me inside that place… This makes me think about how I lived the moment and everyone’s implications. I remember one day when I was watching Dreyer’s Gertud (1964) at twelve noon, at Alexis cinema. The movie ends with an empty chair, and it made me think a lot: It was noon and I was at the cinema while people were on the street. I felt this dichotomy a lot, between action and culture. On another occasion, a colleague told me they were looking for me for a whole week; they were worried in case something happened to me. And I was in my hometown, studying! “The revolution on its way, people on the streets… And you in your hometown!”, he told me. I was so impressed I had this hook with culture and art while the World was fighting for a change.

– Culture transforms society too, doesn’t it?

It’s the path I took! But at that time it was hard to understand, I had a lot of conversations around this issue with many activist and alternative people.

– Have you figured it out over the years?

I find the pacifist and civil disobedience very important options, two tools that are very encouraging to me. At this moment I follow the line promoted by Òmnium because it’s not any political party and they are doing a great job, and I find it very sad that their president [Jordi Cuixart] is in jail. When they asked me to be part of the board I didn’t think twice about it! As an activist, sometimes it seems this kind of work it’s not useful, as we were saying. But I think it is and we just have to keep going, even if sometimes you think it’s not enough. Everything contributes to make a better World and at least it prevents it from going backwards.

– You started your film career in 1979. A year later you produced Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón, Pedro Almodóvar’s first movie.

That was at Fígaro Films. As head of production I made Navajeros, La revolta dels ocells, and many more. In Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón I didn’t actually do anything, I helped as much as I could, but they were a cooperative that did everything. With a figure like Almodóvar, who was a hotshot, he was so valuable. I’m very proud I had been there, but I never wanted to take any credit for that. I just worked as a technician.

– Five years later you created your own film production company, Virginia Films.

I left my job at Fígaro Films when my dad died. It was a family readjustment period. Then I started my own company, Virginia Films, and I produced La senyora (Jordi Cadena, 1987). At the same time I created Catalan Films as a public body part of Generalitat de Catalunya to promote cinema in our language. The first operation was at Berlin Film Festival, where we requested a stand but they didn’t let us have it. I had to meet the festival’s director and that was a small diplomatic clash. In the end, Carmelo Romero, who was then promotion director of Spanish cinema, ended up organizing a stand for the autonomies, which by then were just starting to work.

– The one-size-fits-all approach, I see.

Right! But in the end we made it. Catalan Films is a great promotion department for Catalan cinema that still works nowadays.

Paco Poch. Picture: Óscar Fernández Orengo.

– In 1994 you created Mallerich Audiovisual, taking over from Virginia Films and with which you produced many feature films and documentaries like those of Isaki Lacuesta.

I had a big clash with Virginia Films at a financial level. There was an administrator in the company who kept indebting us in an incredible way, without me having control of it. The debt kept growing and I had to close. But I don’t just want to say that I was scammed, which I was indeed, but it was also my fault not taking control of it. The hole kept growing and one day I had enough. I needed to stop that tendency, and I started again with Mallerich.

– And it went well.

Yes, but the wild journey period was tough. It’s funny that my dad’s company also broke during the crisis of 63, and that’s why my company is called Mallerich, because he got through too.

– In the book, Manuel Pérez Estremera defines Paco Poch style as “a mix of accuracy, working capacity, cultural knowledge, labour realism without neglecting the main directing needs, and skills in the area of possible buyers, festivals and the international scene; all this in the simple manners of an absent wise guy”. Do you agree? How would you define Paco Poch style?

It’s not exactly like that because he mentions a lot of qualities that I don’t have! I do have this thing with the international contacts and I am “an absent wise guy”. But Pérez Estremera just explains how a good producer should be; he is barely talking about me [he laughs]. I’m accurate and not accurate at the same time: I know how to move but in a disorganized way. My style is a mix of the human aspect, contents, interests, and cultivated but also progressive elements; the idea that cinema is life and also the extension of your dreams, that’s how I would define my style; and also the fact that poetry does not conflict with claim.

– Besides working as a producer you also had a long career as a professor: at UPF and directing the Màster en Producció i Distribució Cinematogràfica (EPAC/ECIB/Mediapro/UVIC).

The professor’s role is very important to me and it’s never mentioned. I started in 1995 with the first production class at Pompeu Fabra. I was professor there for 25 years and never got tired of it.

– Why did you stop?

Web series and videogames arrived… Some things that made me realise I was loosing my train. I felt like those farmers who still use mules to plough and don’t know how to use a tractor… It was my fault, not the students’…

– Actually, the audiovisual sector is changing completely: movie theatres are closing, exhibition needs to be reinvented, VOD platforms… Where are we going?

The Director of Festival de San Sebastián told me recently that young people watch, statistically, 10% of a movie. More than distribution and content we have a short memory problem, a problem with the attention we dedicate to things. Every 10 minutes a lot of interruptions take place, we move to other things so quickly. I can’t say if this is better or worst. I already told you: I’m used to go to plough with a mule and now they come with tractors [he laughs]. I can’t say this is not good enough because it could be part of progress, I don’t know…

– But, what feasibility do you think there is nowadays in making movies and premiere them at the cinemas? Does this have a financial return or do we need to reconsider everything?

Yes it does, still. But with the constraint that it all depends on other things now. It depends partly on the platforms. When the platform says yes, the movie goes on. It’s all recycled for television and series. If you have the support of a television or international selling and platforms, then you can make a movie. However: only broad-spectrum movies… If I come with Béla Tarr or a proposal from Pina Bausch then it will be difficult indeed. They have their own system over there. This brings me to answer the question by saying we are all resetting ourselves towards a different model.

–We have to say that having Béla Tarr on the catalogue is quite an advantage.

I went on a pilgrimage to meet hem in Budapest! I took three plane tickets and we stood one night with him. He’s a wonderful guy. We had dinner with him, we chatted… And then the next day, nothing, we didn’t see him anymore and haven’t never more. The guy was so pissed off with cinema. He said that The Turin horse would be his last movie. I read it was a metaphor of Europe and all of us ending up as mileuristas. It was a pessimistic view of our future that seems to be actually happening.

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