Nights in Téfia director Miguel del Arco tells DQ how he sought to dramatise the experiences of prisoners in a real Spanish concentration camp with a story that follows its characters between their harsh reality and a dreamlike fantasy world.
Spanish drama Nights in Téfia is based on a real-life concentration camp in Spain that existed under the Franco regime. Originally for vagrants and thugs, from 1954 onwards it also included LGBTIQA+ people.
At the recent Festival de la Fiction in La Rochelle, France, where this six-episode series was shortlisted in the international category, judges and festivalgoers may have been taken aback to find out such camps were in existence until the mid-1960s. Perhaps more surprising is that many Spaniards are equally unaware of this period of their recent history.
“Speaking about Franco and the concentration camps is still a problem in Spain,” says Miguel del Arco, the creator and co-writer and director of the show. “My generation talked about the fall of the Berlin Wall all the time, but we never talked about this. My young niece knows much more about the Second World War than she does about Franco’s regime. We’re still fighting about historic memory in Spain. I want to connect the past to the present.”
For this reason, the story is told in three distinct narrative spheres that all drastically differ in tone.
The first is Téfia during the sixties. Here we meet the shows’s protagonist, Airam Betancor (played by Marcos Ruiz), a young man who has been arrested for being homosexual. His fellow inmates, through their own unique experiences, also shed light on the horrors of living in the camp. Manuel ‘La Vespa’ Flores, played by Patrick Criado, is the love of Airam’s life. He is a force of nature and unashamedly queer, but even his spirit is subdued by this brutal environment. Jose, despite his imposing stature, has been so traumatised by violence that he is consumed by mental illness. ‘La Sissi,’ a woman trapped in a man’s body, is scorned every day.
We also come face to face with an array of sadist and Franco sympathetic guards, as well as one who’s conscience is torn about the regime he enforces.
The second world is Tindaya, a dreamlike fantasy realm that often takes the form of an extravagant cabaret. Here the characters can mentally escape their confines. A former theatre director (locked up for repeated drunkenness) tells stories at night to alleviate the suffering of the day, and takes the role of master of ceremonies in Tindaya. “They are living such a nightmare, so at night they dream,” says del Arco.
Creating reality through your imagination is a powerful theme. “There’s a phrase in the show, ‘All you can imagine, you can do,’” says the director. “The prisoners dream of escaping, and many Spanish dreamt of Franco’s death, at the time, so they would be free.”
Watching such recent history, one cannot help but reflect that while the reality for many LGBTIQ+ people today has improved greatly, for others it is still but a dream.
The third part of the narrative takes place in 2004, when we meet Airam again, this time as he is approached by a documentary filmmaker to talk about his time in Téfia. “In the early 2000s, it was still possible to cross the street and the person who’d been torturing you would be walking the other way, or they may be working at your local supermarket,” del Arco explains. This happens to Airam when his jailer moves into his neighbourhood to live with his daughter’s family.
Ever since La Casa de Papel (Money Heist), the creativity in Spain’s TV industry has gained the world’s attention, though it is still a surprise to witness the high level of cinematic ambition of Las Noches de Téfia (as it is known in Spain). Del Arco, who is also a distinguished playwright and theatre director, had not been seeking to move into TV, but when execs approached him, he was intrigued to tackle this subject on the small screen. “Five years ago, this would not have been possible,” he says, “but TV is very good nowadays.”
Executing his vision on a TV budget required a great deal of ingenuity. Expensive filming days were kept to a minimum and the whole series was shot in 16 weeks. “The actors were happy to come and prepare a month in advance,” he says, “which meant we were ready go as soon as the cameras rolled.”
The prison scenes of Téfia, with its mountainous backdrop, were shot on location in the Canary Islands. The black and white, stark minimal style contrasts with the dazzling colour of Tindaya’s magical cabaret sequences. This dreamlike realm was shot using only a single set, a small theatre near Madrid. All the budget could then be thrown at the choreography, costume, make-up, lighting and set design to create the mind-blowing visual feast. Luckily, the more humdrum reality of 2004 is compatible with budget-friendly shooting methods, such as handheld cameras.
“You never have enough budget,” says del Arco, “but [broadcaster and distributor] Atresmedia TV and [producer] Buendía Estudios were very supportive and the passion and dedication of the actors, crew, even the extras, made it all possible.”
There’s a scene in 2004 in which the documentary maker asks about the ‘facts’ of Airam’s experience in Téfia, but he tries to explain he doesn’t really know what was more important to him during his imprisonment – fiction or reality. Nights in Téfia plays an important role in the battle for a historical narrative of this era in Spain.