A short film that chronicles the lives of the forgotten, deprived and marginalised children who live in Europe’s largest shantytown, just outside Madrid, is in the running for Spain’s equivalent of an Oscar at the Goya awards on Saturday.

Aunque es de noche (Even Though it’s Night), which was shot on location in the Cañada Real informal settlement, using a cast of residents, follows 13-year-old Toni as he prepares to say goodbye to his best friend, Nasser, who is moving to France, and to his own childhood.

The film takes its title from a poem by the Spanish priest, poet and mystic St John of the Cross, in which he wrote of growing closer to God despite the spiritual and physical darkness of his imprisonment. But it is also a reference to the fact that about 4,000 people in sector 6 of the settlement – almost half of them children – have now been without electricity for almost three and a half years.

Directed by the 38-year-old film-maker Guillermo García López the short begins with the two friends standing on a hill in the Cañada and looking towards the nearby but otherworldly skyscrapers of the Spanish capital.

People often use candles to light their homes, which have started fires. Photograph: Sintagma Films

García López, who first visited the area nine years ago while working on a documentary about the human consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, was fascinated by the view and its paradoxes.

“I was struck by how far it seemed from Madrid despite only being 20 minutes from the centre,” he said. “It’s like being in another space and time.”

By 2019, the director was working solidly in the Cañada, running cinema workshops for children, who are predominantly of Roma and Moroccan heritage.

Determined to make a film there, García López and his colleagues held conventional casting but soon found themselves thwarted by the logistics of the Cañada. Instead, they decided to go door-to-door in search of actors. The footwork paid off: as well as finding their cast, it enabled them to explain the project to the families they met and gain the trust of a community that often feels poorly represented or demonised by the media because of the rampant drug trade in some sectors of the settlement.

Although the director says the short is about “the loss of a best friend, and the loss of a child’s way of looking at things” – the socioeconomic realities of life in the area and the loss of power, electrical and metaphorical, are palpable.

The electricity provider, Naturgy, has blamed the outages on illegal marijuana plantations. Photograph: Sintagma Films

The regional government of Madrid, one of the five authorities that share responsibility for the Cañada, blames the continuing lack of power on illegal marijuana plantations which, it says, put the electricity network under such huge strain that its safety cut-outs are triggered.

The power provider, Naturgy, has offered its sympathies to the people of sector 6, but said “intensive and irregular use” is crashing the network. It said it had only three registered customers in sector six – the rest are “illegal connections”.

The lack of electricity has stigmatised the children of the sector. Most do their homework by torch or screen light, many dread going to school for fear of being bullied because of the smell that comes from their unwashed clothes, and others have constant colds. Meanwhile, candles used to light homes have started fires and people have been taken to hospital after being poisoned by the fumes from their butane heaters.

The film follows the story of Toni, 13, who has to say goodbye to his best friend, Nasser. Photograph: Sintagma Films

García López said: “Let’s not forget that 4,000 people – half of whom are children – have been living without power for more than three years. That’s a human rights violation … They have the right to a dignified life and an electricity supply.”

The director, whose film is up for best fictional short film at the Goyas, hopes it will remind people in Spain of the crisis on the doorstep of the capital and show the humanity and resilience of the families of sector 6.

“St John of the Cross wrote the poem while he was imprisoned in Toledo and held in deep darkness and solitude,” he said. “This community is also in a profound solitude and people there struggle to find a future or just to live as happily as possible in the present. But even though it’s dark, they’re carrying on living and fighting and laughing and crying.”

The pity, he added, is that most people in Madrid were still unwilling or unable to meet the gaze of their near-neighbours.

“This is right by our city,” he said. “And those kids on that hill are looking at us.”


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