The Digital Journalist
Interview with Jan Arnold

by Horst Faas

Horst Faas’ interview with Jan Arnold, author and director of the documentary film “Heroes Never Die”

Q: How did you decide to make this film? How did you get involved with war photography?

My father, Bruno Arnold, was a news reporter who had covered many conflicts during his time. He also served in WWII. I grew up with war continously in the mind in our family, even though those conflicts were far away, and talking to him about these wars.

I saw the ‘Falling Soldier’ the first time at a Berlin exhibition in the ’70s. The image covered a whole wall. When the big television companies began to prepare programs in the run-up to the millenium, the German producer Guido Knopp asked me to research in Spain the circumstances under which the Robert Capa photo was taken. “Try to find relatives of and people who knew the soldier” was my brief.

All we knew (in 1993) was that the photo was taken near Cordoba. Showing the photo around, I travelled for weeks through villages around Cordoba. I learned a lot about the Spanish Civil War and encountered a flood of emotions and often bad memories. But (the German television company) had to start the film without me finding out much. Others followed me in the quest to find the soldier’s identity and succeeded later on.

Q: Who are the actors in your film?

We tell the story of two men that are long dead. The soldier died in September (most likely Sept. 5) 1936; the photographer Robert Capa died in 1954, in a mine explosion in Indochina. During the long period required to prepare for and finance this documentary many eyewitnesses died. We had to find others that in some way had a connection with the events that culminated with Capa’s photograph.

(1) Producer Jan Arnold talks to Rafael Terol Aznar, former mayor of Alcoi.

The historian Angel Beneites says in the film, “It is not the story of ‘Taino,’ the dead militiaman in the photograph, but of all the Tainos of past and present conflicts.” Thus we tried to establish a connection from the past to the present wars. Circumstances convinced me that we had to include war photography of our time.

We started filming just before the events on Sept. 11, 2001 and ended after the March 2004 terror attacks in Madrid.

In the film I tried to reconstruct the facts around the Capa photograph and at the same time expand to war photography and wars in general.

• In the film people talk to us who have a connection to the town of Alcoi near Alicante, where Taino and others took up arms to defend the republic in September 1936.

Villagers from Cerro Muriano, where Capa’s photo was taken, remember what happened that day.

• The historical framework is explained in the film by the Capa biographer Alex Kershaw and the Spanish Civil War historian Francisco Moreno.

• Former UNESCO General Secretary Frederico Mayor Zaragoza appears in the prologue and former war photographers, including my father, talk about their work and connect events in the past with the present.

• Students of an Alcoi high school speak about their fears of the future.

I tried to stimulate a discussion between a variety of women and men, just as people from every level of society are affected by a war. There is no speaker guiding the film. Probing the personal experiences of different people, the film tries to give an idea of what happens at times of war. It is not important to me to end up with a conclusion about Capa's photograph.

Q: Magnum Agency and the trustees of the Capa Estate have refused you rights to show the photo of the falling soldier or any other Capa picture. How is that possible, and why?

The (television and film) rights for the ‘Falling Soldier’ and some other photos which Capa took at the beginning of the war have been acquired exclusively by the American station WNET, allegedly until 2025. Which means that only WNET has the right to use these photographs to illustrate the historical circumstances around them, thus excluding the rest of the world.

The administrator of Robert Capa’s estate, Richard Whelan, insists that our militiaman is Frederico Garcia Borrell from Alcoi, Alicante. The producers of my documentary have obtained the specific authorization from the only living heiress of the soldier Taino, to use the photograph of her uncle at the moment of death. Legally, however, this authorization proved meaningless.

(3) Monument near Pozoblanco, recalling Borrell’s death and Capa’s photograph

Magnum Agency, Cornell Capa and now (with exclusive rights) WNET are the sole owners of one of the most important documents in Spain’s modern history. This is as if Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ would be kept from the public.

The Chilean film producer Patricio Guzman once said, “A people without documentary films is like a family without a photo album.” His words are even more meaningful when documents (like the photo of the falling soldier) are withheld for economic or political reasons. Magnum have shown an unreasonable hostility in the way they market their long-dead star photographer. I think that was not intended by Robert Capa, who was a founder of Magnum.

In my film Frederico Mayor Zaragoza says, “Never accept what you judge to be unacceptable.” It became a challenge for me to make a film with Capa’s photograph always in mind but unable to show the photographs.

Q: How is it possible to make a film about Capa without showing his photos?

We were lucky that the (German) photographer Hans Namuth was also in Cerro Muriano at the time. He took photographs that are very similar to Capa’s and some show the same people, fleeing from their village. (We used Namuth’s photos.)

Furthermore, the Spanish film producer Basilio Patino reconstructed the scene (of the falling soldier) in one of his films. The result is surprisingly similar and appears in the film.

The Capa/Magnum photo is possibly the first document of instant death on film. It has become a symbol.

It disturbs me that the business of information about injustice, murder and death has become a complice of war and terrorism. An act of terror in itself is basically not of worldwide importance. Spreading the news of such an act is more important to the terrorists than the act itself. The more death and damage, the bigger dissemination of the news story.

With his photography Robert Capa tried to show the realities of war: suffering and death. Capa biographer Alex Kershaw describes in an interview how Capa was once himself a refugee (from Hungary), leaving everything behind and how he experienced what it meant to survive.

As one of the first documents of the moment of death, the Capa photo still stands for much that we don’t see from today’s wars.

Q: The Spanish Civil War is subject of many current publications, books, films, documentaries. Why this interest in history now? Is it the right time to reveal the truth? Or because eyewitnesses die out?

Like all peoples, the Spanish are interested in the history of their country. Just as our children want to know all about their grandparents. This interest is the key for self-exploration. It is sad that the history of mankind has been written primarily by wars. It explains that we want to know what really happened. It seems we have difficulties to understand and judge the causes of current developing armed conflicts while we can deal with past wars. Apparently generations have to pass before a discussion about the causes of an armed conflict can begin. Hate is a blindfold which makes it impossible to see that war was never a solution. Therefore it is important to talk about the wars of the past and their last witnesses. Our parents grew up with the historical perspective, that peace is a time between wars. I found a changing attitude in Spain. The majority of people want permanent peace and, therefore, we must learn from the past to understand the present.

Q: Did the recent events in New York, Iraq and Madrid have an impact on the eyewitness reports and comments expressed in your film? Or was there too much emphasis on the historical past?

Our documentary has at least demystified the image of Robert Capa. For most of our interview partners, not the photograph, but every single person involved and hurt by the Spanish Civil War became equally important. All became heroes.

When I started research more than 10 years ago the situation was different. Much hate, anger and bitterness remained with the generation that fought the war. One side had not forgiven the other. Most had a hard time after the war. The losers suffered systematic suppression. Ten years ago I encountered many emotional reactions and doors were banged in my face when I asked questions. When we started the film, all had changed. Participants and victims from both sides of the war who received us were friendly and helped us often with enthusiasm, although those from the winner’s side were less interested to pass judgment about their role in the past.

Younger Spaniards, those born after the war, showed a great interest in the reconstruction of events of 1936. In Cerro Muriano the whole village got involved to recreate what happened on September 5, 1936.

My film crew heard many personal tragedies during the interviews. There were other problems, of course, too, and with a touch of black humor we blamed Taino, the falling soldier. During 18 days of filming around Cerro Muriano in usually sunny southern Spain, it rained for 15 days.

May the soul of ‘Taino,’ Frederico Bottell Garcia, now rest forever.

© Horst Faas
The Digital Journalist Editor for Europe