© Quim Berenguer

Lights. Camera. Action!

Step through the door of a vast white building in the middle of lush green parkland and you enter a world where anything can happen. On the left, the hiss and heat of fire hit as a set burns for an action movie scene. Over on the right, reality stars sing their hearts out on a television talent show.

Step out into the streets and the movie magic continues, for everywhere is an open stage where you’ll see students creating short films on smart phones and big stars on location making the next blockbuster.

Filmmaking even finds its way into residents’ homes. After 1,000 citizens were cast as extras in Netflix series Hache, for example, everyone was glued to their televisions the night it aired to catch sight of their neighbours on screen!

This sense of a place where film is woven into the fabric of everyday life might bring Hollywood to mind, but this is Terrassa, an industrial city close to Barcelona. And this proximity is part of the reason for the city’s focus on film.

“Terrassa can be a bit overshadowed so we have to work hard to help citizens feel the difference and take pride in where they live,” says Jordi Hernandez, Technical Director of the Catalonia Audiovisual Centre – the big white building! “That’s one of the reasons it’s important for the city to have a clear identity – a brand – as a creative city.”

Having a vision

The demise of the local textile industry was the city’s primary impetus to use creativity as an agent of change. Determined not to become simply a dormitory city for people working in Barcelona, Terrassa instead saw an opportunity to develop a new strategy through which creativity would be the driving force for growth, jobs and enriching citizens’ lives.

The city’s vision reflects the growing appreciation of how powerful creativity can be in enabling cities to respond to major challenges such as the financial crisis and social exclusion. “For the first time in human history,” says Richard Florida, a leading thinker on creativity and author of Who’s Your City?, “the basic logic of our economy dictates that further economic development requires the further development and use of human creative capabilities.”

For evidence of the long-term, real-world value of this approach we can turn to the legacy of the European Capital of Culture scheme. According to Juliana Engberg, programme director for European Capital of Culture Aarhus 2017, “It’s not only about new infrastructure and regeneration, it’s about creating a socially relevant, resilient, sustainable and equitable future-proofed culture. And it works.”

Developing the plot

But what made Terrassa decide to concentrate on cinema out of all the creative industries it could have chosen? Well, after its first film screening in 1887, a thriving local amateur filmmaker community had developed. And in more recent times Terrassa had begun to establish itself as something of a pioneer city of the Spanish film industry.

Two more pieces of the puzzle completed the picture, as Hernandez explains. “We have a long tradition of technical industry and education here in the city which could be applied to the world of film. Also, a decision was made to transform an old hospital into a unique space bringing together all the stages and services that would make major film productions possible.”

This space is the Catalonia Audiovisual Centre, which is unique in being publicly-owned and run and hosting a cluster of 40 audiovisual, innovation and media companies. Over 1,500 productions are shot here every year, ranging from movies including The Machinist and Another Me to adverts for big brands like BMW and Cadbury and music videos for global stars such as Shakira.

Assembling the cast and crew

The centre is a tremendous showpiece but the city’s strategy had to spread wider and deeper to really embed film in the city’s DNA. This is where the strategy’s three strands come in: cinema and industry, cinema and location and cinema and citizenship.

By using this trio of focus areas to guide ambitions and activities, the city aimed to establish the foundations of a sustainable creative environment. An environment where skills, innovation and inclusivity are valued and enabled.

Terrassa’s take on how communities can plan to prosper through creativity is not far from Florida’s. Hernandez calls his approach ‘3T’ – the three Ts being talent, technology and tolerance.

Florida says that a community’s ability to develop, attract and retain top talent is the defining issue of the creative age and that European universities play a vital role in providing the innovation infrastructure necessary for creativity and technology transfer.

When it comes to tolerance, a word he uses to encompass social inclusion, openness and collaboration, Florida makes a point that supports Terrassa’s commitment to citizen participation.

We are all creative beings and have the potential to contribute to the creative economy.
— Richard Florida, a leading thinker on creativity and author of Who's Your City?

“Economic growth,” he says, “is driven by creativity, so if we want to increase it we have to utilise the creativity of everyone. We are all creative beings and have the potential to contribute to the creative economy.”

Enough of the theory! What does all this look like in practice?

Creating conscious, curious filmmakers

One of the highlights of the city’s work on cinema and industry was convincing ESCAC (The Cinema and Audiovisual School of Catalonia) to move from Barcelona to Terrassa. ESCAC is where many leading filmmakers, producers and directors have started their careers -and where many stay or return to throughout their careers.

Among the school’s alumni are director J.A. Bayona, who is soon to make Amazon’s €40m Lord of the Rings series in Terrassa, and Lluis Rivera, the founder of Spain’s leading stunts and special effects firm In Extremis Film Services.

“I always say to anyone who wants to push themselves to the next level in film that they should go to ESCAC,” says Rivera. “I chose to stay close to Terrassa when I set up my company because all the equipment and materials we need are nearby and we are able to take our sets to the audiovisual centre and use its studios for our shoots.”

Hernandez himself embodies this connection between film education and industry. Alongside his day job at the audiovisual centre enabling the work of filmmakers, he is also a cinematographer and scriptwriter and an educator in his role as associate professor at the University of Barcelona.

“As a creative city we prioritise film literacy in creative studies,” he stresses. “So as well as running projects where we train teachers to help pupils develop narratives and make films about issues that matter to the city, my courses at the university help develop students’ ability to watch films critically.

“In one project, for example, I asked them to set up fake social media profiles to experience how easy it is to lie and then to analyse what happens to their posts as a way of helping them think about their ethical limits.”

Getting the show on the road

Another important feature of Terrassa’s strategy is that the whole city is open to filmmakers, with its castles, modernist buildings and parks promoted as part of its attraction as a movie-making location. The city has even set up a one-stop-shop for anyone wanting to film on location.

Based at the audiovisual centre, Terrassa’s film office streamlines and speeds the whole process, from issuing permits to providing location information and solving logistical problems to connecting filmmakers with support services.

It's dynamic and agile and provides filmmakers with a lot of value.
— Jordi Hernandez, Technical Director of the Catalonia Audiovisual Centre

“If you want to film on a highway and only have your star actor for 24 hours before they fly back to Los Angeles you need a permit today,” says Hernandez. “The film office will make it happen. It’s dynamic and agile and provides filmmakers with a lot of value.”

Living the dream every day

For Terrassa’s citizens, living in a city of film means having access to an amazing array of mainstream and specialist cinemas and cinema clubs linked to local associations. Whatever your interest or favourite film genre you’ll find a screening here that fits the bill.

The Catalonia Cinema for instance hosts programmes for specific audiences such as the over 60s and for those passionate about equality and the environment. It also freely lends its facilities for screenings of locally-made films.

Even more than this, the city’s inhabitants have abundant opportunities to learn about film, to experiment with filmmaking and to experience things that might lead to a career ambition or lifelong passion for film.

As we’ve seen, they can get a feel of being in front of the camera by signing up as extras. They can also go behind the scenes at the audiovisual centre, enter short films into local festivals or go on one of the city’s guided cinema routes to discover the actors and anecdotes related to places used as film locations.

Living up to the hype

These tours are one of the initiatives Terrassa set up after being named a city of cinema by Unesco in 2017. This seal of approval is, says Hernandez who is the city’s Unesco Focal Point – hugely prestigious and has boosted the city’s brand image locally and globally. It also keeps the city on its toes!

“Unesco wants us to be a city of film every single day which gives us a lot of responsibility but also the energy and motivation to think in strategic terms and keep driving forward.”

One current project set to do just this is a collaboration between the Audiovisual Centre, the university and telecoms giant Telefonica which aims to help students develop virtual reality (VR) solutions in the short term and, in the longer term, establish a VR cinema hub.

This trailer for what’s to come in Terrassa makes it clear that the show will go on in this city of film, where so many can justifiably repeat the famous words of film star Audrey Hepburn: “Everything I learned I learned from the movies!”

Tiphanie Mellor