Lights, camera, action at Altamira

For the first time in decades, a crew has been allowed to film the prehistoric cave paintings

Filming the Altamira caves.
Filming the Altamira caves.José Luis López Linares

Altamira is in the news again. More than 130 years after its cave paintings were discovered by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and his daughter María, and amid debate about whether to reopen the site to the public, a film crew has entered the cave complex to make a documentary that aims to recreate the amazing story of its discovery, focusing on its most fascinating aspect: the mystery of mankind’s creative drive.

Closed to the public since 2002, no filming has been allowed in the cave for decades. Which makes El maestro de Altamira (The maestro of Altamira), directed by José Luís López Linares, all the more remarkable. The award-winning filmmaker had the support of the Education Ministry, but still had to wait almost a year until research work begun in 2012 was completed.

EL PAÍS accompanied López Linares during the first few days of his shoot, which meant observing strict controls to limit temperature, CO2, humidity, and atmospheric pressure, which were monitored while the team worked inside the cavern.

Originally scheduled for 10 days from October 6, filming had to be extended to two weeks because it was not permitted to record on consecutive days. The crew was only allowed to shoot in the 270-meter gallery for a maximum of 360 minutes, while filming in the so-called Polychromatic chamber, which contains the site’s emblematic bison, was limited to two hours.

A productive lunch

El maestro de Altamira came into being a few years ago over a lunch between filmmaker José Luis López Linares, producer Álvaro Longoria of Morena Films, and artist Joaquín Vaquero Turcios, who died in 2010. His emotional description of Altamira set the project in motion. The documentary tells the incredible story of the discovery of Altamira by María Sanz de Sautuola and her father, Marcelino, and the prejudice and incomprehension the latter faced when he argued that the paintings had been carried out by cave dwellers. The story, seen through the eyes of María, describes the daily lives of the humans who lived in Cantabria 15,000 years ago, and explores the mystery of artistic creation.

Meanwhile, Madrid-based Morena films has just begun shooting the drama Altamira, which will be directed by Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire), with Antonio Banderas in the lead role. The screenplay has been written by Linares, in collaboration with Olivia Hetreed, author of the script for The Girl With the Pearl Earring.

Two hours isn’t much, but you might think it would be enough to capture the surface of a cave. But this calculation is for one person, which meant that even if only three people were shooting, the time limit was already down to 40 minutes. Meanwhile, site staff were literally standing by with stopwatches the whole time.

On the first three days of the shoot, three members of the crew, dressed in disinfected disposable body suits, masks, shoe covers, and caps, entered the cave. Meanwhile, in a hut above ground, two engineers monitored conditions in the cave via a computer. In a bid to avoid warming up the site, the team used special low-heat lights.

“On the first day, the temperature in the cave was 14.2ºC when the crew entered; when they left it had risen to 14.6ºC, but settled back to its normal state a couple of hours later,” says Luis Santiago Quindós, a physicist who was also monitoring filming from his office at the University of Cantabria, in Santander. He has been observing the effect of visitors on the site since February, when five people a week have been allowed in for a 37-minute tour, only eight of which are spent in the Polychromatic chamber.

The experiment has been extended to a year, although the first results of the impact of visitors have already been made public. “The main dangers to the paintings are from nature itself, and that won’t go away. We can’t do anything. The visits really have very little impact,” said Gaël de Guichen, the head of the scientific team that has been researching how best to protect the caves, which have been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1985. De Guichen, like the director of the cave complex, José Antonio Lasheras, believes that a work of art “should not be locked away in a safe.”

“Conservation is the means, but the end is the use of the cave, which obviously must be sustainable,” says Lasheras, who has been in charge at Altamira for the last 25 years. “Obviously, if we want to continue enjoying this, we will have to look after it, but conservation should not become an end in itself, and instead should be the means to access this piece of heritage and get to know it better, and of course to enjoy it.”

Site staff were literally standing by with stopwatches the whole time’

In El maestro de Altamira, Lasheras guides López Linares through the cave complex, explaining its marvels, which are bound up in the mystery of art at the heart of the documentary. “Altamira is overpowering, and that in large part is because it is a work of art, an icon, as well as one of the greatest examples of cave painting,” he says.

He says one of the greatest pleasures of having been able to spend time in Altamira has been accompanying painters studying the techniques of their ancient forebears. “One day, [artists] Lucio Muñoz and Enrique Gran were absorbed by the paintings, and Gran said very quietly: ‘Lucio, it’s all here, isn’t it?’ And Muñoz, without saying a word, simply nodded.”

Architect and painter Juan Navarro Baldeweg, the artist who recreated a replica of the cave for the on-site museum in 2001, says that what impressed him most was that the people who painted these figures really were artists. “They were great painters, they belonged to a culture of painters,” he says. “The way that they used the surface of the rock, how they caught the movement of the animals, and the way they were able to bring them to life and convert everyday reality into art: they were incredibly sophisticated.”

After three days of filming, with the initial difficulties overcome and the first “incredible” images caught on film, López Linares said he understood the challenge he faced: “To be faithful to what the caves of Altamira represent, a place where you realize that art is the same now as it was 15,000 years ago.”