Only a film as weird as Carlos Vermut’s 2018 Quién Te Cantará will do justice to the key question we are often posed when we see or read something, and wonder who it is for and who it is by. This is a film as much about the audience, who is to be witness to a performance, as it is about the performer and what they are trying to tell us. While ‘quién te cantará’ translates from Spanish most literally as ‘who will sing to you’, and the identity of the singer is clearly at issue here, one might most properly interpret the meaning of the phrase in the context of the film as ‘who is it that is singing to you (and who would you be that they are singing to you)’.
Famous singer Lila, played by Najwa Nimri, is a pop star who hasn’t sung for ten years and is about to make a comeback when she has an accident while swimming in the sea and loses her memory, including remembering how to sing. So, an avid fan Violeta (played by Eva Llorach) who performs a tribute act to Lila in a small-town bar is enrolled in the secret task of singing for her, singing to her, reminding her who she, Lila was, who she is. The story does and does not have a happy end (spoiler alert) depending on which Lila you are; Lila the star who does appear on stage in a successful performance or the would-be Lila who walks slowly to her death in the sea at the end of the film.
There is a sub-text of simmering violence, including, crucially between Violeta and her daughter Marta (played by Natalia Molina), and the small town on the coast where the film is shot is called ‘Rota’ which, as some admiring and critical reviews have pointed out, could be both the name of the place and a descriptor of ‘broken woman’. This is one of those rare films about relationships between women, with very few men on the scene, and about women, who they are when they must perform to others.
A key question for anyone who stumbles across the Workers Revolutionary Party today is, Who reads their daily newspaper News Line, and who are they that would produce and sell this thing? That there is a daily newspaper of the revolutionary left in Britain is still quite incredible, but it is now only on odd occasions that the thing pops into view; in a public square in Manchester, for example, when the old-timers on their collapsible chairs admit that they have travelled over from Leeds to sell it even though they claim to have hundreds of members in the city; or in the centre of London late on a deserted dark night outside a University library; or, most alarmingly during the COVID-19 crisis, on a street in the East End of London knocking door to door to sell the paper.
Once upon a time the answer was clear, if not to the readers at least to the members of the WRP, then the largest Trotskyist organisation in Britain and convinced that if they were not on the brink of power, they were at the edge of the cliff, at the point in history when there would either be socialism (under their leadership, for any other version could not be socialism at all) or barbarism. Many branches of the WRP, those that did not consist of resting actors battling for leadership of their trade union Equity, had a family-clan structure, with kids around the country enrolled into the desperate and unceasing task of cycling to the railway station late at night, every night, and then delivering the news of impending dictatorship if there was no revolution. Gerry Healy led the outfit and succeeded in recruiting working class families, and some prominent actors into his party that started as The Club in 1947, became the Socialist Labour League in 1959 and blossomed into the WRP in 1973.
The ten-year division of the Fourth International from 1953 to 1963 saw Healy’s group recognised as one of the halves of the International when the division began, of the so-called ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’, ICFI, a designation the WRP and News Line, retains for its almost non-existent network of sister organisations in different countries to the present-day. The reunification of the Fourth International in 1963 was, predictably, an incomplete one, and the SLL, as it then was, stayed out, battling for what it continued to call the ‘ICFI’ on the world stage obsessively pitted against the ‘United Secretariat’, the USFI which was led for many years by the Marxist economist Ernest Mandel, an International Healy branded as ‘Pabloite’ (after FI secretary Michel Pablo, even if there were actually few self-declared ‘Pabloites’ around).
The time for not one, but two, and then many Workers Revolutionary Parties came in 1985, when Gerry Healy was expelled, basically for sexually assaulting over twenty women in the party, and then Corin and Vanessa Redgrave were expelled for supporting him. Here indeed there was a sub-text of simmering violence against women in the group, and desperate attempts to remind Healy what he was once was, what he should be as a revolutionary leader instead of a mere abusive crook.
Different editions of News Line reported that Healy had been expelled and that he hadn’t – a case of Schrodinger’s trot – and the two different fragments then each published versions of the newspaper for a while. One fragment eventually mutated into the Socialist Equality Party, while another was still headed by Gerry Healy and Sheila Torrance, one of the few women still loyal to the old brute. Healy and the Redgraves then, in the name of the ICFI, expelled people who produced News Line and formed the ‘Marxist Party’ in 1987 oriented to the Soviet Union (a very untimely move, in retrospect) before dissolving after Healy’s death and re-emerging as the ‘Peace and Progress Party’ before disappearing into the wilderness.
There are actually very few people in the film Quién Te Cantará, and they move around quite deserted bare settings as they attempt to act out and re-establish the lives they once had, trying to remember how and why they once did what they did, and who they are. This is a very miserable and reduced game of doubling and identification, each pretending to be someone they are not, something that ends in tragic violence, with women suffering, as they so often do at the hands of male leaders in corrupted sectarian left groups that become little worlds enclosed and closed in on themselves.
So, we are left with Sheila Torrance still claiming that her WRP and her newspaper News Line is the real deal, and she continues the well-established Healy tradition of feting Arab dictators (something Healy’s WRP was willing to do in return for hard cash, but which Torrance does now, it seems, for free). What Torrance is doing in keeping the Healy legacy alive is anyone’s guess, and who she is doing it for is an even bigger question.
Healy himself met his maker a while ago now, and, fortunately, there hasn’t been another quite like him to take his place, thank goodness. Gerry Healy was no Lila, no superstar, even if the Redgraves and the rest of the gang treated him like one, and so it will be Eva Llorach who will be condemned one day to play Sheila Torrance on the big screen, Sheila mimicking the lines of Gerry’s ghost. All that is left is the name of his pretend ‘International’, the ICFI, and Torrance as the sad reminder and remainder who keeps it going, as nothing, for no one.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.