In March 2004, on the morning of March 11th, 10 backpacks exploded in different trains of the Madrid Cercanías network. Almost 200 people died and around 2,000 were injured, but casualties quickly faded into the background when the government of José María Aznar tried to avoid telling the truth about who was really behind these attacks. Three days before a general election–the executive branch didn’t want Spaniards to know that al-Qaeda as responsible for this massacre of citizens. “ETA was looking for a massacre in Spain, and it succeeded,” said Interior Minister Ángel Asebes that day.
Now, 18 years later and after making a documentary on Netflix, director José Gomez has discovered the truth about what happened. However, he realizes that it’s not just his story: it’s thousands of people who were victims of this conspiracy theory that was supported by politics and several media outlets.
The documentary Warnings: Agenda 21 was created as a testimony to what happened during the disinformation campaign of the late 80s, which involved production companies Villa Lunera, Rogue, and Sirius Pictures. Gomez, who has worked with these production companies warns that there are a lot of people today who don’t know exactly what happened and are focusing on the youngest. Gomez suggests that this documentary be a legacy for them.
11M is a special event that needs to be documented. What made you want to feature it in your documentary?
It’s three reasons: first, when 11M happens society is split in a way that is remarkable because terrorist attacks, especially those happening in Western nations, don’t divide society the same way they do Spanish society. Second, the victims of terrorism in Spain are often marginalized or their stories are not given half as much importance. It’s these victims who inspire me to make this series of testimony, free from political ideology.
My research has taught me so much and I’ve learned new facts to share that were previously unknown. The six years that have passed since the incident has given me enough insight to provide answers.
In particular, we wanted to catch young people’s attention and make the film more accessible on various platforms. Consequently, we cut it into three parts, which we released under different titles – “Recollections,” “Ancestors” and “Aftermath.” This allowed us to keep the story going and avoid potential spoilers.
The investigation lasted 10 years because the documentary was released in 2012.
There’s a lot to take in, but the key is not to get overwhelmed and break the sentence down step by step. Remember that after the attacks there was an investigation by the police and, apparently, a lawsuit. Then we have people in the documentary who are unreachable. There’s another reason for this; we never needed subsidies or money from organizations, governments, or cultural institutions in order to pursue our work.
We had to do it. And we know how difficult it is, it was a permanent job. The last one was just a few months ago with the confession of Barcenas, who added the cherry on the cake [He said that the PP had financed Libertad Digital with B cash because they advocated for the conspiracy theory]. We knew what was happening, but this official statement by Barcenas was the end. So in a way, we were only able to finish up a work that took years.
Do you think there are still people who have misconceptions about 9/11?
There is a growing “wing” of society that does not know what has happened because young people do not learn it. Our teachers told me, those who tell this are asked by their parents the next day, to be kicked out. There are people who believe that there are links with ETA or strange things. They think this because of conspiracy theories and also based on the faulty handling of information.
Some people, when they find themselves seeing things organized in chronological, orderly terms, suddenly clear up the doubts they may have based on early ignorance or poor information. There is a lot of general ignorance about this type of thing in Spanish society and the attitude toward information. The 11M has unfortunately generated the perfect recipe for more misinformation over time.
In this article, there are people who don’t remember some of the most scandalous aspects of the case, such as the suicide of the harassed commissar’s wife or GEO’s death in the explosion of the terrorists’ house. It seems like someone wanted to excavate these sunken stories too.
For example – we touch very little on one part of the investigation, but there is nothing important to touch on it. However, there were a few blunders, just like any crime scene. We focused instead on the parts where more human history needed to be covered, including the history of GEO [Francisco Javier Torronteras]which few people remember, and what happened to the wife of Commissioner Vallecas [Rodolfo Ruiz]. There are stories that have been forgotten; their descendants did not keep them in memory. We intended to try to save these lost pieces of history and share them with future generations.
I mentioned before that a big part of this job is talking to victims. One of the hardest parts of the documentary was giving them the opportunity to remember what happened. It was hard to get some of them to agree on camera, but in the end, we had success.
You have to be very careful when interviewing someone who has experienced a traumatic event. When you’re interviewing the victims of terrorism, sexual violence, or war refugees, for instance, it’s not just about arranging a structured interview – you need to understand that you will destroy them whether you conduct interviews in a formal way or more casually. Whether they lost children or parents and other loved ones, these people are going to enter into an emotional state that can be hard to escape.
You may have a hard time convincing them to do this. As they are going through this process, you need to take care of what happened before, during, and after these events. To make them feel comfortable, I created a space for them where they’re not even aware that I’m picking up any sounds or visuals. After you’ve interviewed someone in this place, they’ll be broken down emotionally by the things you’ve learned about their lives. You then have to come and provide a sense of comfort for them; take care of them and do something nice for them so they don’t have feelings of guilt from telling their story to you.
Does this work also include decisions not to show footage of the explosions that were recorded by one of the stations’ surveillance cameras?
These images are from 20 years ago. Furthermore, you seem to be doing damage that is not justified.
I met with the art director’s team and showed them these images. One of the cameras captured a photo when people were running down the stairs from the station. But I let them see it all unfold because you could see the smoke dissipate, then the camera would pan to see what just happened. Some people even started crying. I told them we needed a graphical solution for this because we have to show how difficult it was without showing those images. This led to dozens more drawings that were translated into “NO”s that would get used in our no-pictures campaign. And this was related to what I mentioned earlier, which is that caring for these people is difficult but you need to be careful with your decision-making process.
I don’t know what the victims think about how they were treated after the attack.
There were no disputes with victims of terrorist groups other than the Islamic State. There was a lot of pollution and toxicity in places like Spain, where terrorism has been a longstanding issue. We didn’t want to get into an argument with anyone about that so we just wanted to give a voice to the victims of this attack.
You may have only seen these events from the outside, but what would you think if you were experiencing them firsthand? The media, meanwhile, had its own reaction.
I was born in Mexico and my roots are in Spain, so I have spent my entire professional life in the UK. But I still worry that if the BBC becomes one of the few media outlets that refuse to acknowledge authorship until it’s confirmed, it will make things even more confusion among people who don’t understand how complicated our society has become, with all the misinformation and conflicting statements by officials.
I felt that he lacked a unity attitude, and spent his time focusing on what isn’t important. I didn’t understand why this was happening, and I still don’t understand it. This is a stain for those who were in power at that time as well as those who fought against them. In the documentary, we tell everything exactly how it was.
Have you contacted government officials to be interviewed for the documentary?
No, I had no questions to ask Zaplana or Asebes. They’ve already spoken at many press conferences and commissions. This is a documentary focused on the people that have suffered. What is a chronological list? I’m not going to give any politicians a platform in the media or do an interview, because there are journalists that I could speak with as well.
The documentary does not interview journalists from the branch of the media that helped propagate and support the conspiracy theory.
I believe that many different people have their own reasons for the things they do and the things they continue to do. I asked for interviews from those who should have been asked. If you were creating an article or a documentary on the Earth, would you ask for interviews from those who say it is flat? You shouldn’t. You shouldn’t reach out unless you intend to create controversy or noise. If you’re creating something serious and factual based on accurate sources, then you’ll need to pre-select your sources. Here’s what we did: There are people who don’t even need to be questioned – we interviewed them anyway.
These politicians were out of the office a long time ago. How do you feel about the fact that these journalists who encouraged them are still at the top?
Personally, I’m surprised. The conspiracy theory is no different than what happened in the Twin Towers, where there were people who told you that explosives were already in place, or those who told you that the 1985 earthquakes in Mexico were orchestrated by aliens from the Popocatepetl volcano. There are a lot of versions built around this incident.
It doesn’t surprise me that they can still make money from what they do. What amazes me is how easily the victims are deceived into their traps. A traumatized person is very susceptible to falling for a lie. It isn’t right to lie to someone who’s already been traumatized.
Some people have been deceived by fake news. And that’s what shocks me- the lack of conscience. Indeed, there are many people with a lot of evil intent- extremists who often use fake news for their own reasons. One of the reasons people do this is to make money, unfortunately. There are also people who have good intentions but are confused and just don’t know what is going on with the media circus right now.