Ex-prisoners from armed Basque separatist group ETA hold up ballot papers in a demonstration in the Spanish Basque city of San Sebastian on December 12, 2015 to demand votes in the upcoming Spanish general election

Few issues marked Spain's recent history as much as the violence of Basque separatist group ETA, but it was only when peace finally came that this bloody period made its way into films without taboo.

As Spain prepares to mark five years since ETA quit violence on October 20, the armed group is more present than ever in the San Sebastian film festival in the Basque Country, with screenings of films and documentaries on the conflict.

"Emotionally, peace has taken hold enough for the story to be told with honesty," said British documentary-maker Justin Webster, director of "The End of ETA", screened earlier this week to applause and a full house.

"Now we can start writing the first draft of what really happened," he told AFP.

- 'Few films' -

Films are scarce about the separatist organisation, which is blamed for the deaths of 829 people in a four-decade campaign of bombings and shootings for an independent homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France. It declared a permanent ceasefire in 2011.

There were also some 150 anti-ETA killings blamed on militias close to the police and police abuse, according to a study by the Basque regional government.

"Few films have been done bearing in mind how important it was in many people's lives over four decades," said Basque director Imanol Uribe.

His first feature-length documentary, "The trial of Burgos" that came out in 1979, was about the last trial of ETA members during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which ended in 1975.

His last film "Far from the Sea" depicts the relationship between the daughter of a victim of ETA and her father's murderer.

While this was screened in a normal manner, the same was not true in the 1980s and 1990s.

His 1996 film "Numbered Days", which gives a humane depiction of an ETA member, may have won the festival's top Golden Shell prize and eight Oscar-equivalent Goya awards, but it is better remembered for the huge controversy it generated.

"It seems easier to broach the theme now, it was more complicated at that time," he said.

- 'Watch what you say' -

Director Julio Medem concurred.

In 2003, he showcased his documentary "The Basque Pelota," a call for dialogue as violence still raged by depicting the conflict from different perspectives, from victims of ETA to relatives of jailed group members.

Now considered a reference on the violent period, the documentary caused trouble for Medem with attempts to censure it at the film festival and accusations of sympathising with the armed group.

"I really copped it," he said 13 years after the screening.

"At that time, using the word 'dialogue' automatically put you on the side of ETA supporters.

"Not everything is black and white, there are colours, there are many colours... But no one was interested in hearing about those colours."

ETA was a "definite taboo" in Spanish cinema, he said.

On the one hand, any divergence from the official government position sparked a wave of criticism, and on the other hand the ETA entourage would warn people with a "watch what you say", he added.              

- 'War of stories' -          

But when the violence ended, a wide variety of works emerged, from documentaries to thrillers, dramas and even comedies.

"ETA has stopped killing and it remains to be seen how history will be written," said Santiago de Pablo, a historian at the Basque Country University who is about to publish a book on the theme.

Perhaps one of the most controversial works to be screened was the documentary "Asier and me", in which director Aitor Merino portrays his childhood friend who was jailed for eight years in France for being an ETA member.

Through the documentary, which has humorous touches, Merino asks the viewer tough questions -- how can this gentle friend be a terrorist? Can you be friends with a terrorist? What brought him to join ETA?

"We like cinema that makes people uncomfortable, that questions principles," he said.

And if ETA had still been wreaking violence, he would have screened it all the same, he added, "but with more context and without the humorous tone."

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