Demonstration is the culmination of thirty-three filmmakers’ work and an unfathomable amount of footage – yet all the jigsaw pieces fit together almost seamlessly to present a documentary not only poetic in genre, but also in nature. With the footage of 2012 Spanish austerity measures strikes set to the musical backdrop of composer Ludwig Minkus’ Don Quixote, an aptly self-proclaimed “film-ballet” emerges from the crowd-sourced material: cohesive, compelling, and nuanced. In essence, Demonstration captures the spirit of the poetic documentary genre: from its unity (and often juxtaposition) of audio and visuals, rather than a clear-cut narrative structure, emerges the film’s subtle commentary on political protesting and the power of the people.
Taking to the streets of Barcelona during nation-wide strikes on March 29th and November 14th 2012, the thirty-two documentary Masters students of the IDEC-Pompeu Fabra University, and their supervisor, documentarian Victor Kossakovsky (¡Vivan las Antipodas!, SFF 2012), recorded the ebb and flow of the protests. The strikes were intended to combat the Spanish government’s austerity plans, proposed as a means of lowering the nation’s deficit to within European Union standards. Material is assembled from an array of angles and perspectives to illustrate the strikes, as the protest efforts devolve into sometimes brutal clashes with police. Protestors, police, journalists and ambulance officials all become distinct players on the stage that is Barcelona the city, Don Quixote providing the dramatic musical overlay.
The collective of filmmakers accomplish an appreciable feat, no less because of Kossakovsky’s masterful editing: a narrative thread is expertly woven throughout the chaotic material. The aforementioned supervisor and his university students bring life to the people’s political mobilisation beyond images of ‘A’s for Anarchy being graffiti’d onto banking institution walls and doors. It would be too easy to slip into a repetition of imagery that induces monotony devoid of meaning, but this is something the documentary only begins to show inclinations of towards its conclusion. The documentary salutes the inherent power of the filmmaking medium: constructing thematic concern and emotion through the combination of image and sound. In fact, here Demonstration adheres most closely to what Bill Nichols would term a “poetic documentary” – in the same vein as Koyaanisqatsi (1982) or Regen (1929), though perhaps not as strictly abstract. It expresses the spectacle of protesting through the combination of recurring visual motifs and the variously delicate and loud, booming Don Quixote musical overlay.
The myriad of interactions of the protestors with other figures, each other, their surroundings and objects is given a rhythmic quality by the opera music, which mostly supersedes any diegetic sound. In other instances, for example, only the rattle and hiss of a spray-can is heard through the music, set of course to the daring graffiti antics of protestors on screen. The protestors become ballerinas themselves, coming together and then apart again. We see them overturn rubbish containers, flee from police, march in solidarity with megaphones and placards in hand. The drama, the passion, their power as a unit against the austerity measures: it is all keenly felt.
However, it is the sense of mingled comedy/tragedy that Kossakovsky and his students impress with. The scenes of protest set to the fragile plucking of instruments gives an almost frolicking light-heartedness that is then utterly overturned by the abrupt return of locational sound like cold water to the face. And then come the menacing bang and thud of rubber bullets, or glass shattering, or yells and shouts. It is audacious, but wisely reminds us of protesting’s paradox – the intoxication of moving as a single unit with one’s peers for a great cause, but also its sobering realities in police brutality, injuries, chaos and often, disillusionment.
In following one aged protest veteran, Pere Cuadrado, for part of the film, the documentary expands on this notion of idealism in the face of confronting reality. He embodies the documentary’s very own Don Quixote in his self-sacrifice for the anti-austerity strikes and in his ferocious anti-capitalist sentiment. The years have not seemed to wear him down: at one point, he throws himself down in front of a convoy of oncoming police vans. Other, younger protestors rush to help him up even as others scatter before the vans. Later, an ambulance official asks him, “Did you fall?” “No,” he replies stubbornly, “I lay down on purpose.” We get a sense of his foolhardy idealism, but also his vehement dedication to the cause – something which uplifts, rather than condescends, in our times of growing political jadedness.
Overall, Demonstration neither condemns nor endorses, but rather demonstrates the innate emotional duality of the act of protest. Its strength lies in that depiction, reaching beyond the mesmeric quality of its “film-ballet” cinematographic achievement to give us something more substantial to chew on.