Pere Cuadrado is not having a good time. He got roughed up a bit the day before in Madrid’s General Strike, and he’s got the bruises to prove it. Pere seems like the sort who’s always mad about something, but in being a part of the General Strike, he’s not alone. In Demonstration, 33 directors head out into the streets of Madrid on March 29, 2012 and capture a huge day of protest called upon by two of Spain’s leading unions about the government’s proposed tax increases and budget cuts. Is it possible that so many eyes can make sense of the outrage and violence of several hundred thousand people in the streets of one Spanish city? That’s tough to say.
Victor Kossakovsky is the lead director here, but it’s his 32 Masters of Creative Documentary students at the Pompeu Fabra University that fan out into Madrid on March 29, 2012 to capture the loud, frantic, violent and massive General Strike that took place that Thursday. The concept of 32 directors is interesting, but don’t confuses this with the modern paradigm-breaker Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, because it’s not telling different stories about the same subject. Rather, it’s capturing the subject from multiple points of view, and while there’s a coherent style throughout, no one filmmaker leaves their own mark.
To me, saying that the film has 32 directors means that no matter how it’s edited, one should be able to instantly tell when one director’s portion ends and the other begins. The footage all captures the usual chanting, marching, and violence of the protest, but the only time I noticed a distinct voice at work was once scene where we follow the media coverage and watch as all the cameras and camera-people jockeying for different angles and vantage points. It’s a meta moment, and one of the few times that the film seems to be doing or saying something beyond capturing the chaos.
Adding another bizarre layer to the film is the score to the Ludwig Minkus ballet Don Quixote, which is played throughout and over top of all the scenes of people marching and scuffling with police. According to Demonstration, the performance of Don Quixote at the Opera House was the only thing open during the protest, creating an unusual intersection of high art and incendiary activism. Whether by design or by accident, many of the musical cues line up in sometimes beautiful and/or poignant ways, like when one protester in a V for Vendetta mask looks like he’s conducting. It’s kind of like how Dark Side of the Moon lines up with The Wizard of Oz, two things so desperately different coming together to create something unique.
At certain points, Demonstration cuts away entirely to a screening room somewhere as Pere and another protester, Ester Quintana, watch the film and give their reactions. The purpose of the cut-aways is never revealed, and they never offer anything more insightful than “Ohs” and “Ahs” really, so why not let the action on the street speak for itself? The film’s only 90 minutes or so, and with 32 crews running around, there has to more than enough footage of angry people yelling, marching and in some cases, causing property damage.
With Pere and Ester, it feels like Kossakovsky is doubting his own grand ideas by trying to include a couple of “characters” for the general audience to get behind. The thing is though, we never really learn what takes Pere out into the street, and Ester’s story isn’t revealed until late in the film. Basically, she’s injured by the police and the whole thing is captured in the background of one of the shoots, which is both sad and symptomatic of the police response, but it feels like it’s an introduction to a bigger conversation that Kossakovsky doesn’t want to have. He might be saying that the camera captures hundreds of stories that never get told, but that’s my best guess as to what it is he’s trying to say by working up to Ester’s story for 75 minutes.
Demonstration has some interesting ambitions, and it does succeed at some of them, but I don’t think that it’s the populist film about a populist movement that it wants to be. It seems to be the project of one man with a vision, rather than something more collaborative, which is how it sounds in the film’s description. If it wants to be a fly-on-the-wall kind of record of the day, okay. If it wants to show the larger event through the point of view of a few specific “actors,” okay. If it wants to be weird and post-modern but putting a massive protest to a ballets soundtrack, okay. But in the end, it’s hard to be all those things at once, and there are times when Demonstration has a very hard time of it indeed.