Protests have been in the air. In the news. On the street. A La Calle, Maxx Caicedo and Nelson G. Navarrete’s documentary about the opposition movement trying to free Venezuela from the rule of the elected yet increasingly authoritarian Nicolás Maduro, buzzes with the same desperate need flooding our streets for racial justice amid a pandemic and the same uncertain danger emanating from handheld footage of the capitol insurrection. Americans inundated with newsreels and social media posts over the last few years of extremists driving cars into crowds, journalists losing eyes to cops’ rubber bullets and politicians under threat from hateful mobs are prepared for the ideas and images A La Calle has to offer. So too are those around the world for whom the fight for freedom is a constant and present reality. What might seem most foreign is the optimism. The filmmakers’ intimate, on-the-ground access to the protests and players of the Venezuelan presidential crisis is the best asset they’ve got, and it makes for a thoroughly informative cross-section of the country’s current struggles.
Unevenly chronological and entrenched in personal experience, A La Calle immerses us in a country stricken by famine. An oil-dependent economic bust, handled like Donald Trump’s “see no evil” stance towards the COVID pandemic, sees Venezuela hurting while international aid is explicitly denied. Massive lines crowd the darkened morning distribution of government-issued supplies. A man wearing a jewel earring and a nice henley crouches to eat rice out of the trash. Buying a single plastic bag of basic groceries requires another, fuller plastic bag of hyperinflated bolívars. Cheekbones stand out on basically every gaunt face we encounter—like the garbageman/barber we meet working all day trying to feed his young child—their sharp immediacy cutting through the high-level commentary and GDP percentages of dry talking heads. A man, coming up for air after looking for food in a stream of human waste, explains that he’s a high school graduate.
It’s not suffering or poverty porn—it’s a close look at a crisis, one that tried to lead to political change. But a party-flipping legislative election was effectively nullified by the outgoing party, which ignored the popular mandate and stuffed the court with Maduro supporters—allowing him to run the country by decree after that particular check was unbalanced. It’s a fear some anticipated after Trump’s loss, fulfilled and running rampant on a people literally starving for new leadership.
As Caicedo and Navarrete track the movement from before the impotent election to the here-and-now, campaign events become protests for a return to democracy. While 2017 saw a renewal of daily protests, unrest has followed Maduro since his election in 2014. The doc can get a little fuzzy with its timeline when history starts repeating itself, but its narrative is always best when it’s more dependent on the people than the history lesson.
Footage of and interviews with Leopoldo López, an opposition leader and political prisoner (tortured for allegedly using subliminal messages to sow dissent, which should give you the basic idea of the drummed-up charges against him), is striking and vital. He wades through a shoulder-to-shoulder sea of cheers, ascending a statue to deliver his megaphoned dictates. His is the handsome, sleeve-rolling, man-of-the-people kind of politician, and we’re brought in as closely as that description dictates. Whether through tight framing, recorded video call interviews or footage posted to social media from his prison cell, López is a populist filmed with populist tactics.
The same style sets recently freed protester-turned-prisoner Nixon Leal and interim President Juan Guaidó apart from Maduro, who’s seen in state-released press conferences and the film’s sole foray to the side of the ruling party. This section, which talks to the individuals still rooting for Maduro as the heir to Hugo Chávez, is its aisle-crossing gesture—the directorial equivalent of its protestors’ appeals to the soldiers opposing them: They are all Venezuelans. All suffering. Maduro’s supporters rally for him (but mostly Chávez, their signs and slogans contrasting this stuck-in-the-past older demographic with the student-led protest movement) as he reassures—and sings!—on-stage. There’s no dot-connecting among them: A familiarly willful ignorance of cause and effect. It’s enough to make you furious when juxtaposed with the graphic, tragic repercussions of Maduro’s military violently responding to peaceful gatherings. We see plenty of tear gas fly and hear the dreaded pop-pop-pops that scatter protesters, but we only see one bloodied, canister-stricken body being fruitlessly jostled by CPR. It’s more than enough.
There’s an obviousness to the morality of the political divide here that could feel a little inelegant in a piece of fiction. But more than a hundred protesters were killed, with thousands arrested. At times, the doc’s use of music or its sequencing of a few particular shots can rub our noses in what we’re already painfully aware of. But it’s hard to say a political documentary could ever be too black-and-white after living through an administration that only sought power, money and the death of its people. So it’s forgivable when A La Calle sometimes draws attention to itself as a piece of filmmaking. In its rarest moments, when its idealism is fulfilled and soldiers cross the line to join the people they’ve always been a part of—only somewhat undermined by a final title card—it’s a moving (and, from a U.S. perspective, staggering) display proving that the indoctrinated are not beyond reach…at least not after a certain level of equalizing hardship. But most often, when it simply allows us to join the pulsing masses and empathize, eye-level, with the plights of the individuals that comprise them, A La Calle captures the power of the people.
Director: Maxx Caicedo, Nelson G. Navarrete
Release Date: September 15, 2021 (HBO Max)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.