Documentaries have a wondrous power to beam directly into our hearts and minds. Sure movies are, in their most basic form, just wonderfully produced stories but when those stories come with the intensity of real-life issues in the world, those stories are able to penetrate barriers and give us an understanding and empathy we might otherwise never experience.
Such is the case with the new documentary A La Calle (To The Streets) which chronicles the 2017 and still on-going protests in Venezuela. The mere name of that country has become a talking point for US politics. At times, it seems more like a caricature than a real place experiencing real problems that are literally killing people. Cutting through that facade often seems like an impossible task but it’s one that Nelson Navarrete and Maxx Caicedo are more than game for in this cutting new film.
The first hurdle is a large one: how exactly do you tackle what has happened to Venezuela? A mere 7 years ago this country was a thriving example to the whole world of how social programs could work and how prosperity could flourish anywhere. Cut to today and you see scenes of people digging through garbage and sewers for food. You see scenes of people collecting rain water and scrounging to buy what most would barely call a day’s food let alone a week’s worth.
How could this have happened? Much of this falls at the feet of “President” Nicolas Maduro, whose administration has denied the realities on the ground, bathed in corruption and been quick to silence and imprison those who would speak out against them. The quotes in his title above are very deliberate as this is essentially a democracy that has been tactically turned into a dictatorship.
The film does a great job of educating us through historians and cultural experts but this knowledge only goes so far. Knowing the 30,000 foot view helps but you can’t fully grasp this collapse without seeing it through the eyes of the ordinary citizens whose lives it has changed. Two of those citizens are Randal and Carla, whose story made a particular impact on this reviewer as they struggled to provide food and basic necessities for their young daughter. Consider also Randal’s cousin who’s life is constantly in danger because he cannot afford the insulin he needs to control his diabetes.
These stories are all too familiar for millions of Venezuelans. And when that kind of suffering not only goes unnoticed but is made worse by the government, what other choice do the people have but to go to the streets (a la Calle)? Those protests started in 2017 but have not let up even in 2020. It is in this narrative that we meet the most striking figures of the movement for justice and that we truly see the cost of standing up for what is right.
Consider the story of Nixon Leal who was imprisoned and tortured after being falsely accused of leading a terrorist cell (his real crime was speaking out). The film tells his painful tale through an animation sequence that lands particularly hard. Or consider Leopoldo Lopez, the political leader that has been imprisoned multiple times throughout the last 6 years on some of the most laughable charges you’re likely to see. The resolve Lopez shows in the face of being persecuted daily by the Maduro regime is sure to put all of us to shame.
Navarrete and Caicedo have done what all great documentaries need to do; they take a situation that seems too big to even begin to think about and explain it in a way that not only makes sense, but makes each viewer see a little bit of themselves in it. The emotional connections they make to the leaders and on-the-street members of this movement make us not only empathize but also want and need to get involved.
Documentaries like A La Calle are not easy to watch. It’s not easy to confront the darker sides of our shared humanity. And it’s especially not easy to see how simple it could be for all of us to arrive at such a desperate state. Authoritarianism has been on the rise for quite a while around the world. And when you see how quickly and silently it can happen to even a prosperous nation, it makes it all the more important for stories like this one to be told. As Maxx himself told me in our interview for the film, “This isn’t a Venezuela problem, it’s a world problem”. After seeing A La Calle, that point is more crystal clear than ever.
A La Calle is available to stream at DocNYC through November 29 - tickets on sale https://www.docnyc.net/tickets-and-passes/