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How Ballet Casts Political Protests In A Fresh Light In Mesmerizing Doc ‘Demonstration’

How Ballet Casts Political Protests In A Fresh Light In Mesmerizing Doc 'Demonstration'

On March 29, 2012, as thousands of youth stormed the streets of Barcelona for a general strike against the nation’s austerity plans, Ludwig Minkus’ “Don Quixote” was performed at the Opera House. Filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky (“¡Vivan las Antipodas!”) threaded together these two seemingly unrelated events with a third: He sent 32 of his film students from his Master of Creative Documentary course at the Pompeu Fabra University to document the chaotic protests. The feature-length project assembled out of the extensive footage, titled “Demonstration,” has been cleverly set to excerpts of Minkus’ compositions, resulting in a ballet of moving images that simultaneously recounts the events while meditating on their significance.

In an emerging sub-genre of movies about modern activism that rely on crowd-sourced footage (see everything from the Cairo-set “The Square” to “99% — The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film”), “Demonstration” stands out for taking a shrewd artistic approach that fuses its fragments into an engaging whole. With a shrewd eye for melding images with their musical counterpoints, Kossakovsky and his students craft a montage of visuals that undulates in accordance with the rhythms of its soundtrack; on occasion, tidbits of sound trickle in, marrying the experiment with its inspiration.

The roaming collage is unapologetically transparent in its intentions, but it leads to a highly enjoyable treatment of its subject. Fast-paced by virtue of its breathtaking crowd scenes, “Demonstration” maintains a state of shock and wonder at the nature of the citizen revolt largely divorced from its specifics. (The same approach could’ve worked wonders in Tahrir Square.)

However, the flow of images doesn’t prevent the movie from developing a handful of recurring characters. The most prominent of these is a war veteran initially seen marching solo in the plaza to a scattered crowd and yelling to the wind (“Where are the bankers and stock brokers? They’re eating the workers!”). Gradually, he becomes a more dynamic figure, ultimately emerging as the symbolic hero as events unfold; while first heard offering measured arguments about the country’s unemployment problem, he later creates an alarming spectacle by lying down in the middle of the street in the path of incoming police vehicles and beckoning them forward. His radicalism leads to a delightfully human moment: A concerned officer, thinking the old man has fallen down, expresses concern for his health. “I’m fine,” he spits back, “but the rights of the people are not.”

Kossakovsky cuts between these enthralling moments and shots of the same activist, along with one of his peers, watching their exploits in a screening room months later. Here, he strikes a sobering note, recalling his experiences in wartime when bullets weren’t made of rubber; his intellectual justification lends a deeper meaning to the earlier antics that the musical element can’t possibly convey on its own.

Still, such theatricality is closely mirrored in the movie’s experimental form. Lecturing some of the younger onlookers about his mission, the camera swirls around him, turning the scene into a blur of colors, as if his vivid ideology has merged with the physical events. The suggestion takes on an even shrewder dimension with the movie’s insightful closing shot, in which bank employees hesitantly enter a graffiti-caked building after the bedlam has subsided.

The music lends a graceful quality to the chaos by playing against it with darkly ironic and often humorous results. Minkus’ score crescendos as police swarm toward unseemly groups, batons in hand, and fail to do much beyond stir things up even further; elsewhere, a helicopter playfully drifts in and out of an otherwise empty shot of the cloudless sky, as if mocking the authorities’ finicky response.

Extending beyond the aggressive component of the riots, the students’ footage also features a meta-quality in the bountiful shots of activists recording the events around them. The cameras take on a starring role. It’s here that “Demonstration” turns into a thoughtful celebration of its ability to exist. Beyond the particularities fueling the mayhem, the project explores the possibilities of the recorded act as an act of self-empowerment (the idea echoes the early revolutionary theories of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, and there’s no doubting that “The Man With the Movie Camera” director would’ve loved what Kossakovsky has achieved here).

Though unquestionably fun to pull apart, however, “Demonstration” establishes its fairly rudimentary concept early on (considering the volume of footage that must have been available, its 70-minute running time is a particularly impressive feat). The broader implications of relationship between the “Don Quixote” score and and the revolutionary spirit remains up for debate: Are the activists fighting windmills or has the government become lost in capitalist fantasies? For all the dexterity of its execution, “Demonstration” stops short of assembling its pieces into a satisfying whole. But even if the gimmick runs its course before the movie’s end, it maintains the vitality of the music by showing how the protestors skillfully dance to their own tune.

Criticwire Grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having premiered at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, “Demonstration” is likely to remain on the festival circuit for the next year, surfacing at niche-oriented festivals interested in its subject matter or avant-garde aspects. Theatrical prospects are slim, though it could wind up in a limited release at independent venues with local audiences hip to its topic.

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