The fight of ordinary people trying to make the best possible life for themselves often makes for better drama than anything that can come out of a screenplay. This is why some of the best documentaries ever made can leave such an emotional impact, providing a lens to the plight of the common man around the world, with some facing more egregious and disturbing levels of oppression than others. The reality of courage will always hit closer to home than any manufactured, artificial courage can muster, and the best nonfiction pieces capture the drama of that very real narrative.
The new HBO Max film A La Calle is not one of my favorite documentaries of all-time, but it’s still a very compelling depiction of a nation in turmoil and the sacrifices that come from more than a few common folks standing against a brutal government regime. The biggest ask you can have of a good documentary is to invest you in a topic that you don’t think would normally be of interest to you, and the governmental strife in Venezuela was not high on my list of insomniatic Wikipedia searches. But directors Nelson Navarrete and Maxx Caicedo have expertly assembled an sweeping amount of footage that crafts this moving portrait of the injustices happening on the streets of this South American country, side-by-side with those marching through those roadways trying to carve a path towards change.
A La Calle quite literally stands for “on the street” in Spanish, and most of the documentary is told from the perspective of the people who are giving up the most to help others. The film is half dedicated to setting up the timeline of how the Venezuelan people got to this point, carving a villainous portrayal out of President Nicolás Maduro, who clearly operates with the brutality of a dictator with no regard for the needs and desires of the lower class. Navarrete and Caicedo show how the democracy of the country slowly slipped away, as the voice of the masses is silenced through tactical political moves and violent military might. The other half of A La Calle follows the leaders of the resistance, chronicling years of their actions against Maduro and his allies to try and reinstall the basis of a free election that the country has lacked for the past decade.
The heroes of this doc come in many different forms, each doing their part to help each other and rally against Maduro. Leopoldo López and Nixon Leal are two of the individuals entrenched in the middle of the conflict, the former a political leader of the past who was jailed for rallying the masses to protest against the current regime, the latter an activist who was tortured and incarcerated for over 1,000 days. They are the figures that the people facing the tear gas, rubber bullets and firehoses look to for guidance, and their words throughout the doc convey the weight of their influence on the people. Some of the best sections of A La Calle play out in smaller sections, however, almost chopped off like vignettes that could be their own mini movies if given the chance. The best of these is a trip into the violence with the Green Cross UCV emergency services unit, tending to the injured fighters and sometimes literally carrying people out of harm’s way.
By diversifying the personalities that they follow, Navarrete and Caicedo capture a wider scope of the resisting groups. It feels like A La Calle doesn’t miss any of the key players, but it also doesn’t feel like it neglects the little guy. The filmmaking technique mostly just sticks the camera in front of the subjects and lets the action unfold, smartly letting the experts explain the systematic chokehold that Maduro’s government has on the people. They detail infuriating facts that have led to this point, like the lack of access to banks for a lower class already drowning in this current economy, or how Maduro makes it look like the rebels are the ones inciting the violence. It also captures how the president has stayed in power for so long, showing that he’s not without charisma. The film smartly just steps back and lets things play out, only experimenting with artistic flourishes in rare moments, like an animated depiction of prison torture that is effective but feels a little out of place.
A La Calle isn’t trying to reinvent the documentary format, but it’s a compelling watch, particularly for Americans who don’t have the bandwidth to follow international revolutions while they’re scrolling through their social media feeds. If the viewer can dedicate just under two hours to the stories unfolding through Navarrete and Caicedo’s direction, it’s a compelling enough film that may make some want to take action and find out if they can donate something to the cause of the people. At the very least, it does what all of the better documentaries do, shoving me out of my relatively cozy existence to experience something outside of my comfort zone. A La Calle’s careful approach to a subject matter that is clearly very important to the filmmakers and to an entire country pays dividends to the screening audience, and that extra passion goes a long way towards making this worthy of recommendation.