It’s been an undoubtedly bizarre year in politics, and its effect in American culture is unavoidable and obvious, particularly in cinema. It’s not unusual that films which carry any sort of political themes play a larger role in the conversation whenever there is political uncertainty. What is unusual, however, is how an already highly politicized culture has become even more so to an extreme degree since our last presidential election. Even films with no political ambitions are being politicized. And while an abundance of debate and conversation is not inherently bad, there is a danger of losing focus in distinguishing between the conversations worth having and the ones that are not. 2016’s most commercially successful films were marketed, released, and were received in a way that was contextualized within our current contentious political framework. Yet it seems natural that audiences are eager to give films some extra political weight and see their value not just as pieces of art but as documents of truth.
Spearheading this trend is a documentary that’s discreetly making its way through the international festival scene, picking up a couple of awards on the way. It’s now slowly peeking its head around the U.S. While it's neither a survey on institutional racism in America nor a look at the European refugee crisis, it is still of great importance and I'd even dare to say just as timely. Ada for Mayor (or Alcaldessa, its original title) is a documentary about Ada Colau, Barcelona’s first female mayor, and her transition from a community activist into a political leader. The film is about the strenuous and compromising process of becoming a public figure in politics and how one comes to terms with palpable power. I was lucky enough to catch an informal screening of the film at the Starr Bar in Brooklyn this past February hosted by the New York branch of the German left-leaning non-profit, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. But on March 26th, Ada for Mayor had a more official North American premiere at the Houston Latino Film Festival. And for a year of timely films, Ada for Mayor’s American arrival could not be more fitting.
Ada for Mayor opens with armored police knocking down a front door of an apartment as a woman watches calmly from the kitchen. The door falls down effortlessly and the two helmeted officers break in. “Good morning!” the woman greets them with irony. It might be a humorous moment, but what follows is a deeply heartbreaking opening montage sequence setting up the context of a violent crisis. We’re in Spain, sometime shortly after the world financial collapse of 2007/08, right when the crisis began to take its global toll. In Europe, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal were particularly devastated by a mortgage crisis that echoed the U.S’s own housing bubble. This led to mass foreclosures throughout Spain and by 2010, about 1.4 million Spaniards were in danger of losing their homes. Catalan filmmaker Pau Faus begins his documentary intercutting footage of violent evictions, street protests, and people literally being dragged out of their homes, providing context and putting together a disturbing but powerful introduction.
Enter Ada Colau, the spokesperson for the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH), an organization that works to help victims of the devastating mortgage crisis. She makes some appearances in local news station. She’s articulate, a good public speaker—quick with adept responses and clever with pungent sound bites. On one hand, Colau is incredibly charismatic and immediately likable, and on the other, she’s utterly ordinary. And this contradiction is precisely what Faus so brilliantly captures in his documentary—she is both an ordinary Barcelonan and a leader with a powerful voice. This became key in her unprecedented win in the 2013 mayoral election in Barcelona, and Faus, who has personally known Colau from his days working with PAH, noticed this early on.
The film’s level of intimate access would not have been possible without the mutual trust and familiarity between Colau and Faus. It includes some touching “video confessionals” where Colau sits in front of a black backdrop, framed in close-up, talking directly to Faus and the trust is heartwarmingly palpable. Faus contrasts this with her struggles in her public persona, revealing moments where she’s at her best and moments where she’s painfully uncomfortable. There’s a remarkable moment where Colau stands next to the other candidates including Xavier Trias, the incumbent mayor. It’s obvious she’s uncomfortable, the other candidates joke around, relaxed and used to the cameras. She eventually excuses herself and leaves the frame. The moment is so painfully awkward it feels like something out of Parks and Recreation, a show that found much of its humor in the discomfit between private personality and public service and incidentally, first aired on NBC during the aftermath of the ’08 financial crisis.
Ada for Mayor can be described as a candid fly-on-the-wall documentary, a là D. A. Pennebaker. And as a fairly traditional campaign film, it’s easy to make connections with films like The War Room or Primary. However, the film is just too crafty to characterize it simply as vérité. One of Alcaldessa’s greatest feats is how it builds up a clear narrative, thoughtfully constructed and cleverly edited.
But at its core, Ada for Mayor is the story of someone coming to terms with power and that is what makes the film incredibly suitable for our times. When people talked about the Occupy Wall Street movement, they talked about its failures, even if it had some victories (for example, popularizing the concept of the 99% vs the 1% shed a light on the outrageous income inequality in this country). People would criticize the movement for not translating into what Colau would refer as “institutional politics.” Yet OWS was undoubtedly a political movement and was in some ways effective, albeit short lived. Now, with the ultra-successful Women’s March where about 475,000 people gathered in Washington D.C and millions around the country marched in solidarity for women’s rights, there is an urgency to not repeat the missteps of OWS. How do activists translate those numbers into political capital? But the question should not just center on how to bridge the gap between protest and community organizing into America’s city halls, state legislature and Congress. Perhaps the real question is whether or not such process into “institutional politics” is even desirable. Shouldn’t we allow activists to do their job and politicians do theirs? Would electoral politics jeopardize the core mission of resistance and anti-establishment movement today? Or, quite bluntly, is there even such a thing as an anti-establishment politician or is that not in itself an oxymoron?
These are crucial questions. And for many in Barcelona, these questions are still uncertain so perhaps we should not be too quick to answer. But Faus’ film does not ignore these contradictions: we see Colau struggle with this, particularly in a sequence where her PR team argues whether her face should be on the ballot (it is common in Spanish elections to have a party logo or image in the ballot). We see heated arguments among campaign officials: some think that her face on the ballot is a winning strategy since she has a recognizable and likable face, but some staffers disagree and argue that by using her face they could be accused of a cult of personality which goes against the party’s own ideological platform. These are essential internal questions that do not have simple answers. Winning an election is already a difficult ambition, but uniting the Left seems near to impossible. We already know progress is slow and it’s easy to lose faith along the way. But there are small victories to celebrate and Ada for Mayor shows us evidence that such feats are most definitely worth the fight.