The national movement in Catalonia has been one of the most divisive political upheavals that Spain has had to face. With the rise of nationalism across Europe (and in other parts of the world), places like Catalonia have begun to simmer more vigorously to assert rights of self-determination. In the case of Catalonia, much like in the recent referendum in Scotland, the population is split down the middle.
Director Alexandre Chartrand’s documentary Forbidden People (the original French title, Le peuple interdit, makes more sense) takes us to the fall of 2014, when the Catalonian leader Artur Mas, leading the nationalist movement in this most prosperous part of Spain, began what was going to be a large scale consultation to engage all Catalonians to come out and voice their demands to Madrid. Madrid has denied the people of Catalonia a right to hold a referendum by labelling such a move illegal. The largest mobilization of people was meant to turn this around.
Gathered in a stadium in late 2014, hundreds of thousands of citizens began chanting the slogan for independence, marking the day by making the tallest Castellers (human towers, a traditional sport of the Catalan people). The documentary follows personal accounts of journalists and activists who were at the forefront of this movement, to bring the right of self-determination to Catalonia.
The film dives right into this very grassroots call to action/vote. With hundreds of thousands of people participating, the idea was to create a human ‘V’ passing through two parallel streets in Barcelona; the ‘V’ obviously representing the right to ‘Vote’ for all people as the most inalienable right. Activists gather and explore what impact something similar would have in other world capitals like New York, Paris and London as we see a glimpse of what Barcelona looks like lined with the red and yellow colours of a free Catalan.
While this call to action is framed as a ‘participatory process,’ the end goal is to hold a referendum for independence. Madrid acts swiftly and declares this initiative illegal. This is backed by Spain’s constitutional court, which sees Mas deciding to stall his plans, at least for now.
In speaking to an audience, albeit briefly, Mas questions how Catalonia remains one of the few places where even the basic right to vote for their future is denied to them. He draws parallels with Quebec and Scotland, both of whom have in the past held unsuccessful referendums to separate from Canada and the UK respectively.
While Chartrand’s dynamic camerawork finds itself among crowds of people and following the rawness of a grassroots movement, barring the identified ‘episodic’ nature of the film, I wasn’t sure if the intention was to speak about the subject of the right to self-determination or merely document an event in the history of a movement. I craved the former throughout the length of the film.
People travel from all parts of the world to participate in the protest that shakes the ground under the Spanish government’s feet. And while the referendum has been declared illegal, the regional elections that follow result in close to 48% of the vote going to pro-independence parties, thus bolstering the claim that Catalonia’s right to vote for their future is indeed inalienable.
I am completely averse to identity politics. However, the suppression of ideas and rights is not going to wish them away. Any nation state has to engage with even the most extreme ideologies to ensure that freedom and democracy thrives. Any mass (people’s) movement cannot be wished away and certainly not ignored in hoping it’ll go away. Watch this engaging documentary that brings to us a people’s movement in action.