‘The Divide’ (‘La Grieta’): Film Review

Courtesy of La Pizarra Produce
A punchy, touching protest.

Alberto Garcia Ortiz and Irene Yague’s insider look at what eviction from your home feels like took two awards at Madrid’s recent documentary fest.

“Can you expect us,” wonders one of the characters of The Divide after having been thrown out of her home, ”to believe in God?” Both a pointed critique of a sociopolitical issue and a celebration of popular resistance to it, Alberto Garcia Ortiz and Irene Yague’s documentary could easily have been little more than TV reportage — but because of the irrepressible nature of the people involved and the directors’ intimacy with them, the film ends up being far more.

Local in subject but wide-ranging in scope, this latest in a slew of recent Spanish documentaries to tackle the human consequences of raw capitalism deserves fest exposure for its surprisingly upbeat message.

The Divide could have taken many different paths, and some viewers will feel frustrated at why it doesn’t focus more on the capitalist political machinations that have created the social divisions referenced by the title, especially since the documentary seems to be set up that way at the start. Shot over five years, the film establishes its ideological stance from the very first frame, with a quote from the Spanish mythical criminal turned lawyer El Lute: “I’m as free as the markets will let me be.” Madrid’s local government has taken advantage of the financial crash to snap up public housing and sell it to investment funds. Early on in The Divide, we witness a protest at a Madrid real estate fair where protesters point out that the evictions are leading to suicides that aren’t actually suicides but, from a different perspective, murder.

Rather than the root causes, it’s the human consequences of all this that The Divide focuses on. Shortly to be thrown out of her home in the southern Madrid barrio of Villaverde, Dolores, known to her friends as “KIng Konga” for reasons viewers will have to work out for themselves, takes her case to a friendly judge and gets a temporary reprieve; there’s something wrong about the fact that friends and neighbors feel compelled to celebrate so hard the mere fact that Dolores and family have a roof over their heads for a few weeks more. But her friend and neighbor Isabel is not so lucky: Despite protests and, later on, even some TV exposure, she meets a different, less sympathetic judge, suggesting that justice depends on who’s dispensing it. “Justice,” as one forthright piece of neighborhood graffiti puts it, “is disgusting.”

The scenes of the actual eviction, with five trucks rolling up and police in riot gear breaking into the house after the pathetic attempts of family and friends to protect it, are authentically heart-stopping fare. Isabel is out on the streets and that, as far as the state's concerned, is the end of it — but the story continues.

The Divide features some scenes of too-easy symbolism, as with shots of Benigno’s caged birds, and the pacing is sometimes off — but the fact that the evictions happen to be taking place on “Unanimity Road” is just perfect in a film about solidarity. There’s the sense that its subjects have been guided by the directors toward discussing certain things for the sake of the narrative, but the result rarely feels contrived, and there are several moments of touching human detail, as when Isabel sprays perfume on Dolores so that, despite all the humiliations, "at least we smell nice.” It’s a lovely moment about the strange ways in which human dignity will always come through.

Ortiz and Yague eschew the talking-heads approach, preferring to set up cameras and record, so that the stories tell themselves and preachiness is avoided. As characters, these are people you’d want to spend time with — quick-witted, straight-talking, understandably emotional and sometimes hilarious. Some of the best scenes involve the children, who are as ever the main victims. In a subtle and poetic reference to the transience of things (one that to be fair may well have been scripted), Isabel’s son Christian innocently asks his big sister, “Can you paint water?” Later on, in a powerful call to the conscience, another child, unaware the cameras are there, sobs uncontrollably, “I want my home.”

But despite the misery, The Divide is ultimately positive, because it’s about people pulling together, whether politically, as in the grassroots anti-eviction protest group that has sprung up, or personally, as friends and neighbors gather to offer support and take action. The real clue is in the title; this is a film about the rapidly widening international divide between the haves and have-nots. It's a divide that might be getting wider and wider in the interests of the few, but they'll have to deal with the human spirit first.

Production companies: La Pizarra Produce
Cast: Dolores Ferrer Agudo, Nerea Gonzalez Ferrer, Cristian Gonzalez Ferrer, Isabel Rodriguez
Directors, screenwriters: Irene Yague, Alberto Garcia Ortiz
Producers: Alberto Garcia Ortiz, Irene Yague
Director of photography: Alberto Garcia Ortiz
Editors: Alberto Garcia Ortiz, Irene Yague
Composer: El Luisito
Sales: La Pizarra Produce

78 minutes