‘Politics: an Instruction Manual’ ('Politica: Manual de Instrucciones’): Film Review

Courtesy of Mediapro
Making good political documentaries: an instruction manual.

Fernando Leon’s fly-on-the-wall doc reveals the inner workings of the Spanish collective that helped break the mold of Spanish politics.

Spain will go to the polls again at the end of June 2016, a second attempt after a December election which produced no clear winner. Perhaps the main reason for that is that the country’s established two-party order has been broken up by a new left-wing collective called Podemos (We Can), which has existed for just over two years.

For more than half that time, director Fernando Leon (Mondays in the Sun, A Perfect Day) has been following Podemos around with a camera: the result is the engrossing Politics: an Instruction Manual, a document of interest to anyone seeking to learn about the big political shakeups in southern Europe following the global financial crisis -- as well as, the title suggests with a wink, an enabling ‘how-to’ manual for anyone thinking of changing the world. As such, this is one political docu which would make inspiring viewing for young people who feel that the current system isn’t speaking to them, i.e. most young people.

There’s no tradition of transparency in Spanish politics: potential flies on the wall are zapped before they’ve even entered the building, meaning that the film’s very existence is noteworthy. The title suggests a how-to guide about setting up a political party, and that’s pretty much what it looks like, supporting the view of Podemos as a party which arose spontaneously from the streets following Spain’s anti-austerity protests of 2011. This is probably the Spanish party that Bernie Sanders likes best, and this is a film that Bernie Sanders would like.

Podemos, Manual suggests, is a political party with nothing to hide. Though it’s clear throughout that Leon is sympathetic to the cause, it’s far from being propaganda, at least not directly: it neither shirks the party’s problems and failures (including financial scandals, multiple image issues and infighting) nor presents its members as anything other than fallible humans. (On the other hand, neither will its release harm their election prospects later this month.)

Presented as basically a bunch of regular guys and gals with a big idea, the drivers of the Podemos train are the crew of left-wing political scientists who spotted that there were millions of Spaniards who were fed up of being treated as ‘merchandise’ by the system and decided to go for it. Leon trails them from their constituent assembly, via their choice of leader following some heavy bickering, to Latin America, from where they have controversially imported some of their ideas, to the university circuit in the US. On they go, from Spain’s municipal elections (success) to the Catalan elections (disaster) and finally to last December’s general elections (success, kind of). Most of this journey is conducted under the gaze of an aggressively anti-Podemos Spanish media, and the film is lucid on the struggles faced by its leader, Pablo Iglesias, to unlearn the language of the lecture hall and to exchange it for that of prime-time TV.

There are weeks in which nothing happens and weeks in which decades happen,” says Iglesias in the rise of his party, quoting a “bald Russian”. Inevitably that’s what Manual feels like. Edited down to about 0.4% of the 500 hours of Leon’s shot footage, it’s all whirlwind stuff - a kind of political counterpart to Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, about a whole other new kid on the block. Commentary is supplied by the participants, all of whom come across as articulate, thoughtful and with interesting things to say, even if you don’t agree. Particularly engrossing is the fearsomely articulate political strategist Inigo Errejon (a man who is all the more terrifying because he looks about twelve).

Many in Europe don’t agree with what Podemos say, and there are a couple of jokes relating to the media’s attempts to turn them into monsters. By contrast, in Manual their leader Iglesias, who has unfortunately opened the door to lots of older-guy ponytails in Spain, comes over as preternaturally level-headed, humble, calm and good-humored, given the political maelstrom into which he’s launched himself. But to have come so far so quickly, there’s surely at the very least a solid streak of ruthlessness in him and his team: surely they are less amiably bumbling than Leon sometimes makes them seem. Indeed, the strategies involved in “making taxi drivers like you’, in the words of Greek politico Alexis Tsipras, are amongst the film most thought-provoking: politics Errejon reminds us, is “a struggle for the meaning of words”.

On similar lines is Carolina Besanca’s assertion that the media’s devotion to telling the story of who’s winning (as in the current US candidacy battles) is calculated to deviate attention from the substance of what the candidates are actually saying. This is typical of the film’s regular incursions into raw left-wing ideology, but it’s these moments which are its true backbone.

Because this is not one of those faux political docus which lets you into the highly-edited private lives of its characters: it truly is, again per title, a film about doing politics. There’s nothing about the private lives of any of them, unless Besanca’s baby counts -- she carries it everywhere, even into Spain’s Chamber of Deputies. So one shot, of Pablo Iglesias sitting there rather awkwardly with some unnamed dog on his lap, is a nice, knowing wink at the political docu genre which is typical of Manual's wry, self-knowing tone. It’s a tone which Leon’s artistry takes right down to the details: when, wandering the streets of New York, Iglesias wonders “don’t the plants die in cold like this?” there’s the suspicion that he’s talking not about plants, but about his party.

Production company: Mediapro, Reposado
Cast: Pablo Iglesias, Inigo Errejon, Juan Carlos Monedero, Carolina Bescansa
Director, screenwriter: Fernando Leon de Aranoa
Producers: Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Jaume Roures
Executive producers: Patricia de Muns, Javier Mendez
Director of photography: Jordi Abusada
Editor: Yago Muniz
Sales: Mediapro