The Plaça de Catalunya, a wide public space in the heart of Barcelona, is filled with people waving pro-independence flags and singing the Catalan national anthem. Carles Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia, and Inés Arrimadas, the leader of the opposition, address parliament ahead of a vote in favour of a referendum on independence. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, assures the nation the referendum will not be held. Meanwhile, police from across Spain, cheered on by locals chanting “go get them”, head to the region, where they use batons and rubber bullets against defiant voters.
Two Catalonias opens with a short montage of archival footage to give a brief overview of the events leading up to the Catalan parliamentary election on 21 December 2017, the premise for this feature-length documentary exploring the fascinating yet complex politics of the north-eastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula.
Depending on who you dare to ask, Catalonia is either a nation divided by separatists and unionists or a region of Spain divided by separatists and unionists. According to the Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió, the polling arm of the region’s autonomous administration, both support for and opposition to independence have remained steadily above 40% since October 2014, with minor shifts in public opinion tilting the balance in favour of one position or the other over time.
The political conflict in Catalonia has spilled over into everyday life, with the region’s unique culture, language and identity all weaponised by both sides of the struggle. But never are a nation’s divisions more evident than during an election campaign.
In the wake of the disputed referendum and subsequent unilateral declaration of independence in October 2017, the Spanish government broke the emergency glass on an as-then unused article of the Spanish constitution to sack the Catalan regional administration and call people to elect a new parliament on 21 December. Spanish filmmakers Álvaro Longoria and Gerardo Olivares followed the divisive campaign from Barcelona to Madrid to the heart of European democracy in Brussels to direct a feature-length documentary shining an international light on a hitherto internal conflict.
Released on Netflix in September 2018, Two Catalonias features a who’s who of Catalan and Spanish politics (or, more specifically, a who’s who and not in pre-trial detention at the time of recording), including Puigdemont, fighting the campaign from self-imposed exile in Brussels, Arrimadas, then the leader of the Catalan branch of the self-proclaimed liberal party Ciudadanos, and others as they battle to win the hearts of a torn electorate.
Running for nearly two hours, primarily in Spanish and Catalan with English subtitles, Two Catalonias shifts rapidly between the election campaign and the divisions within Catalonia leading up to it. Although some may find the speed with which the documentary switches between past and present a little difficult to follow, Longoria and Olivares have assembled a leading cast of politicians, journalists and historians to provide their own individual interpretations of events in the region, even if the presentation feels rushed or haphazard at times.
Watching Two Catalonias in 2020 can feel a little surreal for those who have followed subsequent events, and with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to forget just how far the political situation has advanced since that election, but at its release it was one of the most accessible resources to introduce viewers to the political tensions in a region with one of the largest pro-independence movements in the world. Indeed, even now its appeal as an informative record should not be dismissed purely based on the time which has elapsed since it first aired.
As a documentary, Two Catalonias sits uncomfortably between a historical showpiece and a witness to current events, not falling easily into either category. In their admiral quest to present a concise yet balanced perspective, the directors have glossed over or skipped many key historical events and more nuanced arguments on both sides of the debate. As such, viewers looking for an in-depth analysis of the political or historical arguments for and against independence for Catalonia may come to the end of the documentary wanting more – and the good news is that there is a wealth of material available for further reading or watching, if desired.
Two Catalonias is, however, a useful resource to introduce viewers whose interest may have been piqued by short news segments from the region to the complex and often bitter battle to decide the future of what is otherwise a diverse, vibrant and welcoming Mediterranean community.
Alan is a Liberal Democrat activist from Medway. He Tweets @alancollinspdb.