Zack Winestine's first-person documentary about caravanning 500 miles by bicycle to protest an International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank summit in Prague begins inauspiciously with three minutes of shaky digital video of a couch being set alight during a protest in the streets of Quebec City. The video is shot from a considerable distance, conveys very little in the way of drama or information, and has nothing to do with Winestine's travel to Prague. Thankfully, the majority of the Quebec City footage is reserved for the extras.
In September 2000, American filmmaker Zack Winestine flew to Hannover, Germany to join fifty self-stylized anarchists in a bicycle caravan to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, to protest against an IMF and World Bank summit. The caravan would function without money or leaders. Food, and presumably fuel for the support vehicles, would be donated or scavenged, and additional bikers would join along the way.
As the caravan sets out from Hannover, the most amazing early revelation is that Winestine is able to ride a bike and shoot video simultaneously. The second revelation is how accommodating the German police are. The group is able to caravan along back roads with little harassment from the police despite the fact that the group didn't seek a permit for the caravan and half the motorized support vehicles are not road legal. The police could have easily made things difficult for the group, but instead they go to great lengths to facilitate their movement by controlling traffic along the route.
Though Winestine provides scant information on the logistics of operating the caravan without cash, there is plenty of coverage of how group decisions were made by the leaderless anarchist collective. Much of the film documents the agonizing group decisionmaking process which required unanimous consent for all decisions. Every decision required hours of deliberation during which diversions into tangential meta-questions and exercises in muddled reasoning were common. To give but one example, in deciding whether to attempt to get the caravan's support vehicles licensed as requested by the police the discussion spun off into a debate about who decides what is legal with some of the group arguing that each person decides for him- or herself. A moment's reflection will show the error of this line of reasoning. While each person may ultimately decide for him- or herself whether to obey the law, the individual does not in fact decide what is legal. The legal system not the individual is the final arbiter of what is legal. These discussions are agonizing to watch for five minutes, to actually have had to sit through hours of such discussions nightly would be torture.
The net result of the requirement for unanimous consent was that some decisions simply were postponed until action was compelled by external forces. For example, the Czech border control authority met with the group while it was still well within Germany to request that the caravan make its way to a special crossing point for processing. The group had to decide whether to comply with this request or attempt to cross at the regular control point where if denied it would be in a better position to obstruct traffic. Despite prolonged and repetitive debate no decision was reached until the caravan ran into a police barricade intended to funnel it toward the special crossing. Finally, atop bikes and under pressure from the police, the group at last decided on a course of action.
What happened at the crossing and subsequently at the Prague protest is what passes for drama in this documentary, therefore, to avoid spoiling it let's leave it there and jump to the question that Winestine ends with: Did we create a new world, if just for a moment? If after seeing Caravan/Prague anyone concludes the answer is yes, that person would no doubt also be nonplussed by the discussion of what is legal above.
Protest is a legitimate political activity, and the idealism and dedication of protesters is typically commendable. Further, the IMF and the World Bank are certainly legitimate targets of protest. However, Caravan/Prague not only fails to make a persuasive case that anything was changed by the caravan or protest, it also portrays the protesters as pitifully disorganized and self-indulgent, though this is more a reflection on Winestine and a few others rather than on the anti-globalization movement as a whole.
There are good protest documentaries that cover similar ground in more appealing ways. For example, Jill Freidberg and Rick Rowley's This is What Democracy Looks Like (2000) which documents the protest of the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle through footage gathered by numerous sources. There are also documentaries which effectively present the argument against the world trade and development bodies' agenda such as Stephanie Black's Life and Debt (2001) that are worth checking out. Caravan/Prague lacks the scope, sophistication, and drama of these superior documentaries.
The disc preserves the 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the source DV material. Colors are washed out and there is plenty of video noise as well as shaky camera work, but nothing out of the ordinary for standard DV shot astride a bike in natural light conditions. There are forced English subtitles for some of the German dialogue.
The audio is presented in 2.0 stereo, but there is no noticeable separation between the channels. Most likely an identical audio stream is provided to both channels. The voiceover narration that Caravan/Prague predominately relies on is easily understood, though the audio made contemporaneously with the video is often difficult to make out.
Extras consist of an extended scene with the Czech border authority officer and a short film called
Quebec: At the Wall which provides poorly edited video footage of the Free Trade Areas of the Americas (FTAA) protest in Quebec City in 2002. This footage seems to go on and on without narration, but boils down to repetitive scenes of the police firing tear gas into the crowds of protesters. Finally, there are trailers for this and other DVDs distributed by Cinema Libre.
Caravan/Prague demonstrates that in the age of cheap, lightweight camcorders, anybody can make a documentary with very little effort simply by shooting massive amounts of material and then editing it down to an appropriate length. That doesn't mean everybody should. Caravan/Prague does no favors to its cause or its subjects. Viewers who are looking for an inspiring documentary covering similar ground are encouraged to see This is What Democracy Looks Like. While viewers looking to better understand the argument against world trade and development bodies like the WTO and World Bank are encouraged to see Life and Debt. Caravan/Prague can be safely missed.