Saturday, August 25, 2007


From the fringes of the documentary programme, Castells is a film about the old Catalan tradition of human towers. Basically, you get a group of people together and climb on top of one another as high as you can.

There's more to it than that, of course - aside from being a cultural tradition (which, obviously, is a big deal in itself for an area like Catalonia), it's a sporting contest, with points depending on the height of your tower, and the difficulty of the structure. Oh, and once you've built your really high tower, you get a small child to climb to the top. Nets? What nets? That's what the crowd's for.

Honestly. See for yourself.

Gereon Wetzel's film isn't really about the phenomenon of castells as such. It's about Colla Joves, the team in the above clip. In fact, the same event appears prominently in the film. And yes, if you were wondering, that huge banner in the background does say "Catalonia is not Spain." In English.

The film gets off to a slow start, as it meanders around the team instead of doing more orthodox scene-setting. We don't get any explanations of where this tradition came from; for the participants, it's clearly a competitive sport first and foremost. Nobody is actually interviewed about the sport until an hour or so into the film. It takes a while to figure out that Wetzel is more interested in the dynamics of the team rather than in the castells themselves, which you'd expect to be more obviously interesting.

But once the film hits its stride, it works nicely. The team are amateurs, and there's a remarkably wide range of people in the squad, from veterans down to, literally, children. Some of the climbers politely wonder whether they might be a little too relaxed about the admission requirements - should there really be a guy down there at the base clutching a six pack of beer under one arm? Parents sulk that their children don't get picked for the squad. And most worrying of all, the little girl who's their best climber has got stage fright, after figuring out that this "climbing up to three stories high and then plummetting to the ground" business might be, you know, kind of dangerous. Her concerns are met with an exasperated lack of sympathy - the little brat needs to stop being such a wimp and get climbing.

The film could use a little bit of explicit narration at points, and the "following a team through to a competition final" format has possibly been over-used in documentaries over the last few years. But as a neat example of the universality of inter-team squabbling, combined with the remarkable spectacle of the sport, it's a worthwhile film.