Between 2005 and 2008, Catalan anti-capitalist activist Enric Duran took out loans from 39 different banks amounting to almost half a million Euros, never planning to repay the debts. Instead, he used the money to support various social projects and oppositional causes. (More specific details are usually not mentioned, presumably to protect the recipients.) For Duran, this was an act of civil disobedience to expose the banking system’s unethical practices, and also to inspire others to resist the ongoing spiral of economic growth, inequality, and unsustainability.
After he had served two months pre-trial behind bars, Duran was released on bail in 2013. Facing several years of imprisonment in Spain, he then decided to flee the country and live underground – from where he supposedly plans to take further actions on a bigger scale.
Anna Giralt Gris’ feature doc Robin Bank, which world premiered in the Newcomers competition at Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in March, tells the story of Duran, often called «the Robin Hood of the banks». The director – whose previous short 44 messages from Catalonia (2018) had Laura Poitras on board as executive producer – takes a rather personal approach, explaining through voice-over narration her fascination with Duran’s project from she first heard of it. Nonetheless, the film doesn’t solely depict him as a modern Robin Hood but also as a windmill-fighting Don Quixote – a rebel with an idealistic, yet perhaps impossible, cause. Its core subject matter discusses what is legitimate as opposed to what is legal, and to what extent it is at all possible for individuals to create change. And if so, at what cost?
Controversial and uncompromising
In the film, Gris sets out to meet up with Duran, which she eventually does. Leading up to this rendezvous, the documentary shows her search for the fugitive, including encounters with his mother and various acquaintances, as well as the director’s encrypted online correspondence with Duran himself. Through his lawyer, she also gets access to an audio interview where Duran describes and explains his actions, illustrated in the film by several neat animation sequences. In the process, the director tries to understand who Duran is and what caused his radicalisation, portraying him as a highly intelligent, uncompromising, and partly controversial figure in the activist community. Gris has also gotten access to a rich amount of archive footage of Duran’s political involvement prior to the act of disobedience that put his name in the headlines.
At a conference in London where Duran was supposed to appear as a surprise speaker, Gris interviews British economist Ann Pettifor, who praises what Duran did as heroic. She thinks it is «very good in the sense that it raises people’s awareness», but stresses that what’s really needed to change the system is that we operate on an institutional level and put more pressure on politicians and financial institutions. But instead, we all take part in the system that exploits us.
Although it might not be Pettifor’s intention to sound overly pessimistic, her statement resonates with the films’ somewhat melancholy tone, underlining how hopeless and futile it might seem to do anything about this by ourselves. Admittedly, very few of us would be willing to go to the same lengths as Duran. Does that make him some sort of martyr in the fight against global capitalism – or a deluded extremist?
The final encounter
The meeting with Duran finally takes place on a boat he is staying on, still trying to reach London. This anticipated, climactic encounter almost feels like an anti-climax, with a sense of sadness now being very present in the film. This does not necessarily mean that Duran himself is unhappy with the choices he has made, despite the obvious challenges of living in constant hiding – even though the later years seem to have taken their toll on him, not least because of the pandemic. But it is also clear that he is an extraordinary, quite extreme person – which his actions, of course, also are, although they never harmed anyone. One cannot help finding it a bit sad to see him more or less alone and isolated in his continued struggle to make a difference.
In the end, the director chooses not to continue following Duran, apparently because of risky weather at sea. However, the ending also has a symbolic aspect, which Gris also addressed in a recent interview with Spanish online cultural magazine el Hype: He keeps moving forward, alone, while she does not dare to risk her life and freedom.
After leaving her protagonist, Gris sums up in the film’s final scene that although she thinks Duran’s suggestions are too radical, we need people like him, who can make us believe that another world is possible. This conclusion does sound a bit too simple or even naïve, yet it is difficult not to agree. Duran’s actions are most likely too extreme – and their consequences too severe – to inspire others to follow his example. Perhaps they are also too extreme to convince huge amounts of people of his views, but at least he shed some highly needed light on a destructive and exploitative system. Still, the saddest part is probably how little most of us are willing to act at all, thus making Pettifor’s call for collective action seem like a utopian dream.