From 1993 to 1997 Gonzolo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada was the increasingly unpopular president of Bolivia. In 2002, with five years past and the Bolivian people forgetting the problems of his previous administration, Goni decided to run for office again but faced a hard, uphill battle. Enter the image consultants led by Bill Clinton’s spinmeister James Carville as they try to put a new face on an old politician in “Our Brand Is Crisis.”
The volatile South American political election scene meets the high-powered North American political campaign-marketing machine in this intriguing documentary by newbie filmmaker Rachel Boynton. It’s a three-way race for the Bolivian presidency with former chief executive, Goni, Manfred Reyes Villa, and indigenous candidate Evo Morales vying for the attention of the voters in the upcoming election. Among the three, only Goni has the means to bring in the big PR guns and hires the consulting firm of Greenberg, Carville and Shrum to spin doctor his campaign.
A phalanx of public relations reps arrives from the States and immediately begins dissecting the Lozada campaign strategy. They know that they are dealing with a man who was none to popular when he was voted out of office in 1997. Now, his current drive for office is under the banner that “things can get worse but they don’t have to.” The GCS folk realize that this simply won’t work and begin a study – using focus groups and other marketing tools – to come up with a new plan. The philosophy of the consultants is “we must brand crisis” if they are to get Goni back in office, setting in play a negative campaign that is designed to smear and denigrate the other candidates without Goni making any real promises to the Bolivian people.
The mix of the tumultuous Bolivian political scene with the cool-headedness of the GCS minions is an odd one, to be sure. On one side you have the volatility of the people and their passion for their candidates, a passion that can turn violent. On the other side there is the professional pollsters with their computers, charts, graphs, study groups and skills at media manipulation brought in to give Goni the edge he needs to win. This is a strange and troubling melding of different socio-political forces that make you wish that American marketing would just go away, instead of influencing a sovereign nation’s right to self-rule. It should not, I think helmer Boynton is saying, just be the one with the most money who can decide the election. The aftermath of Goni’s second time in office points this out in spades.
Our Brand Is Crisis” is an interesting look into the machinations of high-level American marketing firms, personified by GCS, as they work their slight of hand to make their client appealing in the eyes of the people. Goni is a very personable person but it is obvious, as the camera closes in on him, that he is more interested in his own gains than he is for the Bolivian people. When things don’t go right for the marketers, they bring in the big gun, James Carville himself, who enters the proceeds like a shark ready to feed.
Crisis” is not a likable doc but it is an eye-opener into Bolivian politics. It would be a good companion piece to pair with last year’s documentary about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Both films, in different ways, tell about US involvement, whether government or private enterprise, in attempting to influence the elections of a foreign nation. “Our Brand Is Crisis” scares me more though. I give it a B.Laura:
When former Bolivian president Gonzalez Sanchez de Lozada sought reelection during a time of economic crisis, he was not popular with the Bolivian people, who held his international globalization policies responsible for their loss of jobs. The man known as Goni hired American political consulting firm GCS (Greenberg, Carville, Shrum) who sold their methods to his team by telling them "Our Brand Is Crisis."
Director Rachel Boynton was familiar with American political consultants working election campaigns outside of the U.S. and seized an opportunity when she met Goni in Washington D.C. Aided by the presence of media star and Clinton campaign manager James Carville, who appears briefly mid-pic to sprinkle about some of his folky, racy witticisms, Boynton's film explores the inescapable link between American democracy and capitalism and why what seems to work for us can be so disastrous elsewhere.
She opens the film with tragic riots that happened in February of 2003 in the Bolivian capital of La Paz one year after GCS successfully helped pull off what no one thought would happen - Goni's reelection. Boynton asks GCS what went wrong. 'What went wrong during the Civil War? There are some things democracy can't fix' is her answer. But just what brand of democracy are we selling?
We see U.S. educated Goni and his press advisor Mauricio Balcazar not only allowing GCS intimate access to their strategy sessions, but taking them over. 'You're the experts' says Balcazar, who hears that their #1 priority is to begin negative ad campaigns against Goni's opponents and their second priority is to arrange a 'photo of the day' for the press. The team go after candidate Manfred Reyes Villa, campaigning on returning control of Bolivia's natural resources to its people, by slamming his multi-million dollar estate and former military background. GCS player Jeremy Rosner, a rationalizing idealist at the heart of this film, defines their goal as 'to get votes against Goni dispersed among as many candidates as possible.'
Even GCS seems a bit surprised when their guy wins. Then Goni institutes higher taxation on the poor and decides to export their natural gas through Chili, the one thing a majority of Bolivians are dead set against. When the going gets rough, Goni flies to the U.S. and his Veep, Carlos Mesa takes over.
After selling their candidate using marketing tools like the focus groups used in the U.S. for any product going to market, GCS observes 'Democracy depends on material results. If democracy can't yield benefits for the average person, the average person isn't really going to have that deep, philosophical commitment...' That would be our brand of democracy and "Our Brand Is Crisis" shows how groups like GCS don't study the impact of their outcomes, instead assuming what's good for the U.S. is good for all. Even scarier to contemplate is just how much United States citizens have grown accustomed to the packaging of their own political candidates.
"Out Brand Is Crisis" would make a good double bill with "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," another film about a South American country rich with natural resources, Venezuela with its oil and controversial president Hugo Chavez, that is plagued with American intervention.
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