Robin Clifford Laura Clifford
"You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised." Gil Scott Heron
"I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people."
On 12 April 2002 the commanding generals of the Venezuelan army forcibly kidnapped popularly elected president Hugo Chavez and proclaimed, on privately held opposition television and radio stations, that the controversial leader had resigned. The “transition” government, led by business entrepreneur Pedro Carmona, forced the members of Chavez’s legitimate cabinet to go into hiding, putting the “for the people” economic reform policies in jeopardy. Irish documentary filmmakers, Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain, happened to have their cameras rolling during this momentous event in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
The title of this liberal document is from the Gil Scott Heron song and this little fact should tell the viewer that the documentarians are wearing their hearts prominently on their sleeves. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is the product of fortuitous timing for the filmmakers. Bartley, O’Briain and crew had come to Venezuela some months before the fateful coup to film a documentary about President Hugo Chavez and his liberal, even revolutionary reforms for the country’s huge poverty class.
In Venezuela, the fourth largest oil-exporting nation in the world and number three supplier to the US, the tiny minority of the “haves” garnered all the wealth generated by the commodity while the “have not” masses struggled for existence. Chavez, who had been involved in two attempted coups against the big business-backed government during the ‘90’s, went the political route and won a landside victory in his run for president in 1998. Chavez instituted major reforms including a new constitution, an enhanced school education program, school food programs (providing breakfast and lunch for over a million new students) and economic opportunities for the masses. His promise to reform the oil industry in Venezuela was met with applause by the working classes and castigation by the country’s petrol-elite.
As the tensions between Chavez and his government and the US-backed opposition fermented, Bartley and O’Briain were right there with their cameras when the military leaders threatened to bombard the presidential palace unless Chavez surrendered to them. To save unnecessary loss of life and injury the president did as requested and the Pedro Carmona was installed as the new leader of the interim government. This happened on 12 April 2002.
Over the course of the next three days, the new leadership attempted to solidify its hold on the Venezuelan government. But, the presidential guard, loyal to the charismatic Chavez, banded together to retake the palace and bring back the members of the Chavez cabinet, though nothing was know about the fate of Chavez. One of the first actions, to keep the Chavez government in power, was to swear in a temporary president to take the reigns of command. Meanwhile, the people had taken to the streets and converged on the palace, demanding Chavez be reinstated. The presidential guard convinced the ranks and junior officers in the army to help return the democratically elected Chavez to office. Miraculously, Chavez was not harmed by his captors and was eventually freed. The coup and its overthrow were over by 14 April.
The appeal of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is going to depend on your political orientation. For an old leftist like me, the memories of the CIA’s involvement in Chile and other covert operations make me believe that the Central Intelligence Agency had a direct hand in the attempted overthrow. The filmmakers allude, more than state outright, that the US has its fingers in the Venezuelan political pie and backed the opposition leaders to protect the supply of oil to the United States. Such duplicity is not a thing of the past and Henry Kissinger’s quote in the beginning of this review is part and parcel with the current resurgence of jingo politics under George W. Bush.
The more right wing viewer will take exception to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” declaring it left wing propaganda. It is true that Chavez has visited such troublemaking individuals as Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi of Libya, pointing to the Venezuelan president as being in the pocket of terrorists. He even brokered a discount oil deal for Cuba (which lost Venezuela hundreds of millions of dollars.) Research of Venezuelan politics of recent years, the changes instituted by the Chavez regime and the popular support for the man shows that he has more concern for his people than he does for the oil interests. (One amusing method to get closer to the people was the establishment of a weekly call-in television program, “Alo Presidente!” where the people can make requests directly to their leader – and they do.)
Bartley and O’Briain can be accused of being biased about their subject, Chavez, but show me a documentary film, especially one by liberal filmmakers steeped in a struggling country’s politics, that does not take sides. Consider “The Fog of War,” which essentially whitewashes Robert McNamara’s sometime duplicitous career, and “The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” which declared the former Secretary of State as nothing short of being a war criminal.
The filmmakers do not state that Hugo Chavez is perfect. He has flaws, as does everyone, but his heart is obviously with his people and against those who keep those people in poverty. That he was overthrown and restored to power in a mere three days (this may be the shortest coup in history), at the behest of the people and the army ranks, tells me that the documakers are likely to be more right about the man than wrong. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” also presents the dangers and pitfalls of a modern day country that is trying to be “of the people, by the people and for the people,” especially when it conflicts with US foreign and economic policy. I give it an A-.
Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O Briain traveled to Venezuela to make a documentary about its controversial president, Hugo Chavez. After portraying the charismatic politician as a champion of the downtrodden, Bartley and Briain found themselves thrust into a short-lived coup d'etat, history unfolding as seen from the eye of the hurricane in "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."
While the filmmakers obviously have a liberal, left-leaning political agenda, they achieve their goal of painting Chavez as a 'for the people,' anti-globilization advocate challenged by Venezuelan big business possibly supported by U.S. oil interests and the C.I.A. They paint a strong indictment of media manipulation against Chavez and his supporters, which begs the obvious question - what, if anything, have they not presented supporting Chavez's opposition? Chavez's visit to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in September, 2002 is glossed over and the country's subsequent economic downturn and $266 million Cuban reduced-price oil debt go unmentioned. Still, this riveting piece of work should encourage viewers to continue to investigate the subject on their own after leaving the theater. What better reaction could a documentary hope for?
Bartley and Briain present Chavez hosting his weekly television show on state run TV. 'Allo Presidente,'is like a national town meeting where ordinary citizens call in and speak directly to their president on matters great and small. He also uses the platform to criticize U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, showing a picture of the dead while imploring 'You cannot fight terror with terror. These children were alive yesterday.' He encourages his citizens to read, beginning with their country's constitution which he describes as their Popol Vuh, and we're shown a big response among the poor, who educate themselves politically. A high-ranking official accepts a note from a poor woman at a speaking engagement and office staffers show the camera a few of the 200 such notes and letters they receive weekly, asking for assistance for procuring a teaching position or a bag of cement to fix a house. Chavez treats everyone as equals, patting his young palace guard soldiers affectionately as they stand at attention. Chavez cites Simon Bolivar, liberator of Venezuela and several other South American countries from Spain, as a major influence and declares a Bolivarian revolution in response to Washington D.C.'s imposed free market policies. The friend of Castro believes that Venezuela's position as the world's 4th largest oil exporter should benefit all Venezuelans, not just the privileged few.
Up until this point, the filmmakers have used mostly their own extraordinary access combined with state run TV footage, but they begin to use private and U.S. television newscasts to present the opposition. A woman of the middle to upper classes tells an interviewer that Chavez wants to turn Venezuela into Cuba. We're introduced to Pedro Carmona, head of the country's biggest business organization, Fedecamaras, and Carlos Ortego, Head of CTV, who traveled to Washington D.C. to protest Chavez's government. Shortly thereafter, Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed concern "with some of the actions of Venezuelan President Chavez and his understanding of what a democratic system is all about." C.I.A. director George Tenet also voiced concerns to the media.
In April, the opposition staged a coup that began by opposition marches on the presidential Palace. Chavez supporters (and the documentarians) surrounded the palace and responded to sniper fire, which private news reports manipulated into shooting upon the unarmed opposition parade, at least in one clear instance backed up with evidence here. Chavez gives himself over to the opposition five minutes before the palace is to be bombed, but refuses to resign. When this news is gotten out (with great difficulty, as state TV has been scuttled) citizens protest and the palace guard overthrows the opposition. Three days after leaving, Chavez jauntily returns, even addressing the documentary camera familiarly on his way in.
The Irish filmmakers paint a vivid portrait of this democratically elected leader and the riveting events which led to his coup, although they leave us with unanswered questions, begging for more. Anyone who sees "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" will be sure to pay more attention to Venezuelan news events.
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