Shot by both sides
By Alastair McKay.
WATCHING Chavez:The Revolution Will Not Be Televised unspool, what
emerges at first is a fairly traditional, slightly romantic portrait of a Latin
American revolutionary leader. Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain’s film
casts a benign light on the president of Venezuela. There’s less soft-
soap involved than there was in Oliver Stone’s Fidel Castro fanzine,
Comandante, but very little that would startle your average tango-
As with Stone and Castro, there are glimpses into the politician’s
romantic self-regard, such as the interview in which he tells the story
about how his grandmother had told him he had “murderer’s blood in
him”, a genetic gift from his grandfather, who would arrive in a village
and decapitate everyone with machetes. In Chavez’s reworking of this
dire parable, he investigates his grandfather’s life, and discovers he was
a revolutionary who fought with a poncho on his shoulders and a fur
cobijo on his head. And then dear Hugo turns poetic. This was no psycho
with a machete! His grandad had a revolver and an ammunition belt.
There was, he notes atmospherically, a “cloud of tobacco, and clouds overhead.
Horses neighing, and herons could be heard. Milk drops from the sky at night.
That’s the rain. The rebel horsemen. Songs, silence and song.”
So Chavez decides that his grandfather wasn’t a murderer after all. He
was a fighter who’d been given a bad rap.
All of which is interesting, if only partially illuminating. It displays a
magical realist turn of phrase which would be unimaginable, and
probably ruinous, in a British politician. And it works as a piece of self-
serving mythology. It’s hard not to be moved when even the sky is
weeping lactic tears.
The documentary opens in September 2001, three years after Chavez
won a landslide election victory. It begins by sketching the president’s
plans to cast himself as the reincarnation of Simón Bolívar, the 19th
century liberator of Venezuela. His plan is to free the country, and the
region, from the domination of Washington and the market. There is,
says Chavez, an argument about globalisation: the neo-liberals, who
claim to support this idea, are actually anti-global, and it’s they who are
destroying the world. He draws his support from the poor, and promises
to redistribute wealth and engage the people in the political process.
“The oil wealth never reached the campesinos,” he notes, and those
same peasants are invited to call him on his weekly live television show,
He tells his lieutenants they must communicate on television and radio,
to negate the influence of Venezuela’s hostile private TV stations.
“Get up early,” Chavez commands. “Talk about the revolution –
communicate.” This being September 2001, one of the things Chavez
communicates about is 9/11 and the War on Terror. “We support the
fight against terrorism – but not just carte blanche to do anything”. He
says this while holding up photographs of children killed in Afghanistan
by American bombs.
There are, you may have noticed, milky clouds forming in the sky of this
narrative. And true enough, the private TV stations start comparing
Chavez to Hitler and Mussolini, and the CIA hovers ominously; aware,
no doubt, of the strategic importance of Venezuela’s oil. The film shows
anxious white people in the oil-rich suburbs of Caracas learning how
to shoot, and being urged to keep an eye on their servants. And lo, an
opposition march is heading towards the presidential palace to confront
a pro-Chavez demonstration. The two crowds meet, snipers pick out
innocent demonstrators. The deaths are blamed on Chavez, and when
the president’s people attempt to communicate their version of events on
the state TV channel, the signal is cut. A coup is underway, and Chavez
is ousted from the Palacio de Miraflores.
The camera is inside the palace as the coup unfolds. It catches Chavez
being marched out, and when a counter-coup takes place, it shows
the triumphant Chavistas marching back in. It is, by any standards,
a remarkable piece of cinema. It won many awards, including best
documentary at the Chicago Film Festival and best current affairs
programme at the Banff Television Festival in Canada.
Then the trouble started. A petition of 11,000 signatures denounced the
film in Venezuela. It was withdrawn from an Amnesty International film
festival in November 2003, after threats to Amnesty staff in Caracas.
The complaints were many and various. Essentially, the film’s detractors
saw it as pro-Chavez propaganda. The chronology was questioned,
as was the use of archive film. The scene in which upper-middle-class
women were shown learning self-defence was presented as part of
the build up to the coup, but had actually been filmed months later.
The film’s assertion that Chavez never resigned is doubted, and the
key sequence in which pro-Chavez demonstrators on a bridge were
said to be defending themselves from a sniper attack (and not, as was
claimed on Venezuelan TV, shooting at anti-Chavez demonstrators)
was subjected to the kind of analysis usually practised by sceptics of
the moon-landing. This was no longer a question of truth – it was about
shadows on the ground. The film may have been cinema vérité, a style
– since borrowed by fiction films - involving fly-on-the-wall techniques
and hand-held cameras to capture a less-contrived version of reality, but
was it true?
Rod Stoneman, the film’s executive producer, who has now examined
the case against the film and in his new book, Chavez: The Revolution
Will Not Be Televised, broadly absolves the filmmakers. (Firstly, he has
to clarify that his billing as executive producer was a grace and favour
title: he was head of the Irish film board).
“There were some relatively small examples of slippage in the grammar
of the piece, but overall the film was made with honesty and integrity. Of
the 18 objections made, 15, if not 17, were wrong. The filmmakers spent
a long time assembling evidence to show why they’d done what they’d
done in the film and mostly it’s true.”
Stoneman’s book is a work of film studies rather than politics, but it does
illuminate some points about documentary filmmaking which might be
surprising to casual viewers. The film’s editor Angel Hernandez Zoido
explains the process of whittling 200 hours of footage into a digestible
film by saying: “To me there’s no difference between fiction and
documentary. When I’m editing a film I never forget that it’s
entertainment.” And O’Briain notes that the decision to opt for cinema
vérité was a response to the kind of material the filmmakers had: “To
argue for vérité is not to suggest that it’s more truthful; really it’s more
direct, a more powerful short circuit to the emotional.”
Venezuelan film director Jonathan Jakubowicz, whose 2005 film
Secuestro Express angered Chavez with its depiction of corruption and
kidnap in Venezuela - is considerably less charitable.
“I’ve seen the film. It’s definitely a propaganda masterpiece. But I
wouldn’t call it a documentary. Any shootout looks completely different
from one side than it does from the other. A real documentary would
show both sides with fairness. These guys, following the Leni Riefenstahl
school, only show the beauty of the revolution. And like The Jew Süss,
they portray the opposition to their beloved leader as gritty, rich, selfish
and power thirsty.”
“Our society is complicated to understand even for Venezuelans, I’m not
surprised how hard it was to grasp by a group of talented Irish
Jakubowicz’s first film, Ships of Hope, was a documentary about the
exodus of Jewish refugees to Venezuela, but the fictional Secuestro
Express offered a more direct and populist evocation of life in Caracas,
making a dramatic thrill-ride from the social inequalities in the country.
Even so, it began with a montage of news footage, including the
sequence which was central to the coup attempt, of Rafael Cabrices
firing from a road bridge. The pro-coup media’s interpretation of this
footage was accepted without question by the world’s media during
the first hours of the coup. But subsequent analysis has tended to
favour what is now the reverse view: that the Chavez supporters were
defending themselves against sniper fire designed to provoke a reaction
which would give impetus to the coup attempt.
Jakubowicz’s use of the footage angered Cabrices, who sued, claiming
Secuestro Express offended his dignity, but he died before the case
could be heard. At his funeral, Venezuela’s vice-president Jose Vicente
Rangel condemned Jakubowicz’s “miserable film” and the director
was charged with showing the authorities in a negative light. Chavez
accused him of “undermining our revolution, and our soldiers”. So while
Jakubowicz has his reasons for disliking Chavez, his comparison of The
Revolution Will Not Be Televised to a notorious Nazi propaganda film
gives some indication of the heat inside this argument.
On one level, this is an argument about the impossibility of objectivity,
and since the directors of the Irish documentary are aspiring only to tell
the truth of what they witnessed, rather than an overall truth about the
politics of Venezuela, they are, to an extent, immune from many of the
attacks made on them.
“It’s also true that the film doesn’t actually explain what Chavez has done
with his oil money or his mission schemes,” says Stoneman. “Because
it’s cinéma vérité it is quite an emotional journey. If you want to look at
Chavez politically, probably reading a book is a better way to do it.”
Of course, critics would probably question the suitability of Stoneman as
judge and jury on the merits of the film. He was involved in the
production at an early stage, and argued against the inclusion of material
offering a broader political context. In an early cut, the filmmakers had
included a series of “witness statements”. He persuaded them to drop
them, because “other people can make historical documentaries. These
are filmmakers who were there at the time – they didn’t need to get other
people to talk about it.”
Stoneman also takes issue with the BBC’s response to the controversy
surrounding the documentary, saying they “dropped it like a hot potato”
after articles in the Columbia Journalism Review and the Sunday Times
criticised it journalistically.
“They were quite wary about it, but I can understand that,” Stoneman
says. “Part of my angle of approach is having my formative years in early
Channel 4, which had an open notion of hearing from people and trying
to get different versions of a story; and all that’s dropped away again
now. The BBC has a defensive tone which comes from being
battered a lot, all the time, and that’s why they overreact.”
Of course, the controversy over the Chavez film coincided with the
Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly and the “sexed-up”
dossiers used to justify the invasion of Iraq, so it’s perhaps not surprising
that the Corporation was in a cautious mood.
Stoneman quotes Kim Bartley saying that Nick Fraser, the editor of
the BBC’s documentary strand, Storyville, requested a more sceptical
tone be added to the voiceover, “to put the boot into Chavez”. After
the veracity of the film was questioned, Fraser suspended further
screenings on the BBC until an investigation was completed, noting his
disappointment with its dubious chronology. Fraser says now he was
not influenced by the campaign against the film, even though the BBC
received 4000 emails asking for him to be fired. “The film was very good
in many respects, but also misleading. They thought Chavez was a right-
on person; but having written a book about Peronism, I didn’t.
“But I don’t think the film qualifies as propaganda, though it was used for
propagandistic purposes in Venezuelan embassies. We at the BBC
changed the title: it was called Inside The Coup, because I didn’t find all
the TV stuff as interesting as they did. I liked the filmmakers, and expect
to work with lefties anyhow. My quarrel is with the ignorant middle-aged
[media professionals], who should know better, or in fact do and won’t
come clean. I exclude professional naifs like Rod.”
“I still think it’s a good film, because of the coup sequence. It should be
seen as a Venezuelan West Wing - biased, of course, but highly
entertaining. Should I have told the film-makers to include at least one
interview with someone not a Chavez supporter? Well, I did. However,
as the ‘Stones said, you can’t always get what you want.”
Fraser’s critique of the film’s concentration on the importance of media in
the coup – particularly the role of privately-owned television stations –
highlights a key problem. It may be acceptable within an argument about
filmmaking to argue that documentary is just another kind of storytelling,
and it may even be true, but it leaves the uninformed viewer in a
Jakubowicz says the British edit of the film is “more effective” than the
Venezuelan cut. “It’s also a lot more manipulative, which is why it can’t
be shown at home, since many of us were there. Even the subtitles are
manipulated in the British version.
“The piece does have amazing footage and they had truly privileged
access to key figures. But if you see, for example, how Lucas Rincón
Romero, the general who announces that Chavez has resigned, ended
up being Minister of Defence for Chavez for three years after the coup,
it’s not hard to realise that something is up: the reality is not as simple as
it is portrayed in the flick.”
Still, there is something undeniably alluring about the film’s proximity to
the sex and violence of power, and it’s hard not to be moved by the
triumphant scenes of Chavez’s return from exile. At 2.50am on April 14,
2002, his helicopter touches down on the roof of the presidential palace,
apparently in the midst of a carnival. Chavez is pulled through the
crowds like a weary pugilist being led back into the ring, his left arm aloft,
Chavez:The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - A Case Study of
Politics and the Media is published by Wallflower Press. A DVD of the
film is included.
This article first appeared in Product issue 15, January 2009.
08 March 2013
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