Following an explosive documentary about Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez, Alastair McKay picks through impassioned arguments about propaganda, cinema vérité and the ethics of storytelling
Support independent, non-corporate media.
Watching Chávez: 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 hagiography, Comandante, but very little that would startle your average tango-dancing Euro-leftist.
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 Chávez’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 Chávez 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 Chávez 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 Chávez, 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, Alo Presidente.
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,” Chávez commands. “Talk about the revolution – communicate.” This being September 2001, one of the things Chávez 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 Chávez 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-Chávez demonstration. The two crowds meet, snipers pick out innocent demonstrators. The deaths are blamed on Chávez, 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 Chávez is ousted from the Palacio de Miraflores.
The camera is inside the palace as the coup unfolds. It catches Chávez 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-Chávez 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 Chávez never resigned is doubted, and the key sequence in which pro-Chávez 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-Chávez 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 cinéma 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, has now examined the case against the film and in his new book, Chávez: 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 Ángel Hernández 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 cinéma 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 Chávez 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 filmmakers.”
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 Chávez 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. Chávez accused him of “undermining our revolution, and our soldiers”. So while Jakubowicz has his reasons for disliking Chávez, 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 Chávez 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 Chávez 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 Chávez 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 Chávez”. 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 4,000 emails asking for him to be fired. “The film was very good in many respects, but also misleading. They thought Chávez 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 who was not a Chávez 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 bewildering position.
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 Chávez has resigned, ended up being Minister of Defence for Chávez 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 Chávez’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. Chávez is pulled through the crowds like a weary pugilist being led back into the ring, his left arm aloft, fist clenched.