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The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2002) (unrated)

Bord Scannan na hEireann/Irish Film Board

Official Site

Directors: Kim Bartley, Donnacha O Briain

Producer: David Power

Rating: out of 5

What’s the cost of access to power? Objectivity, of course. The makers of the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez have lots of access.

Actually I’m sure these Irish filmmakers came into the country with a preconceived notion of making a hagiography. Hugo Chavez and his beleaguered “Bolivarian Revolution” have become almost a cause celeb internationally, with sympathetic scribes such as Naomi Klein of The Nation and Greg Palast of the British paper The Guardian extolling the virtues of a man who counts Fidel Castro as a role model and who has placed his nation squarely in opposition to the policies of the United States. Such bravado will win you admirers and the filmmakers are clearly in awe. That’s the problem with The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: While many will take it as a work of journalism, it’s not; it’s a work of propaganda, and even as agitprop goes, it’s nothing special.

At the beginning of the film we are presented with Hugo Chavez, champion of the people. He gives fiery diatribes about the evils of neo-liberalism before adoring crowds, he reads fan mail, he takes calls from grateful listeners on his radio show “Alo, Presidente.” There is an undeniable charisma about him. He’s personable and commands great loyalty from his followers, many of whom have joined what are called “Bolivarian Circles,” described by the filmmakers as civic-minded community organizations. Of course not everyone is fan of the president’s revolution. We are told that a small group of elites who have gotten rich exploiting Venezuela’s oil resources are now trying to undermine the government through the private media. We get a montage of critics on the private television stations denouncing Chavez as a communist, and of course there’s also the US government, Colin Powell, Ari Fleischer, and others expressing, as bureaucrats do, “concern,” over the Chavez government. It’s worth mentioning that whenever an opponent of the Chavez government appears on screen, the background music switches to the kind of sinister synthesizer music they used to play when a drug lord was on screen during old episodes of “Miami Vice.”

Things begin to heat up when Chavez sacks the board of directors at the state oil company. The opposition calls for a general strike and mobilizes an enormous march to Miraflores, the presidential palace. Just as they appear to confront the pro-Chavez crowds, snipers start firing, leading to a gun battle that leaves several dead on both sides. This leads opposition leaders to call for a coup, which elements of the military go along with. Chavez is taken captive and coup leaders move into Miraflores. The directors and crew are in the palace when the coup leaders, led by a businessman Pedro Carmona, show up. There’s confusion, the leaders of the coup are telling Chavez to resign, Chavez supporters are protesting outside the gate, power has been cut off to the government-run channel, and the private media isn’t airing any news. The Bush Administration initially welcomes the coup and international news agencies report that Chavez has resigned. Carmona dissolves the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. Eventually the Palace Guard revolt against the coup plotters and Chavez (who first came to prominence leading a failed coup) is restored to power.

I think it’s essential that, when you watch a film like this, you are able to trust the filmmakers, and frankly I don’t. I’ve followed Venezuelan politics and the career of Hugo Chavez for some time now, so I knew the film wasn’t presenting the whole story. It’s one thing to have a bias—that probably inevitable—but the filmmakers’ determination to tell the story in manner that always portrays Chavez in a positive light is simply craven and requires a series of omissions and distortions. Really the film is maddeningly low on substance; its man-on-the-street interviews add nothing to our understanding of what’s going on. We must rely on the filmmakers’ voiceover for all our information, and some of it just doesn’t wash with the facts.

We’re told that Chavez has created greater political enfranchisement, but actually the elections he won in 1998 and 2000 had some of the lowest turnouts on record. The idea that “freedom of the expression” has flourished is simply absurd: The Chavez government has been condemned by several international press and human rights groups such as CPJ, IPI, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and Human Rights Watch, for passing censorship laws and encouraging attacks upon journalists. The film completely ducks the Venezuelan recession, which many Venezuelans blame on Chavista cronyism (under Chavez, Venezuela has fallen to 100 out 131 countries on the Transparency International poll of perception of corruption). And surely the postscript is too generous. Chavez did strike a conciliatory tone while the whole world was watching, but since then he has had several opposition leaders arrested for their roles in the general strike, as well as also firing almost 20,000 state oil company employees who joined the strike. Political violence continues to rage as members of the Bolivarian Circles have been accused of acting as a paramilitary force for the government. And of course the whole crux of the film is how the private media colluded to deceive the public, which isn’t entirely untrue, but it certainly bears mentioning that, through the cadenas system in Venezuela, Chavez can commandeer all the commercial media channels whenever he wants and broadcast whatever he wants, something he does all the time.

All of this perhaps explains why Chavez is currently facing a mid-term referendum that could end his presidency. As of now, the opposition has collected more than enough signatures to start the process, though Chavez is threatening to invalidate millions to avoid a recall. And with good reason—polling suggests almost two-thirds of Venezuelans want him out. Beside the blatantly one-sided nature of the film and its lack of substance, many Venezuelans have accused the filmmakers of outright deceptions (They are outlined at http://www.petitiononline.com/gusano03.) Nonetheless, the film has been very popular abroad, and the packed crowd I was in seemed under its spell. People clapped for Chavez and hissed his enemies on cue. They may not have known anything about Venezuela before coming in, but they may know less now.

—Edward Rholes

I would encourage anyone who has viewed this film or is interested in the topic, to do some independent investigation.

The Caracas Chronicles and the Devil’s Excrement are anti-Chavez news blogs. Venezuelan Analysis is a pro-Chavez site.


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