Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

IRISH filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O Briain were in Venezuela to make a documentary on President Hugo Chavez in 2002 when they found themselves caught in the middle of an attempted coup.
I remember seeing the second half of this film when it came out on TV and have been trying to track it down ever since and so was pleasantly surprised when a recent search turned up the entire film, free to view on google video.
Chavez is the dominant force in South American politics at present. His country’s huge oil resources have given him financial clout – Venezuela is the fourth largest foreign supplier of oil to the US.
However, his his alliances with Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba and other leftist leaders in the region have demonised him in the eyes of the US. He has all-but nationalised Venezuela’s oil production and pumped the revenues in to health and education in the country.
His enemies at home and abroad have branded him as a communist dictator while his supporters have praised his anti-neo-liberal credentials and efforts to redistribute the country’s wealth to help its poor.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised gives both sides of the story but the filmmakers seem to sit much more comfortably on the Chavez side of the fence than with his opponents.
They were given close access to the president and set the scene by following him on a visit to a rural area where Chavez is greeted with devotion and handed dozens of slips of paper with appeals for help. One of his aides tells us that all of these are read and responded to.
We also see Chavez on his weekly television programme Alo Presidente where he takes phone calls from people from throughout the country.
He is huge bear of a man, manfully punching men on the shoulder and grabbing them by the wrist when they shake hands. It is significant how he interacts with the soldiers who form his guards of honour and who patrol the presidential palace, taking time for some shoulder punching and a whispered word.
Chavez is a former army man who was arrested after an attempted coup in 1992 and served time in prison. However, he reinvented himself to become a constitutional politician and was elected with a landslide majority in 1998.
However, his ‘Bolivarian revolution’ has antagonised the country’s elite who control Venezuela’s media, including its private television stations and we are shown irate men and women in suits accusing Chavez of having a “sexual fixation with Castro” and being “mentally ill”.
One scene shows a group of his opponents at a meeting where they are told to keep an eye on their servants as they might pass on information. They are also given instructions on how to use a gun.
Things reached a head in 2002 when Chavez took control of Venezuela’s oil companies and the private TV stations started to call for demonstrations. The opposition was led by Pedro Carmona and Carlos Ortega who with the backing of senior military commanders ordered Chavez to stand down.
On April 11 they organised a major demonstration, however, Chavez supporters held a counter rally outside the presidential palace in support of the president. Things turned serious when the opposition marchers began to converge on the presidential palace. The army were trying to keep the two sides apart when shooting broke out.
We see graphic images of people lying on the ground with blood dripping from their heads – shot by a sniper’s bullet.
The private TV stations claim that Chavez supporters were shooting at the opposition marchers and show footage of a group of men firing pistols over a bridge. However, what they did not show was that there were no opposition marchers on the other side of the bridge and that those who were shooting seemed to be retaliating against sniper fire.
The opposition blame Chavez for the violence and claim that he ordered the shooting. Senior army chiefs appear on private television to say they have withdrawn their support for Chavez and there are calls for him to be overthrown.
The only station broadcasting the Chavez line is the state broadcaster Channel 8 which is suddenly taken off air.
It is at this point that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised comes into its own. The crew are cut off in the presidential palace where the Chavez government are in an emergency meeting. The palace has been surrounded by tanks and Venezuela’s military leaders have vowed to attack unless Chavez stands down.
A military delegation is brought in to the room where Chavez is waiting. We see Chavez supporters twitching nervously as they pass their guns from one hand to another. “The CIA is behind this,” one tells the camera.
Eventually it is announced that Chavez has refused to resign as president but has agreed to hand himself over to the opposition to prevent the palace from being bombarded and we see shaky camera shots following him as he is led out to vows of loyalty from his supporters.
The next morning the private TV stations are jubilant with opposition organisers giving details of how the coup was planned. In the presidential palace, which has now been taken over by opposition supporters, a speaker says that the elected national assembly has been dissolved, the supreme court dismissed and the national elections board dismissed. He talks about their mandate and democracy.
Out in the street a woman cries. “What about my vote? I voted for Chavez?”
We see pictures of soldiers breaking up pro-Chavez demonstrations and people lying dead on the street.
A Whitehouse spokesman tells a press conference that “Chavez provoked this crisis”.
Opposition leader Pedro Carmona is sworn as president among scenes of jubilation, however, we see members of the red-beret soldiers that once guarded Chavez still in the presidential palace looking uneasy at the events unfolding around them.
Despite the privately-owned TV stations efforts word begins to spread that Chavez did not resign and his supporters begin to take to the streets again and march towards the palace. We see the palace guards huddling into groups and a look of alarm spreading among the faces of the suits that had been celebrating their victory a few hours earlier and they start to make a hasty exit as they see the crowds gathering outside the presidential palace.
The speaker who declared that the national assembly had been dissolved is among a group being held in the cellar and we see a minister in Chavez’s government coming down to tell them that although they are prisoners their rights as citizens are guaranteed.
The private TV stations have still not reported the newest turn of events and Chavez supporters frantically try to get the state-owned Channel 8 back on air, telling us that it is key to restoring Chavez to power. We are told that he is being held on an island and that a US-registered plane has landed and may be about to take him out of Venezuelan jurisdiction.
Channel 8 comes back on air and helicopters are dispatched to rescue the disposed president. Reports come in from around the country that despite support from the army’s high command for the coup the grass roots soldiers are firmly behind Chavez and had been kept in the dark about what had happened.
Eventually a helicopter in the night flies over the thousands of Chavez supporters still gathered outside the presidential palace and the deposed president is back in control. Telling those who opposed him that while he would rather have their support they were entitled to oppose him but that it had to be under the terms of the constitution.
He urges his own supporters to go home and to restore calm.
On the way out of the press conference he turns to the Irish film crew and tells them that he is sorry that he didn’t get a chance to speak to them when he was being led away but that he knew he would be back.
Click on The Revolution Will Not Be Televised to see the film. It lasts for about an hour and 15 minutes.

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