Lost in the Movies: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The story is simple, straightforward, and the style carries the conviction of a raw immediacy difficult to fake. This is not to say that elaborate machinations and cagey deceptions were not involved in the events of April 11-14, 2002, in which the popular left-wing Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was deposed (an occurrence all too familiar in the history of Latin America) and then restored (an occurrence not nearly familiar enough). Nor is this to ignore the sophistication of this documentary's analysis, its exacting deconstruction of the privately-owned media's duplicity as well as its own - consequently somewhat ambivalent - skill in shaping a narrative from a vast array of choices. The Irish filmmakers shot at a 200:1 ratio, meaning for every one minute of footage they used, three hours and nineteen minutes were discarded; struggling to tighten their focus, they hired a particularly crucial collaborator, editor Ángel Hernández Zoido, who has argued, "There are always hundreds of stories sleeping inside the material and you have to find them and wake them up." No, what I mean by observing - and praising - the story and style of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is that the filmmakers never lose sight of the essential truths at the film's core.

What are these essential truths? First, that the political tension in Venezuela hinges on class war, with Chávez's support rooted in the more impoverished sectors while the opposition's support is rooted in the more wealthy. Second, that the private media reflects its often oligarchical ownership by pushing narratives that relentlessly attack Chávez, through manipulation if necessary. Indeed, one of the film's most significant and highly cinematic observations is that an image used to justify the coup relies on a dishonest camera angle that denies wider context: Chávez supporters supposedly firing at a crowd of opponents when in fact their defensive fire was directed at hidden snipers in an area mostly devoid of protesters. Third, that the leaders of the opposition - despite their self-righteous claims to be resisting an authoritarian outlaw - gladly operate outside of the law when the opportunity arises; as soon as they have even a flimsy grasp on power they do not turn to democratic means to claim their legitimacy. Notably, although the details of the documentary can be, and frequently have been, vehemently if unconvincingly argued with lawyerly devotion, the film's critics tend to concede or avoid these broader, fundamental truths. They are essential not only because they make the most important facts clear but because they orient us toward the wider context and pattern.

Kim Bartley initially approached Revolution with the requisite skepticism of a European journalist: "We had ... this notion of investigating Chávez—was he a demagogue? Was the media persona just that? What makes him tick? My sense had changed as we got closer; what we're seeing here is a guy who is motivated, driven, not the demagogue with another side, drinking, carousing. I began to see him as more transparent—what you see is what you get." Chávez was elected in 1998, promising a populist turn in a society that had long been dominated by oligarchy. While many in the U.S. and Europe have always loved to paint him simply as a strongman making bellicose promises while hoarding power, in fact this is a bit of projection on the part of elites who can't imagine power that doesn't emanate or operate purely from a narrow base or cynical manipulation of a broader electorate. While flawed in many ways (most notably in its reliance on oil revenues, as recent years have brutally demonstrated), Chávez's "Bolivarian revolution" always harbored a substantial grassroots component, with poor, often non-white, and previously disenfranchised sectors of the population organizing bottom-up community groups blossoming thanks to wealth redistribution and state intervention.

To its credit, Revolution immerses itself in this milieu. It ably acquaints us with Chávez's undeniable charisma and portrays him as an iconic centerpiece and focal point for this upheaval. But during a coup spearheaded by the military, U.S.-aligned political elites, and a sizable portion of the urban bourgeoisie (a condo association warns its members about the dangers posed by unruly servants), Chávez himself necessarily disappears from the screen. He is initially isolated from the camera crew inside his office and then, after the coup-plotters threaten to bomb the building, he is escorted to an isolated location in captivity. The filmmakers are compelled not just by these practical circumstances, but also by a deeper political understanding, to emphasize the average people of Caracas as the dramatic protagonists going forward. Pro-Chávez citizens, many of whom were despairingly apolitical until the promise of his election, flood the streets. This backlash places pressure on the arrogant but paper-thin authority of the new government (which has already moved swiftly to disband many institutions and individuals in the name of a laughable "democracy") as well as their allies in the media (who arrogantly, openly admit their manipulation and collaboration the morning after the coup). Helped no doubt by Chávez's popularity within the military, palace guards turn on their new leaders and facilitate a return of the president.

The film has, naturally, been heavily contested by opponents of the chavista movement, who nitpick issues of continuity (at times disingenuously so). An entire counter-documentary, X-Ray of a Lie, was produced within a year or two. I've watched a few minutes - perhaps I'll eventually write a separate review on this film - and have already taken note of its emphasis on assertive narration over revealing footage. While the filmmakers of Revolution also narrate their film (against their own initial protests, and at the behest of a BBC head whose commitment to the project was frequently flaky), the heart of the material is its observational approach and the testimony of participants. The film's immersion in the events of the coup itself - the filmmakers happened to be inside of the palace when things really got going - carries a conviction that can't be duplicated by all the huffing and puffing in the world. And crucially, the film's critics never seem to elude that primary, underlying premise of Revolution's framework: Chávez's approach and policies were proclaimed on behalf of and embraced by the most desperate and exploited, while his opponents were deeply rooted in the more comfortable classes who have been their exploiters.

In 2003-2004, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was a prominent U.S. release, with a prestigious run at New York's Film Forum, national distribution, and glowing reviews from the nation's most revered critics. Roger Ebert praised it highly, not only admiring its skill but impressed by Chávez's charisma, memorably noting, "The last words in George Orwell's notebook were: 'At age 50, every man has the face he deserves.' Although it is outrageously unfair and indefensibly subjective of me, I cannot prevent myself from observing that Chávez and his cabinet have open, friendly faces, quick to smile, and that the faces of his opponents are closed, shifty, hardened." I distinctly recall him replying to a reader's complaint that he had been swayed by duplicitous propaganda, although I can't remember exactly what he said (conciliation but not concession, as best I can recall) and I can't find a record of that particular exchange anywhere. That's par for the course: fifteen years later, the legacy of Revolution has been mostly obscured. The highly noteworthy film is completely unavailable on Amazon or any streaming or DVD rental or purchasing service that I can find. The only copy I could watch was a very low-resolution edition on YouTube. U.S. distribution is nonexistent, and in the film's public absence a very different, albeit far more nebulous, narrative has become hegemonic across the American political spectrum. Any notion of the Bolivarian revolution as a people's movement, bigger than any one individual, barely has a toehold in the media landscape despite occasional flare-ups like Oliver Stone's interview nearly a decade ago (all the more rare now that Chávez's magnetic personality can't hold the stage to personify a much broader social phenomenon).

After Chávez died in 2014, oil prices plummeted, his successor Nicolás Maduro struggled to sustain a similar sense of legitimacy, a food crisis at least partly rolled back many of the gains of Chávez's government, and protests once again convulsed the capital. For far longer than that, however, the flickering solidarity of critics and viewers with the left-wing populism depicted in Revolution - at least (but not exclusively) with this particular left-wing populism - has been almost completely obliterated. What many mainstream liberals recognized in 2004, even many on the newly resurgent socialist left of 2018 are hesitant to defend, conceding, qualifying, or changing the subject when the right cries "But Venezuela!" rather than bothering to dispute their premise. A decade ago, U.S. media outlets were already habitually referring to Chávez as a dictator, despite continued and internationally-certified elections, recasting the class warfare of Venezuelan society as an authoritarian government's attack on an antiseptically-defined "democracy." Like The Battle of Chile before it, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised demonstrates how cynically an elite class will use rhetoric about "freedom" - but it also demonstrates how, even with all the media manipulation in the world, that trick is still relatively inadequate when honestly scrutinized. The primary problem is that too many aren't willing to take that closer look, and simply accept at face value the characterizations of a determined, entrenched opposition (one that continues to operate inside this supposed "dictatorship" after two decades, and despite their own coup attempt).

The right loves to hone in on particular distractions: individual details easy to dispute (however dishonestly), in which the left can become defensively bogged down. Instead of getting lost in those weeds, the left is strongest when it anchors itself in the larger story that a majority of people can recognize from their day-to-day lives. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised remains powerful because it deploys the specificity that cinema always thrives in, alongside the broader context and political orientation that cinema too often denies.

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