Ringside Seats to a Coup; “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
by Peter Brunette
Sometimes the best thing a documentary filmmaker can do is just get the hell out of the way. This is exactly what the Irish documentarians Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain were wise enough to do in their superb new film, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which is all the more remarkable for being the first feature-length effort for both of them.
The directors had the amazing luck to be shooting a film about controversial Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez when a rightist coup broke out against him on April 12, 2002. They were right on the spot in the presidential palace, often closer to the action than some of the drama’s key players. And though the film hardly breaks new ground in the art or theory of the documentary – it doesn’t need to – what has resulted is some of the most amazing documentary footage I have ever seen.
The filmmakers appropriately make no attempt to hide their leftist, pro-Chavez views. The political, humanitarian, and historical case is made for him in the first part of the film, as the directors carefully and quietly lay out the devastating facts and figures. (And Chavez was, let’s not forget, freely elected by an overwhelming majority of the voters.) One impression that emerges immediately is that El Presidente is a powerfully charismatic figure, and it’s obvious why the people of Venezuela – especially the 80 percent living in poverty – are so devoted to him.
Through one-on-one interviews, we learn a lot about what he’s really like and, especially if you’re of a certain political leaning, it’s easy to find yourself quickly becoming a supporter as well. Bartley and O’Briain also manage to capture the special qualities of the man in nice little details, for example, when he deflates all the surrounding pomp by patting the belly of one of his ornately done-up honor guards. (This is also a feature of Oliver Stone‘s excellent documentary on Fidel Castro, “El Commandante,” which so humanizes the reviled Cuban leader that it’s basically been banned, at least for the moment, by HBO.)
“Revolution” then proceeds to lay out the political situation and to acquaint us with the figures opposing Chavez. This is where the filmmakers make one of their few mistakes, with dark and heavy “villain” music accompanying the images of these men who are referred to with loaded words like “cronies.” They also stack the deck a bit by cutting quickly to some pampered, vacuous, jewelry-drenched upper-class women – who whine that if you’re poor it’s because you don’t want to work – just after we’ve been thoroughly indoctrinated by the perspective from Chavez’s impoverished supporters. (The juxtaposition might seem unfair, but friends with experience in Latin America tell me this is just what these people are like.) One particularly laughable moment comes when some rich people are warned in a hastily-called meeting to “Especially watch out for your servants!”
The main part of the film simply follows the minute-by-minute progress of the coup and the counter-coup. One moment the rightists are breaking out champagne in the presidential palace to ecstatic hugs all around, the next moment the all-too-temporary Attorney General is cowering in the basement. I was literally on the edge of my seat during this entire part of the movie, as you find out what’s happening at the exact moment the government leaders do. It’s amazingly exciting and involving, certainly more so than 99 percent of the films expressly constructed to be exciting and involving, and it makes you realize why people like reality TV, no matter how stupid it’s become. And though few fancy documentary techniques are employed here, thank God, let’s not forget that this kind of stuff doesn’t spring like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully-formed, but has been put together with some wonderfully proficient editing.
The ad-hoc, haphazard political arrangements created and dissolved in a moment also make you realize just how fragile a thing a government can be. Ultimately, however, perhaps the most important thing about the film is not its high drama (which, after all, will never help us really understand anything), but its analysis of the role of television in the events. This includes the filmmakers themselves (once Chavez is freed from house arrest and makes his triumphant return, the first thing he joyfully asks for is the footage they’ve shot of the coup), but also the struggle between the commercial TV stations, which are shown to be consistently biased and unfair, and the single, barely audible voice of the government on the bare-bones, state-owned Channel 8. Bartley and O’Briain do an especially excellent job of analyzing a key piece of footage, putatively showing Chavez supporters firing upon upper-middle-class demonstrators – footage that was played over and over again on commercial television – demonstrating it to be a completely (and purposely) misleading visual lie.
The filmmakers are to be congratulated for their luck to be in the right place at the right time, but even more for the wisdom they showed in not attempting to gild the wonderful lily pure chance had presented them with.