How ironically fitting “Our Brand Is Crisis” should open the same weekend as the Academy Awards. While Hollywood will undoubtedly give itself a big ol’ pat on the back for recognizing the progressive messages of four of its five Best Picture noms, the immediate cultural and political challenges these films pose remain at a remove — three of them (“Munich,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” and “Brokeback Mountain“) confront their respective issues by analogizing the past; the fourth (“Crash“) merely contrives the present. Consider, then, watching “Our Brand Is Crisis” on March 5 as a small but meaningful act of opposition against the neo-liberal self-congratulation to be world-broadcast that night. This powerful documentary directly deals with the here and now (by way of the very recent past) in terms that force viewers to ask questions and make connections concerning their immediate political reality. In that sense, “Our Brand”‘s look into the miscalculations of globalization by way of an American-influenced political campaign in South America belongs to the recent renaissance of political documentary while standing apart in dramatic fashion: it’s great cinema verite and great timing.
In 2002 “Our Brand” director Rachel Boynton followed the American political consultant firm Greenberg Carville Shrum as they worked for Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (nicknamed, and more frequently called, Goni) on his campaign to once again become president of Bolivia (he also served a term in the mid-’90s). Barely newsworthy to most Americans, Bolivia is an economically depressed country with a long history of colonial plunder and political chaos; Goni, a U.S.-educated entrepreneur, apparently believed he was the man to get the country on its feet by reinstituting his controversial policy of “capitalization,” in which investors take control of half of the public works in an effort to create jobs and competition (to what extent this policy benefited Bolivians has been the subject of much debate). The GCS team, led by young, enthusiastic Jeremy Rosner, bets the farm by hedging its campaign on Goni’s answer to the economic crisis, an American market-based approach with a shaky popular track record in such an unstable, socialist-leaning country. While the Western-embracing Goni and his American pollsters hold fast to their idea of democracy, selling it proves a clash of ideologies: where the former president would be considered a middle-of-the-road liberal in the States, Goni is viewed warily as a conservative oligarchy in his own country.
If campaigns are all about branding, personality ultimately must play a role. As the flipside of challenger Evo Morales, a firebrand indigenous leader (representing 70% of Bolivia’s population) with grassroots support, Goni is perceived as “arrogant,” a label that seems to follow him everywhere, undermining his chances of victory — we learn as much in the focus groups and dissected poll numbers the GCS team religiously pore over. But relying on this data becomes a major problem, not just with Goni, but with the system that eventually allows Goni to just barely win the election with 22.5% of the vote. Branding of politicians by voters, of voters by politicians, reduces complicated issues and real voices to stock phrases and good/bad dichotomies.
Unsurprisingly, once he takes office Goni remains stubbornly out of touch with popular sentiment and needs. His term ends in profound disappointment, with large-scale demonstrations protesting the unreasonable tax increases and the possibility of gas exportation to neighbor and rival Chile. In the film’s most disturbing footage, a small sample is given of the government’s response, an oppressive use of police force that led to riots and 80 deaths before Goni’s resignation from office.
In tracing the route to “what went wrong,” “Our Brand” capitalizes on the fly-on-the-wall journalism of cinema verite — certain moments so perfectly capture the absurdity of the political process that if written as fiction they would be deemed exaggeration or ham-fisted satire.
Strategizing with a pollster on negative campaign ads to smear an opponent, Goni listens intently while chomping on a cigar, unintentionally affecting the classic caricature of the fat-cat politician. Much later, as protesters take to the street en masse and threaten Goni’s presidency, an overwhelmed, genuinely distraught Rosner feigns normalcy by manning post at his laptop. But even as Rosner’s devotion might be criticized as hopelessly naive and Goni’s ineptitude borderline fascist, Boynton never settles for simply implicating individuals for the disaster of 2003. Instead, her film sheds light on the political machinery that renders their goals–and intentions–largely impossible despite some brilliant salesmanship. It’s a lesson that touches the raw nerve of America’s, and Americanization’s, basic dilemma in the 21st Century. As much as the United States and certain business interests want it otherwise, the globalization game gets messy in the details–the transposition of our economic framework and/or government to an entirely different culture and society can’t possibly be smoothed over by clever television commercials and confetti. I would point to similar current examples — ones even more violent and bloody — but the lesson becomes disturbingly clear upon a viewing of “Our Brand,” in which Boynton’s images speak it as viscerally as possible.
By Michael Koresky
The ostensible protagonist of Rachel Boynton’s “Our Brand Is Crisis,” Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, better known to his not so adoring countrymen as “Goni,” is often seen sitting bemusedly on a couch or a conference table, receding into the background. Both an ineffective political figurehead and the embodiment of impending social catastrophe, image-making and empty statistic-reliance run amok, Goni comes across as less a man than a piece of furniture, a bronzed bust being constantly spit-shined and buffed by those around him. In this case, it’s a group of motivational political consultants, Greenberg Carville Shrum — including Clinton‘s spin wiz James Carville — flown in to Bolivia to aid Goni in re-ascending the presidential ladder after his previous term, following which the country ended up on a disastrous economic crisis. With seventy percent of the country living below the poverty line, it would seem impossible to convince the population to re-elect a U.S.-educated, wealthy businessman such as Goni, when the people are begging for someone young, fresh, and charismatic to lead them out of ruin.
“Our Brand Is Crisis” is structured as a campaign doc, a la “The War Room,” yet it feels like more of a revelation — not merely because of the stunning backroom access granted Boynton during the entire process but also because of the subtlety with which Boynton lets her tragic tale of blind pragmatism develop. As a peek behind the closed doors of a globalized political reality which is no less consumerist than the rebranding of a chain store, “Our Brand” is provocative. Yet Boynton knows enough to not have to provoke with anything more than mere rationality.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]
By Chris Wisniewski
“The decisive means of politics,” explained sociologist Max Weber almost a century ago, “is violence.” Judging by Rachel Boynton’s new documentary “Our Brand Is Crisis,” the political consultants at the Greenberg Carville Shrum group would probably disagree. Boynton’s film looks at the 2002 Bolivian presidential election from the perspective of the GCS group, which was hired to get former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (“Goni”) elected again by applying the methods of market research to political campaigning. For the GCS group, the Bolivian people are less a demos than a collection of demographics, and democracy means little more than marketing. They seem to believe — rightly and wrongly, it turns out — that the decisive means of politics is branding.
Boynton clearly had a remarkable amount of access to Jeremy Rosner’s GCS team, and “Our Brand” is most revealing when Rosner and his colleagues are at their most manipulative. Still, to Boynton’s credit, her film really doesn’t betray any bias for or against the Goni candidacy, though Rosner’s team clearly believes in what it’s doing. Instead, the film remains focused on method and result, and Boynton is more than happy to let Rosner and history speak for themselves. A sobering truth emerges somewhere along the way: marketing may well be the driving force of contemporary democratic politicking, but violence, not branding, remains its most decisive means.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, and has written for Interview and Publishers Weekly .]