Don't put too much stock in the oft-quoted riff from Gil Scott-Heron: Some revolutions will be televised. Especially if a coup breaks out with a film crew in the house.
Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain certainly had a run of their homeland's fabled luck. In April 2002, they were in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, shadowing President Hugo Chavez for a television documentary. In a span of 48 hours, Chavez was overthrown, an interim government established and just as quickly dismantled, and Chavez returned to power. Their cameras ran through it all, capturing one of the most fascinating episodes of recent political history.
On its surface, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised plays like a populist fantasy where the good guys beat the bad guys nearly as efficiently as one might see on an hour-long TV drama. But running throughout this nearly unbelievable true tale is a far darker story about the collusion of private interests and mass media; what happened in Caracas two years ago was the fruition of a feared scenario in which mass media pursues private agendas without regard for law, truth or the rest of us.
Early on, we learn of a critical distinction in Venezuelan media: There are five privately owned television channels filled with slick programming, and then there is Channel 8, the state-controlled, low-budget TV station. For his own ends, Chavez is restricted to Channel 8, where he hosts a weekly TV call-in show Aló Presidenté. Meanwhile, on the private TV stations, ironically operating under the freedom of expression the administration supports, blow-dried newsreaders blithely, and without source, describe Chavez as "mentally ill" and "against prosperity."
With his quick broad smile, jaunty red beret (allusions to Che Guevara welcomed) and working-class background, Chavez positioned himself easily as a "man of the people," an economic revolutionary who would free his nation from the tyranny of the free market. Chavez came to power in a country with severely lopsided economics. While Venezuela is the world's fourth-largest exporter of oil, 80 percent of its people live in poverty, and Chavez had vowed to redistribute the oil wealth.
In the spring of 2002, the private TV stations began to beat the drums for an overthrow, and then boldly moved to direct action: They organized street demonstrations of the wealthy (you don't often see this!); manipulated "news" footage; and became the immediate platform for the new government, a coalition of wealthy businessmen, oil interests and high-ranking generals.
In that respect, Scott-Heron's point that mega-media will operate only to serve its own interests -- not the interests of the people -- is well taken. The private TV stations were instrumental in giving unfettered voice to the coup, and they presented outright lies designed to support the overthrow. The interim government quickly pulled the plug on Channel 8, the only televised voice of dissent. But wait -- now it's TV to rescue! From outside media like CNN, Chavez supporters learned there was a coup (private TV was reporting that Chavez had run off to Cuba), and moved immediately to mobilize outraged citizens to protest.
The filmmakers' cameras, inside the palace and out in the streets, capture the confusion, the rumors, the emotions, the strategizing, and occasionally, the bloody violence. Luckily, one of the official cameramen for the palace turned up for work during the coup. He shot footage of the interim government and later provided his tapes to the filmmakers, so the events that transpire at the center of the crisis remain seamless.
The film documents not just standard coup procedure with an extraordinary access, but also outlines a very contemporary, highly fluid war of conflicting media. Both sides effectively use television as a call to arms and a propaganda machine, and it's explicitly shown that carefully selected images can aid or undermine not just hearts and minds, but the course of events from hour to hour.
The film is clearly sympathetic to Chavez; we don't hear much from the opposition (one disgruntled private TV producer is interviewed after the fact). The film flirts with accusing the CIA of being involved. Tellingly, some of the overthrowers were just back from a welcoming reception in Washington, and nobody from our democracy-loving administration expressed any concern when the freely elected Chavez was toppled.
Revolution makes compelling viewing, and it unfolds in a concise 75 minutes. The filmmakers tell their story without extraneous background or diversions. Certainly one can argue that most people could do well to learn more about the oft-ignored South American countries, but any sacrifice of wider knowledge is more than compensated for by the gripping nature of the film's streamlined focus.
Portions of this film inadvertently resemble a remake of Woody Allen's Bananas: At a tenants' meeting, worried affluent white residents are advised to "watch their servants"; at the phony president's swearing-in, a nattily dressed priest chats on a cell phone; private TV news accuses Chavez of having a "sexual fixation with Fidel Castro." And then, it's not funny: Viewers will certainly see echoes of today's troubles in Iraq -- the "beneficial" coup of a oil-rich country, the limitations placed on media coverage, and the dissembling of key political figures who favor demonizing world leaders over informed discourse.
While the determined actions of individuals and groups depicted in Revolution deserve accolades, one can't help noting that television is the real star of this film -- in both its useful and destructive roles. Even the triumphant Chavez concedes its appeal. Upon his return to the palace, he greets the cameraman with a hearty laugh: "Show me the video of the night they took me away!" Luckily for him, this is one revolution that was televised. In English, and Spanish with subtitles.