Asuperior example of fearless filmmakers in exactly the right place at the right time, Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” begins as a portrait of embattled Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez that is diverted midstream when a military coup attempt occurs. The result is a startling record of blood-stained revolt, pumped up with the immediacy of a camera crew awash in live, dangerous news. The latest critical docu on U.S. agencies supporting questionable South American regimes, and probably the best of the lot, pic should become a quick favorite of festival programmers and could score specialized theatrical runs before moving on to television.
Democratically elected in 1998, former army officer and self-proclaimed “Bolivarian revolutionary” Hugo Chavez immediately initiated an ambitious slate of reforms for the country where 80 percent of the people live in poverty. Including a wholesale revision of Venezuela’s constitution, Chavez’s plan focused on a “redistribution” of the massive wealth generated by his country’s national oil company.
Chavez, who had been in office for three years when Bartley and O’Briain arrived to film him, is no shrinking violet. Although the filmmakers land in Venezuela a full seven months prior to the April 11, 2002, coup, they find a country rife with opposition and a regime that has already withstood several attempts at overthrow backed by the wealthy minority. On television, where the private media outnumbers the public by a ratio of five to one (which is actually better than the nine to eight to one newspaper ratio), Chavez is regularly singled out as the heir to Castro (at best), Saddam Hussein and Hitler (at worst) — a power-mad dictator driving his country and his people into the ground.
That’s a very different Chavez than the one Bartley and O’Briain capture with their cameras, and it’s not because Chavez charms and diverts them in the way of Castro and Oliver Stone in “Comandante.” Rather, the filmmakers build their own case for Chavez — based largely on their own research –that contrasts with the information provided by the Venezuelan media and CNN and other international broadcasters. (In one choice moment, viewers see CNN reports maintaining the success of the anti-Chavez coup even after Chavez has been reinstated into office; in another, the filmmakers show how footage of pro-Chavez demonstrators engaging in a peaceful protest was subsequently re-edited by the media to suggest violent revolt.)
So, the title “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” becomes not just a glib appropriation of Gil Scott-Heron’s enduring lyric, but a pungent warning about the veracity of TV news broadcasts. And Bartley and O’Briain suggest (and provide fairly compelling evidence) that the Venezuelan coup is merely the latest in a string of U.S.-backed insurgencies in Latin America dating back to the era of the Monroe Doctrine. Can it be merely coincidental, they posit, that the Bush administration has been highly critical of Chavez’s nationalistic agenda when Venezuela is the world’s fourth-largest oil-producing entity?
Docu moves to yet another level when Bartley and O’Briain find themselves surrounded by the coup, trapped inside the presidential palace right alongside Chavez and his top advisers, with the military (the same military that would soon switch back to Chavez’s side) rapping at the door. These sequences (along with the tumultuous street clashes between pro- and anti-Chavez factions also captured by the filmmakers) spark with a vibrant tension and uncertainty. It’s true cinema verite.
Tech package is exemplary, particularly the directors’ own agile lensing and the sharp editing of Angel Hernandez Zoido.