Prentiss Riddle: Movies

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Something cute about revolution and television goes here

I went to see the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised hoping for a clearer picture of Hugo Chávez and his populist regime in Venezuela. If you listen to the American activist community, he's the last best hope for the left in Latin America. If you tune into the the Spanish-language blogosphere you're likely to hear mostly voices who consider him one step removed from the devil.

My skeptical hunch has been that there's some truth and some falsehood on both sides. I don't find it implausible that both Chávez's supporters and opponents would be guilty of intimidation or worse. While I'm as happy as the next bleeding heart to see someone stand up to the IMF and the Bush administration on matters of economic and foreign policy, it's not clear that defiance is a workable strategy, especially not when the elite is willing to sabotage Venezuela's economy with general strikes. The predominance of Chávez critics online isn't hard to explain if you consider who has access to the Internet in Venezuela.

Unfortunately this documentary doesn't answer the large questions about the legitimacy of the Chávez government, the realism of its economic reforms or its alleged abuse of power. Instead it's an exercise in dumb luck: the Irish film crew happened to be caught in the middle of a rightist coup that temporarily ousted Chávez. There's footage from inside the presidential palace in the tense hours while the generals threatened to bomb it unless Chávez surrendered to his kidnappers, and more footage as the loyal palace guard re-took it with the support of thousands of Chávez supporters outside. We see Chávez's confused cabinet emerge from hiding and strategize his successful release and restoration to power.

What the filmmakers do attempt to analyze is the effect of media concentration as the events unfolded. As pro- and anti-Chávez forces clashed in the streets, Venezuela's private TV stations conspired to broadcast only pro-coup propaganda: an embargo on coverage of pro-Chávez demonstrators except for fabricated video to pin the worst violence on them. The one pro-Chávez outlet, a government station, was taken off the air by sabotage. I'm sympathetic to the filmmakers' message that corporate control of the media threatens democracy, but in fact satellite TV, the Internet and word of mouth soon revealed the coupists' lies. Once the pro-Chávez forces realized after all that they had not been routed they made short work of reversing the coup.

So I'm not sure that this documentary provides the smoking gun to prove that Fox and Clear Channel and their equivalents around the world are the embodiment of evil. If anything it suggests that crude 1984-style 2+2=5-isms no longer work, which leaves us only subtler and harder-to-prove Chomskyan arguments about the manufacture of political reality.

Meanwhile I'm still looking for insight into Chávez. The Frontline piece seems about as good as their stuff usually is. And while Amnesty International doesn't seem to equate the Chávez regime with Castro's, their annual report doesn't give him clean hands, either.

(One last thought: the more I learn about Chávez, the more I think Brazil is blessed to have Lula.)

movies 2004.01.11 link