Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 01, 2003 3:52 pm 
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It happened and we’re there. That’s enough.

Sometimes it’s enough to be in the right place at the right time to make a great documentary. “Chavez: Inside the Coup” AKA “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is astonishing in that way. It covers a South American coup from inside the presidential palace. And when the people take back control and restore the popular leader, the filmmakers are still on hand with cameras rolling.

There he is as the film begins: Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, the former military officer and admirer of Bolivar who years earlier attempted his own coup and was imprisoned for it.

Hugo Chavez is a hugger. He hugs and pats and grabs the hand of everyone he meets. He looks young guards in the eye and pats them on the chest as he walks by. They’re like his young reflections: they’re innocent boys with the same dark Indian face and classic profile he has.

Chavez speaks in a confidential tone. He expresses his loathing of globalization, his disapproval of the US bombing of Afghanistan, his faith that his grandfather was not an “assassin” but someone who killed another man for honor. Reviewing a film, he stops to tell aides they must use the local media wherever they go in the country to maintain visibility and contact.

He meets crowds in the streets, crowds of the poor, smiling at him, hopeful.

He receives hundreds, perhaps thousands of notes and letters, sometimes scribbled on scraps of paper, from poor people who adore him and ask him for help, and he has staff to read all these requests. He has his own weekly call-in radio show where he addresses people directly for all to hear.

Chavez is a big bull of a man, warm but without visible subtlety. He’s one of the people, Nasser of Egypt without Nasser’s paranoia. Even after being temporarily deposed from the presidency he won by a landslide vote of the 80% poor population of Venezuela, he refuses to prosecute the perpetrators of the coup and many remain in the country as opposition leaders. And for a reason: unlike Nasser, he was popularly elected and by an overwhelming majority. Chavez has a certain populist bravado. His presidency gives the poor hope and he shares that hope.

What we don’t see is what specific actions Chavez takes to accomplish political changes in Venezuela. Except for describing his effect on the oil industry, the film isn’t specific about the legislative changes of his early presidency. What we do see is a man who plays his role of people’s leader and friend of Fidel to the hilt.

Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain came to Venezuela to simply cover Chavez’s presidency, obviously sympathetic to his democratic rule and hatred of neo-liberalism and globalization and aware of the Nortenos’ jaundiced picture of him emanating from the US and from the Bush administration in the words of Colin Powell. The US doesn’t like Chavez’s greater taxation of the oil companies – Venezuela is the world’s fourth largest producer and the US’s third ranking source of the substance. They don’t like his indifference to the wealthy and to global corporations either.

Colin Powell isn’t Chavez’s only opposition. In Venezuela the 20% who didn’t vote for him, the rich and the bourgeoisie, consider Chavez their enemy and organize for his removal. We see one of their meetings and follow some of their leaders into the street. We also see clips to show how this opposition freely uses the country’s privately owned TV stations (only one, Channel 8, is government controlled) to attack Chavez daily as insane and insist he be ousted.

The anti-Chavez bourgeois pro-military sympathizers organize a large Caracas demonstration. Then, illegally, they converge on the presidential palace where there is a large counter-demonstration of Chavez supporters. Just as a confrontation is about to occur snipers begin firing on the crowd, arranged by the opposition as provocateurs. One in four Venezuelans carries a handgun, and the Chavezistas on a bridge fire back at the snipers, but the private TV channel people photograph them to make it look as if they are firing on the opposition demonstration. The snipers kill opposition demonstrators from above. The private TV channels go on the air with their falsified footage to galvanize the country.

The film shows a shot from an angle behind the pro-Chavez shooters showing that when they were firing there was no one on the street between them and the snipers. But the public didn’t see this shot and at this point the opposition is able to defame Chavez and call for his immediate resignation. It then infiltrates the presidential palace a day later and stages a coup.

We are inside the palace when this happens. We see the top officials of the government and their aides hovering nervously when the coup begins, and they obviously might all be killed after the opposition and its military supporters come to seize the presidential palace and force Chavez to resign and leave. He refuses to sign, but eventually leaves to prevent bloodshed. His cabinet is forced to go home and we see the woman minister for the environment weeping when Chavez lets himself be taken away to protect the others. A new government with rich businessman Pedro Carmona takes over. We see Carmona sworn in and the new attorney general order the replacement of the Supreme Court, the national assembly, etc. We see all this happening on film.

All this is more exciting than any fiction. It’s terrifying and sad when the coup happens and we see it from the inside, knowing this was a popular government.

But it all backfires on the opposition very quickly when the masses see on TV that their popularly elected leader and his government have been ousted in a coup. Within twenty-four hours, despite repressive use of police who initially fire upon them in the street (and we see that too firsthand), the masses come out in huge numbers to stand outside the presidential palace. While they are there, the loyal presidential guards (whom Hugo has hugged and patted) station themselves to invade the building.

When they do, Carmona escapes but the false attorney general and other new government officials are caught and held prisoner in the basement. This also we see. At this point it is crucial to take back Channel 8, which with difficulty they do, announcing the return of the Chavez government. These moments have all the chaos and excitement of the French revolution or the strikes of Paris and Berkeley of 1968. Chavez has been taken to an island and a plane is poised to take him away somewhere. There are suspicions that it is the CIA.
The Chavez people send out military officers to rescue Chavez and they bring him back. W e witness his return and his first words to his government. But first huge smiles and long hugs all around.

Except for some information on what happened to Carmona and the other opposition figures after their ouster -- many staying, because of their freedom from reprisals, but Carmona turning up in Miami, no doubt to be coddled by the US and held for future use -- there is nothing further about the situation in Venezuela, which is reported to be very revolutionary and unstable.

“Chavez: Inside the Coup” isn’t political analysis but impassioned engagé reportage and as such it has enormous meaning and impact. They were there. It’s like the slogan the nation of Grenada used before the Bush takeover: “Come see for yourself.” Through these Irish filmmakers, that’s what we get to do.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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