Interview with Documentary Filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain

Bartley and O'Briain discuss their award-winning documentary, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" - how they filmed it, how they personally experienced the coup, media coverage, and how how the film has been received.

In 2001, Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain traveled to Venezuela to videotape a behind-the-scenes profile of President Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected leftist president who had been swept into office by a groundswell of support from the poor sections of Venezuela’s cities and countryside.  While filming in April of 2002, they found themselves in the midst of a coup attempt against Chavez, and their cameras were there to capture those incredible moments of April 2002.  They compiled this footage to create the documentary “The Revolution will not be Televised.”  Bartley and O’Briain were interviewed by Brian Forrest in October of 2003.

BF: At what point did you realize you were no longer making a portrait of Chavez but rather documenting a coup?

KB & DOB:  The nature of the documentary changed quite dramatically, what set out to be a profile of Chavez and a look at what was going on in Venezuela turned into the story of a coup from the inside.  Clearly on the night of the coup we realized that we were witnessing something quite extraordinary but we were reluctant to make any drastic decisions about the documentary.  The decisions that were made were largely made in the edit and it was a slow and difficult process since we’d spent months prior to the coup filming with something quite specific in mind and we were reluctant to let that all go.  In the end we tried, within the time constraints, to present as best we could the situation in Venezuela as we’d experienced it before moving the story along into the events surrounding the coup.

BF:  Were you afraid for your personal safety? How did you deal with it?

KB & DOB:  People always ask if we were afraid and the truth is that it’s very hard to explain the emotions felt on the night of the coup, the whole thing was very surreal and happened so fast…and yet the hours spent in the palace that night, before Chavez was taken away, seemed to go in slow motion.  Of course there were times when we all wondered how the night would end– would they bomb the place?–  but we never considered leaving.  However the following day was an entirely different and frightening experience, we hadn’t slept or eaten since the previous morning, we were watching people we knew whose homes were being raided, we were getting calls telling us to get out of the country with the tapes for our own safety.  Generally the repression on the day Carmona took over was very frightening.  We both knew what had happened in Chile in 73 and the coup-leaders very quickly tried to generate a climate of fear in the capital.  It was palpable and deeply disturbing.

BF:  In your film there is lots of footage of Chavez opponents and coup leaders during the coup. Talk about how you were able to gather recordings of both sides of the struggle.

KB & DOB:  At the time there was a burgeoning alternative media scene in Venezuela, courageous people who took to the streets with video cameras and kept filming throughout the 3 days.  We were fortunate to know many of these independent community media groups and they were fantastic, they gave us their footage and we cut that in with what we’d shot ourselves.  Our eternal thanks to people like Panafilms who continue to do an amazing job – giving working class people a voice , something the private media have never done.  They have carried on their work despite being under funded and having had their place of work raided by the police of one of the mayors in opposition to Chavez (that happened following a video they made after the coup denouncing the role of the Venezuelan media).  The role of alternative media in the Venezuelan process is a very interesting phenomenon.  The shots taken inside the palace on the day that Carmona was sworn in – the backslapping and general euphoria – were filmed by one of the official palace cameramen who went to work as usual that day and later gave us the footage after Chavez returned.

During our time in Venezuela the alternative media scene was really only beginning to gather strength.  Following the coup and the role played by alternative media outlets in getting news out about what was going on, the government set up a number of meetings with members of these groups to work out a way of helping with funding and providing outlets for some of their work on the national TV channel and radio… There were also moves to set up a Venezuelan Indymedia as well as a Venezuelan Mediawatch group.

BF:  How has your film been received, both in VZ and around the world?
KB & DOB:  The film was shown on Venezuelan state TV (channel 8) last April and feedback was as expected: those who support Chavez loved it, those who oppose him hated it and we also heard from a lot of people who didn’t really know what to believe and were shocked when they saw what had taken place inside the palace and how the media had reported on the events.  In the rest of the world the reception has been truly incredible.  It was first shown in the States at the SXSW festival in Texas and went down really well.  Also with the build up to the invasion of Iraq a lot of people were becoming politically active for the first time through the anti war movement and the documentary hit home in a way that it mightn’t have in a different time.  We hope that as many people in the U.S. as possible get an opportunity to see the film and that it might serve as a catalyst for a debate on the role of U.S. power in the world.

BF:  One mystery that is not unraveled during the film is the U.S. registered plane that landed on the island where Chavez was being held during the coup. Is more known about this today?

KB & DOB:  Newsweek published a piece following the coup in which the identified the owner of the plane as being Gustavo Cisneros, the Venezuelan tycoon and owner of “Venevision”, one of the commercial channels.  Legal action was promptly taken against the authors of the piece.

BF:  In the dramatic moments when the palace guards revolt against the coup leaders, it was difficult to know what motivated them. Was it a personal affinity for Chavez? Was it the throngs of Chavez supporters outside the gates?  I wonder if you had a chance to talk to any of the palace guards and get their take on this.

KB & DOB:  We spoke to lots of the palace guards following the retake and the reasons are all those you mention in your question. Chavez is very conscious of the power of personal contact and always made a point anywhere he traveled to take the younger soldiers aside and talk to them, sometimes spending hours with them.  He also uses a language which is familiar to a lot of these young men and women who often come from working class families (military service is not compulsory) and talks to them about his own time in the army as a young man and baseball… so he certainly has built a rapport with the lower echelons of the army.  More importantly he has sought to redefine the role of the armed forces, attempting to inculcate a ethos of service not to the state simply, but rather to the people and the progressive constitution voted in by referendum in 99.  The decision to storm the palace on April 13th was taken by the leaders of the presidential guard and Chavez’ inner security circle but they only decided to act when they felt they had the support of the masses gathered outside.  Also, prior to the action taken in Caracas, a barracks in the west of Venezuela– Maracay– had revolted and was refusing to take orders from the new administration.  A key factor in failure of the coup, as seen in the doc, is the fact that many of the barracks around the country were relying on the news as reported by the private TV stations and had no idea that the presidential guard or the barracks in Maracay had taken action, it was only when the state TV channel went back on air that they realized they’d been lied to about Chavez’ resignation by the military high command and the tide changed.

BF:  When Chavez came to power, it seems reasonable to think he could, had he wished, censored the private media who were unfriendly to his administration. Why do you think he didn’t give in to this temptation as so many other revolutionaries have?

KB & DOB:  Chavez often talks about the fact that censorship was rampant under previous supposedly democratic administrations and he has been very careful not to go down that same path.  His strength has been in educating people about their rights and it’s quite remarkable to meet people in poor and often illiterate neighborhoods who are very conscious about how the media works and will tell you that you can’t swallow everything the TV tells you.  It’s also why the independent media movement has been so important in Venezuela.  That said, there is a genuine questioning within Venezuela of the Chavez administration’s soft approach to the outrageous distortions of the private media.  The argument goes that since the airways are public property, and private TV can only broadcast with a license obtained from the state, then the private media should be made to observe fundamental precepts of balance, fairness etc.  This is pretty uncontroversial stuff here in Ireland, where there are broadcasting regulations and the state does retain some sanction on those who breach them.  Of course the problem is that private media conglomerates today, like multinational companies, think they are above all public control.  This is a serious issue that we all as citizens need to reflect on.  How to protect the principle of freedom of speech in a media world increasingly controlled by an economic oligopoly, one which often seems nothing more than an extension of private power – e.g Fox News.

BF:  On that note, cameras act as a “third eye” that shows the struggle between the competing messages of Chavez and the private Venezuelan media. One would think that against near-uniform opposition by the media, no politician would be able to stay in power. How was it that the mass of the Venezuelan population was able to get the Chavez message through all these filters?
KB & DOB:  During the coup when there was a media black-out, things like the internet, short wave radio and cable TV played an important part in getting other sides of the story out to the Venezuelan people.  But the other great tool was the mobile phone.  People in different parts of Caracas were able to share info rapidly, report that others were out on the streets, and generally maintain a sense of courage and solidarity.  But of course none of this would have been possible if there had not already been a process of consciousness-raising among significant portions of the population.  Chavez has played a role in this as a brilliant communicator, a destroyer of the myths that, as Paolo Freire says, the oppressors use to keep people down.  He knows how to use any media at his disposal and the “Alo Presidente” show has played an important part in this.  However it has to be said that the people ultimately have liberated themselves.  Many people want to be free, want to build a better society.  Sometimes it takes remarkable individuals like Chavez to help them see that this is possible.  Once they see it they don’t need him anymore.  All the people I talked to who came out to surround the palace during the coup were not there to defend Chavez the man, they were there to defend their constitution, in other words their vision of a better society. 

BF:  Have you returned to VZ since the making of your film?

KB & DOB:  Only very briefly.  Essentially our understanding of Venezuela dates from the time we spent there filming.  While we continue to keep abreast of events it is still difficult to really keep your pulse on what is going on. it would appear that the economic destabilization that happened after the coup has wreaked havoc on the economy.  This combined with an ongoing flight of capital has increased unemployment and inflation.  Of course this hits the middle classes worst and they seem to be implacable in their hatred of the administration.  Amongst the poor it is hard to say.  Those who saw themselves as committed to the process of change seem to have been radicalized.  Marginalized communities which live by and large outside the formal economy aren’t as affected by the economic downturn.  They even seem to have become more self sufficient.  The problem is that there seems to be no political space where this polarization can be resolved.  The middle class refuse to engage in real political opposition, i.e. joining democratic parties, developing alternative policies, trying to convince others they are good policies, etc.  They have thrown everything into the recall referendum, which is very legitimate.  But they seem to be obsessed with getting rid of Chavez at all costs. There seems to be now acknowledgment that if they get rid of him they will still have to engage with a whole section of society – hitherto marginalized – that has become politically conscious and active.

BF:  Two questions stem– first, how was it that Chavez, himself a leader of a failed coup in 1992, was able to run for president; and second, should leftists elsewhere in the world have reservations about supporting the presidency of an attempted coup leader?

KB & DOB:  Chavez was sent to prison in 92 along with other organizers of the failed coup.  He was released in 94.  During his time in prison he consolidated alliances with civilian groups who in a variety of contexts had been working peacefully for change – parties like Mas and Patria Para Todos.  In many ways the 92 coup served as a symbolic gesture, an attempt to rouse progressive forces in the country, somewhat comparable to the Easter rising in Ireland in 1916 which led to the war for Irish independence.  After 1992 Chavez became a focus for what was up to then a disparate movement.  We don’t think leftists should automatically exclude alliances with former coup leaders; it depends on what they are explicitly committing themselves to.  Obviously you need to look at the reasons the person might have been involved in the coup and if they were involved in crimes against humanity whether they had served their sentence.

BF:  While the coup was certainly the most dramatic example of the campaign against Chavez, the effort to unseat him is certainly still going on.  Do you have any thoughts on what non-Venezuelans who favor Chavez’s democracy can do to work in solidarity with the people of Venezuela?

KB & DOB:  I personally think the Venezuelan middle class are key… I think one of the ways to help this is to reduce the amount of fear and instability they are experiencing.  So, for example, international support for such measures as the Tobin tax, and capital controls-– things Chavez favors for preventing capital outflow and instability – should be advocated by international civil society as good things for Venezuela and for the world.

Secondly, the Venezuelan middle class is very sensitive to “western” opinion.  They almost model themselves on a U.S. or European identity.  We should find ways of engaging them with people of their own lifestyle from Europe/U.S. who have different vision of the world.  Things like the exchanges organized by Global Exchange in San Francisco are what I have in mind, but between middle class people.

BF:  Where can American audiences see the film?

Screening dates for the film “The Revolution will not be Televised”:
San Francisco / Venue: Castro Theatre, opens Oct 24th.
Chicago / Venue: Landmarks Century Centre Cinema, opens Oct 31st.
New York / Venue: Film Forum, opens Nov 5th.
Los Angeles / Venue: Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, opens Nov 21st.
for more dates and information, visit chavezthefilm.com (site no longer available)