A Revolutionary Documentary

Washington Post's positive review of the documentary "The Revolution Will Not be Televised"

Friday, December 12, 2003; Page WE47

WHEN two Irish documentary filmmakers went to Venezuela to shoot a documentary about left-wing leader Hugo Chavez, they had no idea they’d be caught in a political whirlwind.

Without warning, Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain found themselves in the presidential palace in the middle of a coup. Amazingly, they had complete access to the rapidly unfolding events, starting with the coup, continuing with gun-toting riots in the streets (one out of four Venezuelans pack firearms) and concluding with an astounding turning of the tables — well, maybe we can stop talking details on this point. What ultimately happened is in the history books now and you can look it up. But “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which plays like a raw, Costa-Gavras-style thriller, and which makes disturbing implications about the role of the Bush administration in all this, is worth watching down to the last thrilling minute.

What makes the film more explosive is the continued uncertainty that hangs over the country. Chavez’s story, and by extension Venezuela’s, is far from over.

Chavez, a populist leader with a clearly socialist, anti-global-capitalism agenda, has a strong connection to Venezuela’s impoverished people, estimated at 80 percent of the population. He is known and loved by many of those constituents for his promise to redistribute the wealth and also for his energetic outreach, which includes a government television station which he uses to answer live, call-in questions from the public.

“I need a bag of cement to fix my house,” says one citizen shown in the film.

“I need a job as a teacher,” says another.

But Chavez is a virtual pariah among the ruling classes, which includes wealthy oil exporters (the country is the world’s fourth largest oil producer) and the privately owned media companies who relentlessly criticize him. And his refusal to play ball with Washington in the global economy, as well as his blunt criticism of the government’s bombing campaign in Afghanistan, all but sealed his doom. (CIA Director George Tenet and Secretary of State Colin Powell are shown expressing their “concern” over Chavez.)

Predictably, Chavez became a target of capitalist interests in April 2002, when a junta marched into the palace and insisted a new government take over. Bartley and O’Briain were there for all of it.

“Revolution” captures the panic and fear among Chavez and his palace-bound cabinet, as well as his obviously loyal palace guard, as the provisional government gathers outside; the broadcasts of the handful of private TV stations which announce the takeover in smooth synchronicity with the coup; and the helter-skelter things that follow. Chavez agrees to submit himself to the leaders of the coup, but refuses to surrender leadership. He is whisked away to an unknown location. Members of his cabinet go into hiding. And the new provisional government moves in, headed by business leader Pedro Carmona.

But that’s just the beginning of this 48-hour melodrama.

The reasons for the title (which echoes a Gil-Scott Heron song) become obvious soon enough. The lack of journalistic objectivity is surreal. Television stations stated that Chavez supporters on a bridge were firing on innocent people. In fact, they were reacting to snipers who had begun shooting at them. (The snipers, believed to be anti-Chavez forces, killed 11 in the crowd.) And when events began to change in Chavez’s favor, those stations refused to carry the events.

The handheld, news-breaking immediacy of “Revolution” is intoxicating. You are right in there with the people of Venezuela, good, bad and ugly. And if the structure of the movie is somewhat sketchy, it’s understandable. This was shot, as it were, from the hip. And that’s the kind of white-knuckle filmmaking that makes documentaries more powerful, at times, than dramatic movies. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is an extraordinary piece of electronic history. And a riveting movie.

THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED (Unrated, 74 minutes) — Contains gun violence and emotionally intense standoffs. Narrated in English. Some Spanish with subtitles. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row.