Pablo Navarrete is a British-Chilean journalist, researcher, editor and documentary filmmaker. Inside the Revolution: A Journey Into the Heart of Venezuela is his first feature length documentary, and was released in August 2009 by Alborada Films. Navarrete was the Venezuela researcher for John Pilger’s documentary The War on Democracy. He is the Latin America editor for Red Pepper magazine and a PhD student at Bradford University in the UK, researching the political economy of development policy under the Chavez government in Venezuela. He has covered contemporary Latin American political issues for the Transnational Institute, Al Jazeera English, The Guardian Unlimited and The New Statesman.
In this interview Navarrete talks about what led him to produce Inside the Revolution, the focus and impact of the film, and describes the Bolivarian revolution’s democracy from below.
Benjamin Dangl: Could you please explain the general focus of your documentary?
Pablo Navarrete: My documentary, which was filmed in November 2008 (just ahead of the 10th anniversary of Chávez’s first presidential election victory) focuses on trying to understand Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian’ process, as that: a process, and one that is rooted in the specificities of Venezuelan and Latin American history. Like all processes it is often contradictory, has successes, failures and in Venezuela’s case is characterized by the constant tension and interaction between charismatic leadership and collective agency.
I wanted the film to honestly reflect the views of many of the government’s grassroots supporters, who are routinely ignored by the mainstream media. In this sense I see the film as contributing to a history from below.
I hope the film provides audiences with an alternative narrative to the one offered by the mainstream media and challenges what they know about events in Venezuela under Chávez. In my opinion two things are essential to understanding the contemporary political process in Venezuela, and I tried to reflect these in the film.
The first is to move beyond the simplistic interpretations so favored by the mainstream media that focus virtually all developments in Venezuela around the figure of Chávez. Instead, as I already said, I wanted the film to provide a platform for the ignored voices of the government’s grassroots supporters. These people are instrumental in driving the process forward and should be at the center of the story.
Secondly, I wanted the film to provide some basic contextual information about the type of democracy that existed in Venezuela prior to the Chávez presidency. Only then can one better understand the attraction of Chávez’s political program to large sectors of Venezuelan society.
To sum up you could say I wanted to concentrate on the process rather than the individual, without shying away from exploring some of the challenges or concerns that both supporters of the process and analysts generally sympathetic to the process highlighted to me.
BD: What led you to make this documentary?
PN: I was motivated to make this film by my experience of living and working in Venezuela between 2005 and 2007. During this time I saw the country’s political process up close for myself, while also observing how events in the country were being portrayed by the foreign mainstream media, especially by outlets that call themselves ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’, such as The Guardian and the BBC in the UK.
In Venezuela I worked as a fixer for various foreign mainstream media outlets, while writing occasionally for the leftwing UK magazine Red Pepper and the website Venezuelanalysis.com. Most significant though was my work as the Venezuela researcher for the journalist and filmmaker John Pilger’s documentary The War on Democracy, which exposes the brutal interventions against democracy in Latin America by successive US governments.
In researching that film I spoke to Venezuelans from all sectors of society but especially to the government’s grassroots supporters and community activists in the barrios (low-income neighborhoods) that encircle Caracas. These activists repeatedly told me that they were aware of the international media’s obsession with Chávez the individual – and were frustrated that their voices were being ignored in the foreign media – unlike the government’s domestic and international opponents. While they admired Chávez’s leadership qualities and recognized his charisma, most insisted they were the true force behind the process of radical change taking place in Venezuela. This was a view that was completely absent in mainstream media reporting on Venezuela; indeed I rarely read, saw or heard a report that really tried to understand the attraction of Chavez and his government to a large section of Venezuelan society. Contrast this to the litany of articles, programs, etc. where you’d have opponents of the government given free reign to accuse it of being undemocratic/dictatorial; it is precisely this narrative which is used to silence the people from below and render them insignificant.
Due to the particular focus of John Pilger’s film, it wasn’t possible to fully explore the narratives of the government’s grassroots supporters, and even though I had never made a film before, shortly after I returned to the UK I decided that I needed to make a documentary that made sense of what I had experienced in Venezuela. On a personal note, the hope and enthusiasm that I saw so many Venezuelans had toward their political process was a refreshing antidote to the pervasive sense of cynicism and despair you have with politics in so many so-called developed countries.
BD: What are your hopes for the impact of the film?
PN: My main hope in terms of the impact of the film was to make a documentary that was honest and that challenged people in terms of their understanding of Venezuela’s current political process. I think that if a documentary can make you think and re-evaluate what you thought you knew about a subject then, in many ways, it has something important to offer.
I’ve been extremely encouraged by the reaction to the film. John Pilger, who is a real reference point for me in terms of political documentary filmmaking, praised the film, which I’m sure has helped generate interest in the documentary. Various academics, journalists and others have also said complimentary things about the film, so in that sense I’m very pleased with how it has been received. But what has most pleased me has been the reaction of the general public to the film. I really wanted to make something that was as accessible as possible, but that somehow engaged with issues which are often considered too “dense” to try to articulate in a documentary. A lot of young people have told me that they enjoyed and learned a lot from the film and this really for me is the most rewarding thing.
Obviously the film is not to everyone’s taste and some have accused it of lacking “balance”. Some have argued that interpretations of events covered in the film favored by those opposed to Chávez are not given equal space in the film relative to the voices of the government’s supporters. To that I would say that I don’t believe journalists are or should be “balanced” or “objective”. Without getting too philosophical about it, everyone brings their own prejudices into a project, whether it’s leftwing, liberal, rightwing etc; the issue is really to what degree they are conscious of their standpoint and secondly whether they are being misleading in how they present issues.
I would argue that the BBC, which sets itself up as a paragon of “objectivity” and “balance”, has been highly partisan in its Venezuela coverage. In fact a recent paper seems to confirm this quite comprehensively. For me the issue is not that the BBC is biased but that it is also misleading. In my film I am very honest about whose story it is I am telling and who the film seeks to represent. The BBC is not as it pretends or purports to give a general picture, rather than the parochial one of Venezuela’s elites. I would be surprised if those who criticize my film for being too partisan would level the same charge at the BBC.
But returning to the impact of the film, when we premiered the film in London, in August 2009, more than 300 people came. The auditorium we were screening the film in only held 160 so we decided to put on an impromptu extra screening immediately after the first one so that everyone who had come down could see it. It was really humbling to see such a level of interest. Since then I have traveled with the film to the US, in December 2009, where I showed it at Harvard, Yale and various other US universities. I spoke about the media aspects of the film to a group of students at Columbia School of Journalism in New York and to be honest found the reaction to the film by US audiences to be very good overall. At the Yale screening I had Maria Corina Machado, a high-profile Venezuelan opposition politician, who was at Yale on some kind of year-long scholarship program, attend with an entourage. She sat right through the screening and I found it curious that she stayed for the entire Q&A session with me afterwards without saying a word – especially given her intimate involvement with Venezuela’s turbulent recent history.
I have also traveled with the film to Australia in 2010 where it was screened in a number of cities. At last count, to my knowledge, the film has been shown in 13 countries, including India and Sudan. So I hope it continues to be seen and that it continues to generate debate about what is going on in Venezuela under the Chavez government. For all its faults I believe that Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian’ process is a noble experiment, which at its core is seeking to create a society where human needs are prioritized over corporate needs. In the UK, where I was born and live, corporate needs are king and increasingly so. My parents are Chileans who were forced to flee from the Pinochet dictatorship after the overthrow of the Allende government in 1973. The Allende government was another of those noble Latin American experiments to favor human needs, and like so many of these experiments, it was ultimately drowned in blood by US government-funded forces. I hope Venezuela is allowed to develop its own democracy free from foreign interference and I hope that my film shines a small light into the type of democracy ordinary Venezuelans put incredible effort and enthusiasm into building everyday.