Roger Ebert review of The Revolution will not be Televised

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Nov 14 11:30:47 MST 2003


October 31, 2003

With Hugo Chavez, Pedro Carmona, Jesse Helms and Colin Powell.

Vitagraph Films presents a documentary directed by Kim Bartley and 
Donnacha O'Briain. Running time: 74 minutes. No MPAA rating. In English 
and Spanish with English subtitles.


Was the United States a shadowy presence in the background of the 
aborted coup in Venezuela in 2002? The democratically elected government 
of Hugo Chavez was briefly overthrown by a cabal of rich businessmen and 
Army officers, shortly after their representatives had been welcomed in 
the White House. Oh, the United States denied any involvement in the 
episode; there's Colin Powell on TV, forthrightly professing innocence. 
But earlier we heard ominous rumblings from Jesse Helms, Ari Fleischer 
and George Tenet, agreeing that Chavez was no friend of the United 
States, and after the coup, there was no expression of dismay from 
Washington, no announcement that we would work to restore the elected 

Why was Chavez not our friend? It all comes down to oil, as it so often 
does these days. Venezuela is the fourth largest oil-producing nation in 
the world, and much of its oil comes to the United States. Its price has 
been guaranteed by the cooperation of the nation's ruling class. Chavez 
was elected primarily by the poor. He asked a simple question: Since the 
oil wells have always been nationalized and the oil belongs to the 
state, why do the profits flow directly to the richest, whitest 20 
percent of the population, while being denied to the poorer, darker 80 
percent? His plan was to distribute the profits equally among all 

This was, you may agree, a fair and obvious solution. But not to the 20 
percent, of course. And not to other interested parties, including our 
friends the Saudis, whose people get poorer as the sheiks get richer. 
Charging Chavez with being a communist who wanted to bring Castroism to 
Venezuela, the rich and powerful staged a coup on April 12, 2002. Chavez 
was put under arrest and held on an island, and the millionaire 
businessman Pedro Carmona was sworn in as president. This was in 
violation of the constitution, but he blandly assured TV audiences he 
was in power because "of a mandate better than any referendum." There 
was no disagreement from Washington.

Incredibly, the coup failed. Hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters 
surrounded the presidential palace, and the loyal presidential guard put 
the interlopers under arrest. Although the state-run Channel 8 was taken 
off the air and the private channels told lies and showed falsified news 
footage, Venezuelans learned from CNN and other cable channels that 
Chavez had not resigned and a coup had taken place; they demanded his 
return, and a few days later he arrived by helicopter at the 
presidential palace and resumed office.

These events are recounted in "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a 
remarkable documentary by two Irish filmmakers that is playing in 
theaters on its way to HBO. It is remarkable because the filmmakers, Kim 
Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain, had access to virtually everything that 
happened within the palace during the entire episode. They happened to 
be in Caracas to make a doc about Chavez, they had access to his cabinet 
meetings, they were inside the palace under siege, they faced a tense 
deadline after which it would be bombed, they stayed after Chavez gave 
himself up to prevent the bombing, they filmed the new government, and 
there are astonishing shots such as the one where Chavez's men, now back 
in power, go down to the basement to confront coup leaders who have been 
taken prisoner. Why no one on either side thought to question the 
presence of the TV crew is a mystery, but they got an inside look at the 
coup -- before, during and after -- that is unique in film history.

Film can be made to lie. Consider footage shown on the private TV 
channels to justify the coup. Learning that the right wing was 
sponsoring a protest march against Chavez, his supporters also marched 
on the palace. Scuffles broke out, and then concealed snipers began to 
fire on the Chavez crowd. Some in the crowd fired back. Although the 
dead and wounded were Chavez supporters, the private TV showed footage 
of them firing, and said they were firing at the anti-Chavez protest 
march. Bartley and O'Briain use footage of the same moment, from another 
angle, to show that there is no protest march in view, and that the fire 
is aimed at snipers above the parade route. That this deception was 
deliberate is confirmed by a producer for the private TV channels, who 
resigned in protest and explains how the footage was falsified. (Private 
TV did have one interesting slip; in a talk show the morning after the 
coup, one of its elated leaders talks frankly about the plan to disrupt 
the Chavez march and overthrow the government, while others on the 
program look like they'd like to throttle him.)

If private TV lied to the nation in support of the coup, the doc itself 
is clearly biased in favor of Chavez -- most clearly so in depicting his 
opponents. When the right-wing leaders are introduced, it's in slo-mo, 
with ominous music and funereal drums. He may have articulate opponents 
in Venezuela, but the only ones we see are inane society people who warn 
each other, "watch your servants!" Does everyone on the right in 
Venezuela dress like (a) an undertaker, (b) a military officer, or (c) a 
disco guest circa 1990?

Interestingly, there was relative civility on both sides. Chavez and his 
cabinet were arrested, but not harmed. After Chavez regained power, he 
said there would be no "witch hunt" of those who opposed him; although 
Carmona fled to Miami, several of the coup's military leaders (stripped 
of rank) remained in Venezuela and still continue as members of the 
opposition. This shows remarkable confidence on the part of Chavez, and 
a commitment to the democratic process.

It is of course impossible to prove that the coup was sponsored by the 
CIA or any other U.S. agency. But what was the White House thinking when 
it welcomed two anti-government leaders who soon after were instrumental 
in the coup? Not long ago, reviewing another film, I wrote about the 
CIA-sponsored overthrow of Chile's democratically elected president 
Salvador Allende. I got a lot of e-mail telling me the CIA had nothing 
to do with it. For anyone who believes that, I have a bridge I'd like to 
sell them.

Note: The last words in George Orwell's notebook were: "At age 50, every 
man has the face he deserves." Although it is outrageously unfair and 
indefensibly subjective of me, I cannot prevent myself from observing 
that Chavez and his cabinet have open, friendly faces, quick to smile, 
and that the faces of his opponents are closed, shifty, hardened.

Copyright © Chicago Sun-Times Inc.


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