Through a Lens Distortedly

A new documentary about Hugo Chavez plays it fast and loose

"Oh, you poor deluded leftists," sighs author Neal Pollack while gazing out at the audience gathered before him at the recent Miami Book Fair International. The crowd, heavy on grad students, self-styled bohemians, and early arrivals for the FTAA protests, is in on the joke and laughs in knowing appreciation. As a Michael Moore for the MFA set, Pollack ostensibly takes aim in his satirical stories at both left- and right-wing pretensions, skewering the Iraq war effort and antiwar demonstrators alike. But it's abundantly clear to Pollack's fans where his heart lies. A piece such as "I Am Friends With A Working-Class Black Woman" is only funny if, like Pollack, you've spent four years on an Ivy League campus among activists working through their moneyed guilt. Or better yet, you've been one of those bourgeois rebels yourself.

As the chuckles subside, Pollack returns to reading from his online blog, taking insider potshots at the film Shattered Glass and its subject, notorious former New Republicstaffer Stephen Glass. "If you want to see a real movie about high-stakes journalism, catch Veronica Guerin," he continues, pointing to the biopic of a Dublin reporter slain by Irish mobsters. And then Pollack's sarcastic punch line: "At last, someone is telling the truth about the deadly death squads of Venezuelan 'President' Hugo Chavez."

But instead of a fresh round of laughter, there is a hoot of agreement and some applause. Pollack stops short, looking genuinely stunned. It would seem to take a lot to shock him -- after all, a stop on Pollack's current "punk rock" book tour for his Never Mind the Pollacks (HarperCollins) is apt to feature the author stripping off his shirt, hurling a cup of beer, and bellowing an a cappella ode to the sexual charms of vice presidential wife Lynne Cheney.

Yet the idea that one of his own admirers could be a, gulp, anti-Chavista has left him visibly shaken. Obviously someone has wandered off the ideological reservation. Pollack frowns, and in a nod to the C-SPAN camera broadcasting the event live, growls that any other like-minded viewers out in TV land can pick up their phone and "call in at 1-800 FASCIST!"

It's a telling exchange. The notion of a Red vs. Blue America, each with its own checklist of shibboleths, seems less like a pundit's theory and more like a statement of fact. As the 2004 election heats up, each camp's hermetically sealed media bubble appears designed primarily to rally the faithful. Offering information, let alone debate, hardly enters into it.

Witness author Ann Coulter accusing liberal Democrats of not merely intellectual dishonesty but treason (a capital offense) -- and riding that charge onto the bestseller lists. Across the political divide, Green Party USA leader Mitchel Cohen stepped to the podium at last month's "Bring the Troops Home" rally in Washington, D.C., and to the cheers of the thousands there, ranted about the "fascist cabal" now sitting in the White House. To Cohen's boosters, it's beyond the pale that Hugo Chavez could be anything other than an unfairly maligned populist, battling CIA-backed moguls in the name of the toiling masses.

Conversely, for Coulter's ilk, Chavez is simply Fidel Castro's puppet, a strutting caudillo who seeks to build a police state and plunge Venezuela into the same "sea of happiness" in which Cuba swims -- or so he claims.

That the truth, free of ideological bias, lies somewhere between these two poles would seem impossible for either Cohen or Coulter's side to acknowledge. But it's exactly what Irish documentary filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain set out to depict in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The duo spent several months in 2002 at Chavez's side, granted unparalleled access: shooting cabinet meetings inside Miraflores, the presidential palace, and then roaming the Caracas streets.

What, however, began as a testament to what Bartley and O'Briain deemed Chavez's heroic effort to redistribute his nation's immense oil wealth (the largest such petroleum reserves outside the Middle East) soon became a treatise on Venezuelan media. The more Chavez pushed to seize control of the oil industry, the more the country's newspapers and television stations turned hostile, leaving the line between news reporting and editorializing far behind.

In an amazing feat of timing, Bartley and O'Briain's cameras were inside Miraflores as this tension came to a head in the coup of April 11, 2002. We watch, in gripping cinéma vérité fashion, as a huge opposition march to the palace ends in a bloody shootout with Chavez supporters. While bodies are dragged past and marchers scatter for cover, we're left wondering: Were the opposition demonstrators fired upon by anti-Chavez military elements hoping to foment civil unrest, as Bartley and O'Briain intimate? Or were armed Chavistas champing at the bit to teach their opponents a grim lesson?

As The Revolution shows us, Venezuelan TV was willing to play fast and loose with the facts on the ground, incessantly airing footage of Chavistas firing wildly on marchers. Yet those same gunmen, in images taken from a different angle, would seem to be firing in self-defense.

By that evening's end, as outrage over the continually broadcast killings of opposition marchers grew, Venezuela's military threatened to bomb Miraflores unless Chavez surrendered himself. The film shows cabinet members rushing about, grabbing for cell phones, muttering ominously that "the game is up." And through it all, even as Chavez is marched off to imprisonment while his ministers weep, Bartley and O'Briain roll tape. They're still filming the next day, April 12, as a new military government moves into Miraflores and warmly congratulates itself while Chavez's own red beret-topped Palace Guard looks on glumly.

Just hours later, as Chavez supporters mass outside, that same Palace Guard dashes past with guns drawn, retaking Miraflores in Chavez's name and hunting room-to-room for the would-be coupsters. Meanwhile, rather than report on any of these changing developments, Venezuela's most popular TV station, Venevision, airs Pretty Woman and a steady diet of cartoons.

All of this is ably captured in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. As a film it's never less than thrilling, a real-life Seven Days in May, complete with sinister-looking generals and a plucky aide-de-camp who comes to the rescue.

As a historical documentary, though, The Revolution is strictly agitprop, as one-sided as any of the coverage its directors set out to debunk.The anti-Chavez opposition is constantly referred to as nothing more than a handful of "oligarchs" and a few pampered dilettantes. Yet if the opposition is only this tiny elite, who exactly are the hundreds of thousands of protesters Bartley and O'Briain show angrily marching on Miraflores, demanding Chavez's head? And if the broad mass of Venezuela's workers support Chavez -- as the filmmakers insist -- why is the Venezuelan Workers' Federation, the country's main labor union, shown at the forefront of this same opposition?

Behind the scenes lies an even more curious alignment. Trolling the corridors of our own Capitol on Chavez's paid behalf is none other than former New York congressman and 1996 Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp -- one of his party's fiercest advocates of privatization and conservative business principles. He's hardly a man one would associate with Chavez's followers, clad in their Che Guevara T-shirts. Still, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, Kemp has met repeatedly with U.S. Department of Energy officials, hoping to smooth ruffled feathers and cement a billion-dollar increase in Venezuelan oil sales. Chavez even dispatched Kemp to visit the Journal's editorial board in the hope of damping down some of its pithier headlines, such as "Chavez's Law: The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves."

Meanwhile, acting as a media consultant to the Venezuelan opposition is the very architect of Kemp's 1996 defeat -- Democratic Party honcho James Carville. As the opposition collects signatures for a recall vote on Chavez's presidency, they're hoping Carville can work the same electoral magic he conjured up as one of Bill Clinton's campaign strategists. (With luck Carville's advice will be a bit more coherent than his storyline on HBO's K Street.)

You can see these odd alliances as cynical proof that the lure of the highest bidder trumps any tribal allegiance. Or, as Kulchur prefers, take it as evidence that the fissure lines between Red and Blue America are nowhere near as deep as each crews' staunchest advocates would have you believe.

Just as encouraging, for all the spinning going on in Caracas, some folks are still managing to catch the subtext. On April 11, 2002, Kulchur was reporting on a story in Havana as news of the coup broke. Predictably Cuba's media shifted to a fevered pitch: The state-run TV and radio ran nonstop coverage warning that Chavez's toppling would mean more than the loss of a strategic ally, more than a victory for "imperialism" and presumed U.S. interests. It would be a powerful blow aimed at the heart of Cuba's own revolution.

At an informal rap concert inside a Centro Habana community center the next evening, the young crowd there took that message to heart -- but not exactly in the way it might have been intended. One MC leapt onto the stage and, choosing his words very carefully, told everyone to think hard about what they'd been watching on TV. The possible overthrow of Chavez had lessons for everyone in Cuba, he added cryptically. He was met with an eerie quiet: No one needed an announcer to read between the lines for them.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televisedscreens at the University of Miami's Bill Cosford Cinema Saturday, November 29, at 9:00 p.m. and Sunday, November 30, at 7:00 p.m. (call 305-284-4861 for details); at the Regal South Beach 18 cinema beginning Friday, December 5; and on HBO later this winter.

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