The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

July 12, 2011

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a 2003 documentary film that records the 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The film also documents the events leading up to the coup.  The Revolution Will Not Be Televised uses first hand documentary footage and interviews shot by filmmakers between 2001 and 2002.  Though critics accuse the film’s pro-Chávez bias of distorting facts, the film provides a remarkable first-hand account of the April 2002 coup.

Two Irish filmmakers, Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain, arrived in Venezuela in 2001, intending to make a documentary about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who they saw as an intriguing figure.  One feature that makes Chávez so captivating is his impassioned oratory, and one of his speeches proclaiming the evils of neo-liberalism, and the U.S.’s role in its promotion, is featured in the film.  Chávez’s self-presentation as a defender of the people and as a staunch of opponent of international business interests makes him the target of both extreme loyalty and hatred.  The early part of the film focuses on the manner in which Chávez governs the country.  In many ways, he is far removed from the stereotypical modern leader; he goes to great lengths to talk in person to Venezuelan citizens, and also hosts a weekly TV show where any citizen can speak with him on-air.  His personal manner is also quite informal, demonstrated by his habitual greeting of supporters, and his attention to everyone around him, regardless of their status or rank.

While the early parts of the film show the successes of Chávez, they also foreshadow the coup by showing the private media’s campaign against Chávez, which becomes a major focus of the film.  The film pieces together several news reports from Venezuela critical of Chávez.  Also included is an ominous statement from George Tenet, the then-director of the CIA, “Obviously Venezuela is important, because it is the world’s third largest supplier of petroleum.  I would say that Mr. Chavez… probably doesn’t have the interest of the United States at heart.”  The film’s narrator, along with several of those interviewed for the film, accuses the United States of playing an active role in fomenting dissent and eventually supporting the coup plotters in their attempt to overthrow Hugo Chávez.

A few days before the coup, a leading general in the Venezuelan armed forces appeared across every private TV station and gave a statement that, while ambiguous, suggested that a coup was imminent.  Soon after, on April 11th, opposition leaders organized a march to the headquarters of the state oil company in protest of the Chávez regime, while crowds loyal to Chávez gathered around the Presidential Palace, Miraflores.  Leaders of the opposition protest than urged the crowds to march toward Miraflores, hoping for a confrontation (protest leaders acted if it was a spontaneous action, but the decision had been made long before, and was part of a larger plan).  The scenes that follow play like a thriller.  The makers of the documentary were in the crowd of Chávez supporters (Chávistas) when snipers began firing at the Chávistas.  The film includes several close-up, graphic shots of bleeding protestors lying on the street.  The camera shakes, and you can feel the fear and confusion of everyone in the crowd.

A main focus of the film is the private media’s role in the coup attempt.  The film shows appeals from private TV stations urging Venezuelans to support the coup.  The film also includes several manipulated clips shown by private TV channels that seemingly showed brutality perpetrated by Chávez supporters, and these clips became a major source of legitimacy for the coup plotters.  Throughout the coup, private TV stations reported extensively (and often falsely) on violence by Chávistas, but refused to air evidence of popular support for the ousted President.

Following the shooting, the camera crew finds refuge in the Presidential Palace.  This is certainly the tensest part of the film, as ministers, palace guards, and other staff all shuffle through crowded hallways hoping for news, with no one knowing any more than anyone else.  The viewer learns of developments elsewhere in the country through constant chatter and rumors being passed around the hallways, with the narrator occasionally stepping in to explain.  It becomes clear the Chávez government had lost the support of most of the leaders in the armed forces, and many government institutions had been taken over by the Army.  Coup leaders come in and negotiate with Chávez, who refuses to resign, but agrees to allow himself to be taken away in the early hours of April 12th to prevent the bombing of Miraflores.  Chávez is taken by the military to an island military base off Venezuela’s coast, but at the time, no one knew where he had been taken.

Following the removal of Chávez, coup leaders established a new government, headed by businessman Pedro Carmona.  The new government eliminated many government institutions (including the National Assembly) and instituted free-market policies, with at least the partial blessing of the Bush administration.

Though most international news outlets reported that Chávez had lost all of his support within the country, the reports were false.  Beginning on the morning of the 12th, Venezuelans, especially in and around Caracas (many of Chávez’s supporters come from the shantytowns surrounding the capital), poured out onto the streets in support of Chávez.  Protestors were met with heavy-handed police tactics.  Though it had appeared the armed forces had been united in their opposition to Chávez, this was also false.  Many high level army generals had in fact participated in the coup, but there were still several who supported Chávez.  Perhaps more importantly, many low ranking soldiers remained loyal to Chávez, including the Presidential Guard, who cooperated with the Carmona government reluctantly.

Crowds began to gather outside of Miraflores in support of Chávez on the 13th, and that number quickly rose into the hundreds of thousands, effectively cutting off the Palace from the rest of the country.  A dissident general advised the Presidential Guard of the situation, who decided to retake the Palace, which they completed successfully.  In the confusion, however, Carmona, and a handful of other coup leaders, escaped.  Palace Guards arrested the remaining coup leaders, and slowly, Chávez ministers, who had been in hiding, were greeted by cheering crowds as they were triumphantly escorted back into Miraflores.  The film documents the initial euphoria of those returning to Miraflores, as well as the confusion and disorganization that results.  The handful of ministers within Miraflores attempt to contact other Venezuelan leaders, but have major difficulties because they can’t get their message out through the private media.  Eventually, they regain access to State Television and swear in the Vice-President to exercise power in the absence of Hugo Chávez.  Chávez’s ministers continue negotiations with coup and military leaders, which eventually secure the release of Chávez.  He arrives early in the morning on the 14th to hundreds of thousands of cheering fans, and gives a TV address appealing for calm.  This is where the film ends.

The film does a truly wonderful job of documenting the events of April 11th– April 14th, 2002.  Unlike so many other documentaries that feel distant, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised provides an intimate depiction of Chávez, and a few other key figures, while also providing a first-hand, on-the-ground account of the coup.  This approach produces the side effect that in many parts of the film, the viewer feels just as much in the dark as those on screen, increasing both the tension and the personal attachment the viewer feels to the events depicted in the film.  The many short, impromptu interviews and the perpetually shaking camera add to these feelings.  While scenes of regular Venezuelans participating in the protests and speaking to the camera provide the most enthralling portions of the film, the news clips provide context, and the film does an excellent job of framing small actions within the broader situation.

The film, while not directly about peace or nonviolent change, certainly contains several examples of both.  While the coup largely used military force (and if there was not actual violence, the threat of violence certainly loomed over any who resisted), the restoration of Chávez was largely peaceful, and was precipitated by a massive, nonviolent protest.  Unquestionably, though, both sides used violence to achieve their aims, but perhaps it is something not shown in the film that demonstrates Chávez’s partiality towards nonviolence and reconciliation.  Following his restoration, he avoided a major crackdown on the opposition, and in 2007, Chávez issued an amnesty for sixty people charged with participating in the coup.  In his speech at the end of the film, he acknowledged his opposition, and said that while they may not agree with him, constitutional processes had to be followed.  His plea that both sides remain calm was in stark contrast to the crackdown ordered by Carmona’s government on April 12th.


MPT Intern-Danny Hirschel-Burns


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