Book Review: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

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At the heart of Rod Stoneman’s book lie questions about power. Specifically, the power to construct reality, and to create both ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’.

My first tangible encounter with apartheid was probably Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film, Cry Freedom. The moving images brought to life my incomplete, abstract knowledge in powerful ways. Apartheid, for me, was to a large extent the 157 minutes that Attenborough had put together. But about 20 years later, that view was challenged while reading Mamphela Ramphele‘s autobiography, A Life. In it she describes factual inaccuracies in Cry Freedom. She also writes about her desire to have them corrected and the way the ANC, the political organisation that came to ‘own’ the anti-apartheid movement, prevented that from happening. As far as they were concerned, Attenborough had provided an effective tool with which they could further their cause. Details of fact, even if Dr. Ramphele regarded them as ‘the truth’, were a secondary concern.

Chavez – The Revolution Will Not be Televised: A Case Study of Politics and the Media is an interesting work. Film, be it fiction or documentary, is at heart about telling a story. The subject matter in reality is often little more than a backdrop – the context within which the narrative is told. This book is similar. The documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised serves as the backdrop for an important discussion on the interaction between politics and the media.

Having been involved with the financing of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Stoneman, who heads a film school, provides an interesting perspective on the filmmaking process. His is an eye-opening account of the difficulties of raising funds as an independent filmmaker. The thinking and constraints on individuals who decide what eventually makes it onto television are also well laid out. But most important is the discussion on the criticism that was landed on this documentary and his thoughts on its political significance.

It is unfortunate, though perfectly understandable, that the history of Venezuela’s political environment is not tackled in greater detail. That feat would almost certainly require it’s own volume. But based on this account, one gets the impression that the opposition to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised essentially came from those Venezuelans opposed to Chavez. That group tends to be more light skinned, more likely to be of European descent, and wealthier and than the chavistas. One also gets the impression that the anti-Chavez section of society is used to having the local media create the world in its own image. And that makes sense. Positions of influence within the media sector, as in most other sectors, are generally staffed by people who belong to the middle and wealthier classes. This is more so in the context of the developing world where income and power gaps tend to be exaggerated. It should not be too controversial to come to the same conclusion as Stoneman – control of the means of transmitting a message endows one with some degree of power over people’s perception of reality.

That is where things get messy. Representation. Stoneman clearly shows that the intention of the filmmakers went beyond creating a visual record of the events surrounding a coup somewhere in Latin America. Documentary, like other genres of film, is about ‘entertainment’. Even a documentary on the life cycle of the housefly will seek to keep the audience engaged. In the case of an already exciting story about the fall and restoration of a self-styled socialist leader, things are made all the more thrilling by the clever use of editing and background music, for example. One of the many apt quotations in this book comes from Emilio de Antonio, “Only God is objective and he doesn’t make documentaries.” Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain obviously saw the events in Venezuela from the chavista point of view. As neither of them is God, bias was inevitable. Stoneman cautions that though bias will exist, it doesn’t negate the existence of truth. He is right, but it is impossible to know the extent to which that bias affects the audience’s perception of truth.

Not only that, their film may have had a similar effect to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. For many, Spielberg’s film, through no fault of his, came to define not just that particular story of the holocaust, but the sum total of the holocaust. Bartley and O’Briain may come to define Venezuelan politics in general for many living outside Venezuela and the Americas. Reading Stoneman’s account, one wonders if the filmmakers realised the full significance of this fact. One gets a sense of their commitment to truthfully tell an entertaining story, but not so much an appreciation of the disempowering effect of that story on some of its subjects.

Stoneman is in some ways incredibly gracious to those who have criticised the documentary. He acknowledges the fact that decisions taken by the filmmakers, even in the absence of a political agenda, portray Venezuela’s opposition in a less than flattering light. However, he does a good job of defending those decisions. An important aspect of that defence revolves around media control in Venezuela. That a group who fiercely oppose and undermine a man who has the support of the majority complain when stronger forces undermine them is more than ironic.

Postcolonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak, posed the important question, “Can the subaltern speak?” This book touches on the same question. In a local context, the poor do not set the media agenda. Internationally, even local elites do not have the kind of power to define how they are perceived in the global metropolis. Without having to cross into the domain of conspiracy theories, Stoneman shows that these questions are not just abstract. They have the power to determine political realities just as much as politics has to influence the media.

Chavez – The Revolution Will Not be Televised: A Case Study of Politics and the Media is an excellent, thought provoking work. It was written by someone who has obviously given a good deal of thought to his industry. Put in simple language, using sentences that flow easily and fortified with the thoughts of filmmakers and philosophers, it is a pleasure to read. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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2 Responses

  1. Wally

    July 9, 2009 12:20 am

    You’re on the right tack about documentary makers constructing reality. Repetitive panning shots and selected musical background are regularly chosen to spin stories. Let’s have some specific attention to Irish TV techniques. Tuppenceworth.ie has a revealing anecdote about the way they produced the recently demised Questions and Answers programme. Q & A aired lots of useful topics, however, and here’s hoping RTE explores novel ideas for stimulating current affairs and cultural coverage.

    Link – http://www.tuppenceworth.ie/blog/

  2. Simon OLoughlan

    October 18, 2009 9:41 am

    In the 1990s, corruption and mismanagement led to financial crises, the temporary suspension of constitutional liberties and the breakdown of the two-party system that had dominated Venezuela’s political landscape since 1958.Since Chávez’s reelection, Venezuela’s political environment has been marked by substantial turmoil and polarization, including an abortive coup on April 12, 2002, a devastating national strike in February 2003 and a presidential recall referendum on August 15, 2004. Here’s hoping that they might soon be able to reach a democratic solution.