Venezuelan politics does not exactly vie with "Joe Millionaire" for the attention of the American public, and the 24-hour coup and counter-coup that removed and then restored Hugo Chavez to that country's presidency in April 2002 did not turn many heads over here. Even if it had, says "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a fine new documentary, we would not have gotten the whole story. And what a story it turns out to be.
By dint of real skill and being at the right place at the right time, Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O Briain were able to record a close-up glimpse of history as it happened. Their remarkable true-life footage makes this 74-minute film as potent as behemoths twice its size.
The film's title, taken from the famous Gil Scott-Heron lyric, turns out to be an especially telling one. For though what happened in Venezuela was clearly filmed, the reality of who controlled that country's airwaves meant that significant events were either shown in a misleading manner or not shown at all to the people who were affected most by them.
Clearly Chavez partisans, the filmmakers came to Venezuela seven months before the coup with a goal of, as the lilting Irish voice-over puts it, "getting behind the layers of myth and rumor" about this democratically elected leader.
One of the revelations of "Revolution" is how charismatic Chavez is. "If one day it means that I have to go to the gate of hell to defend the people of Venezuela," he thunders in a speech whose fervor would put American politicians to shame, "so be it. I will defend you come what may."
This passion to help those in poverty (an estimated 80% of the population), and Chavez's determination as the first nonwhite president to spread both democracy and the country's oil wealth through all social classes make him enormously popular with the poor.
Chavez's charisma is, not surprisingly, lost on a U.S. increasingly dependent on the fourth-largest oil-exporting nation for cheap and reliable oil. Given what we see, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer sounds ridiculous when he insists Chavez has no popular support, but CIA Director George Tenet is right on the mark when he says, "Mr. Chavez does not have the interests of the United States at heart."
Also resistant to Chavez's charm are the "haves" in the class-divided Venezuelan society, so fearful of his close ties to Fidel Castro that they're terrified they'll be murdered in their beds. With five of the country's six television stations privately owned and in the hands of Chavez opponents, the airwaves are filled with angry denunciations of the leader, comparing him to Hitler, Mussolini and worse.
By their presence in Caracas and their ability to monitor local TV, the filmmakers not only show how anti-Chavez forces manipulated a protest march to cause a showdown that led to the coup, but also the leaders admitting as much on a friendly private TV station.
Acting after intentionally misleading TV footage allegedly showed Chavez supporters firing on the opposition crowd (another angle shows nothing of the sort happened), the military staged a coup and removed Chavez from the presidential palace.
The filmmakers, however, remained inside. Miraculously unimpeded, they show in rapid succession the sadness of Chavez's inner circle, the gloating of the successful coup plotters, and what happened within 24 hours when enormous crowds supporting Chavez spontaneously precipitated -- in something of a real-life Hollywood ending -- his return and reinstatement.
"The people have made history," Chavez says, and not only does this cliched phrase turn out to be the truth, we are, thanks to this privileged documentary, in the position to see it as it happens.
'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter
An Irish Film Board production, released by Vitagraph Films. Directors Kim Bartley & Donnacha O Briain. Producer David Power. Cinematographers Kim Bartley & Donnacha O Briain. Editor Angel Hernandez Zoido. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.
Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles.