A Documentary Coup

A Documentary Coup

The lights go down in the courtroom, a 16-millimeter projector shoots out its beam, and into the trial blazes evidence of an unprecedented nature: not a report of criminal events but the crime


The lights go down in the courtroom, a 16-millimeter projector shoots out its beam, and into the trial blazes evidence of an unprecedented nature: not a report of criminal events but the crime itself, stored on film and now released again into the world. Strange to think that only seventy years have passed since Fritz Lang imagined this moment in Fury. Lang was arguably more sophisticated than anyone now alive about camera tricks and propaganda–he’d led the world in deploying special effects, and had been offered the cordial support of Goebbels himself (in response to which he’d fled Germany); and yet, as his first artistic act in America, Lang told a story about the reality of filmed images and their liberating potential. Who among us today would second him? We live in the era of asymptotic prophecy: The truth, which we’ll never arrive at, would make us something like free.

Here, though, are two people who share Lang’s faith: the Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain. In their thoroughly remarkable documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, now playing an exclusive engagement at New York’s Film Forum, they show how a critical public event was seen in three different segments of the moving-image media. The event was the coup in April 2002 against Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, and its abrupt failure. The media in question are Venezuela’s privately owned television stations, which fomented the seizure of power and tried to sustain it; the state-run television station, which helped break the coup, serving at a key moment as the sole link between the besieged presidential palace and the outside world; and the Bartley-O’Briain documentary itself.

Whether the filmmakers intended the truthfulness of their own work to be questioned, I can’t say. I suspect, in fact, they did not. Bartley and O’Briain had come to Caracas in autumn 2001 to film a profile of Chávez–a profile that he must have thought would be admiring, since he gave them access to the Miraflores Palace and his presidential plane. They recorded his rallies, his visits to the rural poor and his weekly call-in television program. They interviewed Chávez supporters in the ranchos, those makeshift neighborhoods that rim the basin of Caracas, where shanties are piled up by the thousands like teetering stacks of broken crockery; they went into the whitewashed apartment blocks of the central city, where Chávez’s opponents warned one another to beware their domestic servants and be prepared to use firearms. It looks to me as if Bartley and O’Briain were gathering material to portray Chávez as a popular and fundamentally democratic leader, who champions the impoverished majority and stands up to the oligarchs, at home and in Washington. I’m not saying this reading of the situation is wrong, just that the filmmakers must have been inclined from the outset to believe it. They found scenes (no doubt plentiful) to confirm their opinion.

Then events gave them more urgent scenes, which transformed their project from a reasoned polemic into the documentation of a crime. In early April 2002, they recorded the inflammatory broadcasts on private television that threatened Chávez with a coup, provoking his supporters to gather outside the Miraflores Palace and helping to rally an opposition march. Soon after, Bartley and O’Briain were on the spot when the march approached the palace, and snipers suddenly opened fire on the Chávez supporters. The ensuing gunfight produced images, repeatedly broadcast on private Venezuelan television and reported in the United States, that seemed to show Chávez’s irregulars shooting from a bridge at unarmed protesters below. Bartley and O’Briain have telltale footage that wasn’t broadcast or reported: images that show there were no marchers under the bridge, but that the Chávez gunmen, in between taking shots, were cowering under fire.

Over the hours that followed, Bartley and O’Briain had the guts to continue filming on the streets, capturing scenes of a bloody police crackdown on Chávez loyalists. Meanwhile, in the Miraflores Palace, a staff cameraman was filming the entry and self-congratulatory speeches of the coup leaders, and the events surrounding the late-night negotiations in which Chávez refused to resign but allowed himself to be removed under arrest, to avoid a military assault on the building. This extraordinary footage, too, is incorporated into The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. And so are scenes of an astonishing broadcast the following morning on private television, in which journalists and coup leaders boasted, out loud and explicitly, about having planned the previous day’s confrontation as the occasion to seize power.

So private television, which had broadcast so many slanders about Chávez, now blurted out a confession. In turn, the state television channel–a propaganda vehicle for Chávez, like him or not–also reported a plain fact, to immense effect. After having been shut down for forty-six hours, the station resumed broadcasting from the Miraflores Palace when Chávez loyalists retook the building. They were, however, cut off from military forces throughout Venezuela, who continued to believe what they were hearing on private TV. When state TV got out the word that the elected government was back in the palace, soldiers began declaring their loyalty, and the coup was broken.

I conclude that you will know the truth through moving images, and the truth will make you free. It has the power to do so precisely because images are so often made to lie. Sometimes, as with the private TV stations, the truth is pushed out only by internal pressure, as in psychoanalysis. Sometimes, as with state TV, the medium must be reduced to its most basic function before it sends a clear and factual signal. And sometimes, as with Bartley and O’Briain, events need to force themselves on an informed preconception, so the work becomes more than the filmmakers had planned. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised incorporates all three kinds of truth-telling. It is not just a documentary but an invaluable document. I’d almost call it prophetic.

Speaking of prophecy: The Matrix Revolutions is now upon us, confirming my forecast of a pathetic dwindling of the series, while resolving the trilogy’s eclectic oracularism into greeting-card Christianity. Should you be determined to put yourself through the experience, you should know that the modal average shot in this installment is of a shaky, blue-gray background, crossed very noisily by yellow and orange streaks. (They represent bullets or electrical sparks, of which there are a gazillion.) The background music, which runs nonstop, sounds like an amplification of one of Richard Wagner’s attacks of dyspepsia. The dialogue goes like this:

“You did it.”

“No, we did it.”

“Some things in this world never change.”

“But some things do?”

(A verbatim excerpt.)

Laurence Fishburne’s face has bloated toward near-Brando fullness (I hadn’t realized the rebels of Zion ate so well), Keanu Reeves seems more stunned than ever (with no boyishness left to redeem him) and Hugo Weaving, as a computer program that is far more expressive than any human in the picture, now is pressed to overact for hundreds of himself.

For most Nation readers, The Matrix Revolutions will be interesting only as an embarrassment to Cornel West. (Wanting to be movie-cool, Professor West accepted a cameo role in this and the previous episode, and so embedded himself in the hippest film of the late Clinton Administration.) But for Nation readers who have seen The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, there is something more to be learned from this picture, which will no doubt add mightily to the revenues of the Matrix trilogy even while loosening its grip on the popular imagination. Here, too, we encounter a theme of mediated experience, and of truth versus lies. But simply on the level of plot, the filmmakers, the Wachowski brothers, fail utterly to sustain their premise. After the last booms and screeches have cleared from the air, after salvation is declared and the final, timid half-irony is proposed (for anyone desperate enough to seize on it), the horror that set off the story remains in place, unchanged and now, apparently, forgotten.

Have a good life, Wachowski brothers.

Hard experience has taught me to beware documentaries that invite us along on the filmmaker’s personal journey. (A particularly awful subset: The films my friends summarize as, “Let’s drag grandma back to Poland, so she can see where her whole family was killed!”) But when the filmmaker is as tactful about himself as Nathaniel Kahn, and when his journey is so odd, suggestive and important, I can only be grateful for the chance to ride along. Kahn’s My Architect–another Film Forum offering, as it happens, opening November 12–strikes me as one of the most rewarding pictures of the year.

The title might have been My Father, had Kahn been given the chance to know one. A father forms you–builds you up, ideally. In this case, though, the father was Louis I. Kahn, perhaps the most revered American architect of the last half of the twentieth century, who never acknowledged the son he’d had out of wedlock with Nathaniel’s mother (or the daughter he had out of wedlock with another woman). Nathaniel saw the great man only for brief moments, usually at night, when Lou took a few hours off from his official family. When Kahn died in 1974, world-famous but short on clients and deeply in debt, Nathaniel was 11. A quarter of a century later, Nathaniel set out to discover his maker–his architect–the only way he could: through Kahn’s buildings and the people who knew about them.

The pathos of My Architect–which fortunately remains understated–lies in the tension between public and private life, but also between the monumentality of Lou’s buildings, their seeming timelessness, and the shadowy, contingent existence to which he condemned his son. On the one hand, Nathaniel can take beauty shots of his father’s Kimbell Art Museum, put the “Ode to Joy” on the soundtrack, and have the building actually stand up to the music. On the other hand, Nathaniel follows this sequence with a snippet of interview with architect Robert A.M. Stern. “Don’t put him up on some pedestal,” Stern says. “He was in the trenches.”

My Architect does full justice to both truths. And if it proves that Kahn’s buildings can hold up against Beethoven, it also forces Kahn the man to hold up against a moment like this: Nathaniel is in California, interviewing an architect who worked with his father on the great complex for the Salk Institute. In mid-anecdote, the man mentions, “I spent Christmas with him.”

Nathaniel interrupts, in a tone that for politeness’ sake I will call wondering. “You spent Christmas!” he gasps.

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