Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

FILM-VENEZUELA: Documentary Revolution

Alejandro Kirk

MONTEVIDEO, Apr 26 2005 (IPS) - For Venezuelan documentary maker Angel Palacios, truth is not impartial, but it is possible for the media to be independent, as long as they do not try to be "independent of the world."

A staunch supporter of President Hugo Chávez who is nevertheless frequently critical of stances taken by the government, Palacios is internationally known for his documentary "Puente Llaguno: Claves de una masacre" (Llaguno Bridge: Keys to a Massacre), which uses live footage to unravel the "conspiracy" that led to the short-lived April 2002 coup d’etat.

The film argues that the anti-Chávez opposition alliance manipulated coverage – Venezuela’s private media are overwhelmingly opposed to the left-leaning president – to make it look like the government used gunmen to shoot and kill opposition demonstrators on Apr. 11, 2002 at Puente Llaguno in Caracas.

That fabrication, according to the film, was then used to justify the coup that removed the president from office for two days, before loyal troops backed by huge pro-Chávez crowds restored him to power.

The question of truth, of which there are so many different versions, lies at the centre of a global debate on the media in an era when a pocket-sized camera, a PC and an Internet hook-up allow virtually anyone to become a journalist today.

Palacios, a graduate of Cuba’s San Antonio de los Baños film school, says that in the new era of communication, technique is not so important.

"Communications must be ‘deprofessionalised’, liberated from the dominant aesthetics," he said in an interview with IPS during a recent visit to Montevideo. He was in the Uruguayan capital to take part in an initiative that he finds especially gratifying: filmmaking workshops in slum neighbourhoods.

The answer, he says, are the community and alternative media. "I recently saw a documentary produced by landless campesinos (peasant farmers), which was the best on that subject that I have ever seen. They were fully responsible for all of the planning and production, and the film had a devastating impact."

His own documentaries rely heavily on footage from the community media – both the one on the Apr. 11, 2002 shooting of demonstrators on the streets of Caracas just before the coup, and the more recent "Asedio a una embajada" (Siege of an Embassy) on the violent actions taken by the opposition against the Cuban Embassy in Caracas from Apr. 9-13, 2002.

"The important thing today is to work with the poor," said Palacios, in response to the criticism that some Latin American intellectuals on the left aim at Chávez’s "Bolivarian social revolution" (named after 19th century South American liberation hero Simón Bolívar).

"In Venezuela the reality is that 1.4 million people learned to read and write in the space of a year," through a government literacy drive, he said. "And it is the popular markets (subsidised food markets for the poor opened by the government) that have made it possible for people to afford to eat."

"An intellectual cannot respond to me on this with a discussion on dialectics. In Venezuela today, everyone on the streets knows what a transnational corporation is, who Condoleezza Rice is, or what a Super Puma helicopter or endogenous development is," he added.

Alternative media outlets have mushroomed in Venezuela since 2002, while the private and state-owned media remain caught up in a war in which the concepts of objectivity and impartiality seem to have yielded to propaganda.

The government has created a "national prize for alternative, free and community communication", which was added to the traditional awards for professional journalists, who in Venezuela must be university graduates.

"Impartial no, veracious yes," Palacios emphatically stated. "We are independent producers, but we are not independent of the world. Independent from a source of financing, whether state or private, that would enslave us. But we are not independent from the development of the poor."

Alternative media, he says, represent the "communication of resistance," while his own style is "communication of combat," a "classic and not overly innovative communication which uses the same codes that are traditionally employed to sell products and cause superfluous emotions, aimed at reaching ‘their’ own audience."

Using military terms, Palacios said works "of resistance provide encouragement for the struggle, while works produced with a ‘combat’ mindset amount to a communicational form of guerrilla warfare that operates in the adversary’s territory."

Besides "Puente Llaguno" and "Asedio a una embajada", Palacios and his 15-member cooperative Panafilms recently produced "Espejo haitiano" (Haitian Mirror).

The documentary denounces the February 2004 coup against the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, while showing the high level of popular support that the ousted president continues to enjoy in the slums of Port-au-Prince.

"Espejo haitiano" takes a critical look not only at the part played by the U.S. government in the coup, but also the role assumed by Latin American countries like Brazil, Chile and Argentina, which sent troops to the Caribbean nation to participate in the peacekeeping mission that is apparently bogged down in the rampant violence.

Both "Asedio a una embajada" and "Puente Llaguno" document events surrounding the April 2002 coup. The former focuses on the five days immediately before and during Chávez’s removal, when a group of opposition activists besieged the Cuban Embassy in Caracas, even cutting off supplies of water and power, while the local Caracas police just stood by.

Meanwhile, "Puente Llaguno" shows how in the hours leading up to the Apr. 11, 2002 overthrow of Chávez, a massive crowd of opposition protesters were egged on by their leaders to storm the presidential palace of Miraflores, where thousands of the president’s supporters had gathered.

In the space of just two hours, 19 demonstrators – both pro- and anti-government – were shot and killed, mainly the victims of snipers posted on surrounding rooftops, whose identity has never been clarified.

Shortly afterwards, the military brass seized power and replaced Chávez with Pedro Carmona, the head of the country’s leading business association.

Carmona dismissed Congress and the Supreme Court, abolished the constitution that had been rewritten under Chávez and approved by voters in a 1999 referendum, changed the name of the country, and revoked Chávez’s economic decrees.

But within 48 hours, the situation changed radically, and something unprecedented in the history of Latin America took place: a toppled president returned to power.

Loyal troops brought Chávez back from the military garrison on a nearby island where he was being held under arrest, after the pressure from the president’s grassroots support base grew unbearable.

Reporter Luis Alfonso Fernández of the private, opposition-aligned channel Venevisión won Spain’s Prince of Asturias international journalism award for television in 2002 for his exclusive coverage of the sniper killings, which took place on the Puente Llaguno in central Caracas, now an infamous landmark, located near the Miraflores palace.

The Venevisión footage clearly shows a group of armed men opening fire on members of the crowd. Although it was claimed that the targets were opposition demonstrators, this is not actually seen. Nevertheless, the graphic images of gunmen who are supposedly "Chavistas" continue to be used today as evidence that Chávez’s followers provoked the putsch with their illegal actions.

But Palacios’ documentary suggests exactly the opposite: that the gunmen formed part of an opposition conspiracy.

Although the documentaries produced by Panafilms have never been aired by Venezuela’s commercial TV stations, they have made their way around the world through informal channels of distribution and sales.

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