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Two different conflicts, two different parts of the world, two different cinematic strategies: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised intensely covers a few intense days in Venezuela, where a business oligopoly’s coup briefly removed a democratically elected leftist president. Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion stretches from the birth of the Buddha to yesterday’s shipment of Chinese-made goods to your local Wal-Mart. Still, viewers will notice some similarities between the stories the two documentaries tell. For one thing, each film features an American secretary of state skulking around in the background.
In the United States, a neoliberal is, well, Bill Clinton. But when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez denounces “the savage project of neoliberalism,” he’s not talking about the face Clinton presented to his fellow Americans. He means the pressure applied by First World institutions such as the World Bank to underdeveloped countries to cut social-service spending, privatize public industries, and open borders to the often disruptive force of global capital. “The hidden hand…is a lie,” says Chávez at the beginning of Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, referring to Adam Smith’s metaphor for the free market’s logic. There was a hidden hand at work in Venezuela, however, and it was about to smite the president.
The only member of OPEC in the Western Hemisphere, Venezuela provides 14 percent of the oil consumed by the petroleum-guzzling United States. The country’s oil income has always trickled up, not down; 80 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty. This inequality of revenue distribution was, of course, an issue in the 1998 presidential election, which Chávez won handily. (Eight years earlier, he’d led his own failed coup.) In January 2002, his government doubled the royalties charged to foreign oil companies in Venezuelaa move that probably bothered American interests even more than the president’s revolutionary rhetoric and affection for Che, Castro, and camouflage.
Irish TV documentarians Bartley and O’Briain went to Caracas last year to cover Chávez’s struggle with his country’s old guard, led by business leader Pedro Carmona and bolstered by the Bush administration. The filmmakers found themselves in the middle of the April 11-13 coup, which began with an anti-Chávez demonstration. Venezuela’s five private television stations heavily publicized the protest march, and when snipers began firing at the crowd, the TV news reported that Chávez ‘s supporters had shot protesters. The one government TV station was shut down by coup planners that evening, and Chávez agreed to leave the presidential palace after military leaders threatened to bomb it. The next day, newscasters announced “a new government blessed by the people,” headed by new president Carmona. At the White House, Bush mouthpiece Ari Fleischer explained that Chávez’s government had fallen after it fired on peaceful demonstrators.
In Venezuela, most people didn’t know any better. Bartley and O’Briain, however, had filmed the protest and saw how footage of the events had been selectively edited to make it appear that Chávez ‘s supporters had opened fire on the protesters. The two Irish observers were also in the presidential palace when Chávez was arrested, and they hung around as the generals, bishops, and oil barons moved in and the national assembly and supreme court were dismissed. They continued to film as the coup collapsed under the weight of reports from the international mediaincluding CNNand a swell of popular support for the elected government. And they were there early on the morning of April 14, when the plotters were forced to release Chávez.
That Chávez is still president of Venezuelaand still under pressure from the same forces that temporarily ousted himis not news to the people who read the dribbles of foreign coverage that make it into American newspapers. Knowing that Chávez survived the coup, however, doesn’t prevent The Revolution Will Not Be Televised from being vivid, engrossing, and more surprising than most Hollywood thrillers. This is a documentary without staged inserts or distracting asides; that much of the action plays out in (bogus) TV reports makes it all the more relevant to residents of the global mediopolis.
It will likely be decades before the full role of the U.S. government in the failed coup is revealed. Still, it seems entirely appropriate that the last face to appear on screen is that of Colin Powell, representing the official U.S. position that the coup was an entirely internal matter. No doubt Carmona will second Powell on thisshould anyone happen to interview the two-day president at his new home in Miami.
Tibet was a mystery to the outside world for millennia, but it’s no secret to anyone who watched movies or listens to popular music today. Martin Scorsese and Richard Gere have been there in spirit, as have the Beastie Boys and Patti Smith. So initially it seems that the only striking thing about Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion is its prologue’s potent use of eyewitness testimony and still photographs to evoke the brutality of repression in the country China rules as an “autonomous region.” Yet after dispensing with the customary tribute to Buddhist Tibet’s supposed former status as “one of the most spiritual cultures the world has ever known,” the film gathers considerable power.
Director/cinematographer Tom Peosay made nine trips to the fabled Himalayan realm, shooting lo-def video footage of public places and rituals in a country under rigid censorship. That’s not unprecedentedPaul Wagner did the same sort of guerrilla camerawork for his harrowing 1998 docudrama, Windhorse. But Cry of the Snow Lion (which takes its name from the mythical beast depicted on Tibet’s now-banned flag) is notable for its authoritative sweep rather than for any revelations. It even manages to overcome introducing such usual suspects as Columbia University professor Robert Thurman (Uma’s dad) to denounce Chinese expansionism and extol feudal Tibet as a lost paradise. (Perhaps the secret to the Dalai Lama’s appeal is that he seems so much less sanctimonious than his prominent supporters.)
Poverty-stricken, monk-ridden Tibet may not have been quite so exemplary as its contemporary fans claim, but only Chinese authorities would dare argue that things got better when the People’s Liberation Army arrived in 1949. The invasion was one of the first major acts of new Chinese potentate Mao Tse-tung, whose greatest hits included the Cultural Revolution, during which 600 Tibetan monasteries were destroyed.
While denying that Tibet is or ever was part of China, Peosay and his collaborators (including scripters Sue Peosay and Victoria Mudd and celebrity narrators Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon, Ed Harris, and Tim Robbins) put the country’s travails in the context of China’s many campaigns to create pure communism (and, more recently, communist capitalism). Every ideological twitch in Beijing seemed to lead to more anguish in Lhasa, where Chinese rule brought brothels, discos, and a 300,000-soldier People’s Liberation Army garrisonand for monks, nuns, and separatists, torture, rape, and execution. For about 20 years, Tibetan rebels could rely on limited CIA support, but that ended when Henry Kissinger began the secret talks with Mao that led to Nixon’s trip to China (and, later, substantial Chinese fees for Kissinger’s consulting firm).
Fashionable as it is in certain circles, Tibetan Buddhism is still remote from most people’s experience. The fruits of China’s new economic boom, however, are everywhere. The United States is now China’s leading trade partner, and many of the goods sold in American big-box stores are made in factories owned by the PLA, the same organization whose members inserted electric cattle prods into the vaginas of Tibetan nuns. Cry of the Snow Lion ends with footage of the Foo Fighters and R.E.M. performing in support of Tibetan autonomy, but viewers moved by this stirring indictment should probably think less about buying a Tibetan Freedom Concert CD and more about how much cash from their everyday purchases flows into the coffers of Tibet’s persecutors. CP