Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, has won his most recent referendum, modifying the constitution so that elected officials – notably including himself – can be reelected for several terms. Is this good or bad ? Only the future will tell, but at least he submitted the change to a popular vote, in stark contrast to the may military coups in Latin America, supported by – if not orchestrated by – some of the countries who like to suggest Chavez is a dictator-in-the making.
I recently organized a screening of a film I really like, ¿¡Revolución!?, directed by Charles Gervais. It is a doc about Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian’ revolution in Venezuela. In terms of the meaning of that revolution the film is generally positive but not at all uncritical, and Chavez’s enemies are given lots of space. That gives the film a healthy tension and it certainly avoids the pitfalls of propaganda. And it has many other qualities. There is one important strand of the film made up of animated images of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, with a gravelly voice-over which seems to represent the knowledge of a veteran revolutionary formulating some general principles for social and political upheavals – you could imagine him to be a Che Guevara speaking from the grave, but his thoughts also remind one of Machiavelli, formulating some general principles about his subject based on years of experience. There are ten of these principles in as many segments, and they signpost ten chapters in the film. The actuality material is very well edited – by Étienne Gagnon – and was treated for contrast and texture in a way more reminiscent of edgy fiction films than of documentaries. I asked Charles how he developed this treatment.
How did you come upon the Don Quixote idea? Was it hard to make it work in the film?
Charles Gervais: In 2005, when I first got the idea of making this documentary, Chavez was distributing 1 million copies of Don Quixote books to the people of Venezuela. Chavez said that it was necessary to nourish the minds, to be inspired by someone who searched “to rectify the wrongs and to rearrange the world”. I found it unusual for a political leader, fascinating. At that time, I knew little about Chavez, and it brought me wanting to know more. During my research, what I found is that Chavez is in fact a real Quixotic figure: a dreamer that wants to do good to the people, but becomes so overwhelmed in his quest that he doesn’t always see the reality clearly anymore. How did I suggest this in the film? Don Quixote is everywhere in the film. At the very beginning, Chavez refers to him when he talks about passion, and drawings of Quixote’s adventures are used to present the theory of a modern revolution; and at the end, the storyline of Chavez and Don Quixote clearly mix together. It’s even a quote of Quixote himself that closes the film, warning Chavez to be careful not to lose himself in passion forgetting his true cause. (“Let not thine own passion blind thee in another man’s cause.” / Miguel de Cervantes)
Your film has a very interesting structure, and also an interesting texture. How did you develop those?
Charles Gervais: We wanted to create a structure that would give the film a possibility to stay interesting and insightful, whatever happens with Hugo Chavez. That led us to invent a step-by-step guide for a modern revolution that would succeed in bringing about radical change without resorting to violence and repression. (I worked on this with a specialist in Theory of the Revolution from the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.) So if Chavez got mad with power and ended up as a true dictator, our film could help understand why. And if he continued to work on his «socialist revolution of the 21st century» on a democratic way, we could even pretend that we might have helped him! (I’ll let you decide which path he is on today!)
Talking about the texture, we wanted to follow a certain aesthetic about slums, poverty and «end of the world» kind of places that was brought by some great movies like City of God or Traffic. The dominant color all over the film, amber, reminds me of an old newspaper that was forgotten for a long time under the hard sun – how the people living in Venezuela’s slums possibly felt like. So technically, we took the almost too perfect HD images (shot with a Sony CineAlta F900) and alter the signal with a kind of «bleach bypass». The resulting images, with deep black and deep white, but cold, was then colored with this amber texture.
Thanks to Jorge Bustos-Estefan for help with this blog.