The title of Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain's documentary about the April 2002 coup in Caracas, Venezuela, has so many different meanings that they bounce around the theater like light from a prism.
"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" -- the line comes from an old Gil Scott-Heron song -- details the scary scenario in which a cabal of Venezuelan businessmen, oil interests, local media barons, and possibly the CIA engineered the removal of the country's democratically elected president, Hugo Chavez. The easiest part was shutting down the one state-sponsored TV feed; in its absence, the privately owned channels, all anti-Chavez, could insist that everything was normal.
But the coup was videotaped -- as was the remarkable and unexpected popular uprising that restored Chavez to power less than 48 hours later -- by Bartley and O'Briain as they wandered the streets and huddled in the presidential palace with the depressed, then elated, ministerial staff. Given how minimal the coverage of these events was in the United States, "Revolution" stands as our best chance to understand what happened in Caracas, even if the filmmakers' pro-Chavez stance should send you to alternate sources for the larger picture.
What Bartley and O'Briain give us is the small picture -- and it's riveting. Through man-on-the-street interviews, they sketch in depth Chavez's support among the poor that make up 80 percent of Venezuela's population, as well as the rabid hatred he provokes in the country's educated middle and upper classes. They're in the crowd of anti-Chavez marchers when rooftop snipers suddenly open fire with deadly precision, and they make a compelling, if not foolproof, argument that it was the opposition's leaders who had their supporters shot at, the better to create martyrs and force the government's hand.
The filmmakers are in the palace as the siege by the rebellious Venezuelan army stretches into the wee hours, until Chavez is led away to captivity, and they're on hand two days later as the government ministers come out of hiding and reclaim their posts. When Chavez's attorney general assures his opposite number, now a prisoner, that he retains his rights as a citizen, it's an oddly moving contrast to the crackdowns the plotters instigated during their brief reign.
This is history captured firsthand, and if it's not the sort of history that interests you, it probably should, since Venezuela supplies about 13 percent of this country's oil. That said, the United States remains an out-of-focus boogeyman in "Revolution" -- rumors and a few shots of Secretary of State Colin Powell on television aren't exactly a smoking gun -- and the filmmakers occasionally edit their footage for agitprop rather than understanding.
Chavez, too, remains a vague figure throughout, a quixotic mixture of populist, strongman, buffoon, and charismatic leader. Nowhere does "Revolution" mention that upon election, he overhauled the constitution to, among other things, prolong his term, nor is his 2000 visit with Saddam Hussein brought up. That would muddy the waters. (The movie has better luck with the coup plotters, a smugly villainous bunch of bumblers.) Worse, because Bartley and O'Briain view the chasm that divides Venezuela purely in the context of the Cold War and Latin American political instability, they downplay the class warfare that's exploding right in front of them.
They're onto a larger point, though: In Venezuela, as in other nations, the government is so reliant on TV for proof of its legitimacy as to be frighteningly fragile. Much of the drama in "Revolution" centers on whether the government's Channel 8 is up and broadcasting to a confused populace, leading a viewer to the inescapable conclusion that a president without access to a camera or microphone is no president at all.
Mao had it wrong; in "Revolution," political power comes out of the barrel of a TV tube.
("The Revolution Will Not Be Televised": ***)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.