Charles Gervais is the director of ¿¡Revolución!?, which examines the principles of political revolution through what’s happening today in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. I spoke to Charles at this year’s Hot Docs. The film opens in Toronto on Friday May 25th, at the Royal Cinema. If you’re at all interested in what’s going on in Latin America these days, you should definitely see this film. Check out the web site here.
Charles Gervais (CG): In fact, when the project started, when I read this article in the newspaper saying that Chavez would distribute a million Don Quixote books, I tried to get the most information I could have on Chavez and Venezuela, because I was familiar with the Latin American situation, but not so much about Venezuela and Chavez, but I found this movie and I managed to watch it one hour before taking the plane.
JM: That was a huge eye opener because of the way the media presents Venzezuela here and what was going on. That film captured a movement, it was there for all the historical events, and yours is very different, it’s structured differently. Did you impose the structure on the film or did you let it come out of the film?
CG: Well, after two times in Caracas, I understood that my judgement, my opinion on the revolution was changing, so I reflected on a structure that could survive whatever path the revolution would take. So I thought about a fictionalized narrator which had the voice of some Latin old guerriero, I don’t know, I don’t define it really.
JM: Sort of a Don Quixote?
CG: Yeah, sort of a Don Quixote, Cervantes, guerrieros, maybe the phantom of Bolivar or Che Guevara, and this person is presenting his ideal revolution, so it’s not the Chavez one, but it’s…
JM: The theory.
CG: This is the theory, and also maybe because I found the project really fascinated me, really charmed me, but I was afraid that it would go out of control, so I said well maybe I’ll do my part in order to help keep the process moving in the right direction (laughs). I’d be happy if Chavez could listen to the movie, in fact I’ve sent it to him.
JM: Did you take the titles of each section from one particular source?
CG: No, this was really invented. I’ve read lots about different revolutions, some inspired in part by this Venezuelan revolution. But I wanted to make sure that these guidelines would be correct for the audience, but also for scholars, so I validated all these steps with specialists of revolution theories.
JM: I enjoyed the tie-in with the American revolution and the French revolution, it’s all the same principles.
CG: In fact, one of my experts is doing a degree thesis in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto. Her name is Marieve de Rosier. And she’s doing her thesis on revolution theory, and she was amazed, “Wow, I read books of 400 pages and this is a great summary” so she helped me also to correct some parts and make sure it was credible.
JM: So when did the structure emerge?
CG: The structure was there while researching but before shooting. It was difficult because my structure was a bit rigid, I needed stories to illustrate every theme, which was a bit difficult.
JM: How much time did you spend in Venezuela, and how many times did you have to go back and forth?
CG: I’ve been back and forth six times in a year and a half. The first time I went to see the distribution of the Don Quixote book was just seven days, I put it on my account. I shot the event and I made a five-minute demo film which helped me to start the movie. But other times I’d stay five weeks, a month and a half. In total about three or four months. I’ve also lived for more than a year in Latin America, so I’m really close to their Latin passion.
JM: And you speak Spanish? So you didn’t have to use translators?
CG: It wouldn’t be possible to use translators in Venezuela, because the society is so divided that if you associate yourself with someone, you will be in one clan or another. You would be associated with either Chavez or the opposition, so you’re done, you cannot talk to the other side. I was just on my own, and I was working hard to protect my “observer” status.
JM: Did you get to meet with Chavez?
CG: Personally, I would have loved to, but it would have been more for personal interest than for the documentary, because the film is based more on the actors of the revolution, and also Chavez, but in relation to the people.
JM: There’s another film showing at Hot Docs called Orange Revolution (TSS Review), which is an interesting film to compare because that film ends up being less about the politicians and more about the people, and I think this is what your film is trying to accomplish, seeing whether the people will keep the principles.
CG: Yes, I definitely want to see that film.
JM: Did you have any problems getting people to talk freely in the film? Did anyone try to stop you from filming or approaching certain people?
CG: No, liberty of the press is total. I could enter the airport at Caracas with 12 packs of equipment, and customs was just, “Hi.”
JM: Do you think it was because you were Canadian?
CG: No, no. It’s just that they are not shy about anything going on right now. It might change in the years to come, but right now, they think that the more the press will come, the more they will look good. They think that what they are doing is good, they don’t have anything to hide, they say just come and shoot. Even Chavez and the people close to power say go ahead, shoot every event, you want to shoot in the barrio, go ahead. And they knew I was talking to opposition leaders and they didn’t care.
JM: How did you find the people you feature in the film, the street vendors, the woman from the barrio?
CG: It was really sort of investigation work. When I first arrived in Caracas, the only contact I had was a journalist from the national radio station, a friend of a friend told me go see this person. This person wasn’t there but they told me I could see her assistant, and this person finally opened lots of door. But the street vendor, and the girl, was just from walking around. I was living in a poor neighbourhood and talking to everyone, having coffees, and the girl [from the barrio] I met her in a Youth Forum that was held before the World Forum.
JM: What about the politician, during the election, the woman who was going around with her posters?
CG: With her it was more through the first contact at the national radio. And I’ve done a lot of interviews for the national broadcasters, so they knew me. My objective was to be known by everyone in power. They knew that there was a Canadian team doing a documentary, that it was serious, that I would keep coming back, that it was big. At the end, everyone knew that I was doing something. Even the guard of Chavez knew that we existed.
JM: The opposition leader, Marta, seemed the most anti-Chavez. But at the end you find out that she had been working for him, you feel that the opposition doesn’t seem very well-organized. I know that in 2002, at the time of the coup, they seemed very powerful. What’s happened since then?
CG: They have made so many attempts to kick out Chavez, with this coup, also they cut oil production for two months, they’ve also tried to seize one public place for I don’t know how many months, so they’ve tried so many times to kick Chavez out and it hasn’t worked. And the referendum [which they lost]. After that it’s kind of collapsed. It’s really really disorganized, and there’s kind of a resignation, let’s just wait until he goes.
JM: Chavez talks a lot about the Americans, hinting that they’re going to invade the country. Do you think that’s just rhetoric to try to get people to support him?
CG: I think it’s a classic way to get your base of support tight and active. While listening to his speech, there’s only a small extract of his speech in the movie, but it’s always four or five hours long. Every ten minutes or so I would notice that he would bring back the enemies, and people would start clapping their hands, without noticing why they’re all happy at this moment. But they’re happy because he’s mentioning the enemies. You can see how important it is to always remind them that there’s an enemy threatening them. It keeps the base of support active.
JM: At the same time, he’s made some friends in other countries (like Iran) that are maybe not so smart? How do people feel about some of the decisions he’s made?
CG: His base of support are not that educated to judge who Ahmadinejad is, or even Fidel Castro. They’ve never been there, they don’t know. Chavez will present Fidel Castro as a hero and the Cuban system as beautiful, and they can’t judge if it is or not.
JM: But Venezuelan media wouldn’t cover the same things? Would they talk about Iran’s president pursuing nuclear weapons?
CG: Well, 90% of the Venezuelan press is private, so they bring a lot of information and criticism of Chavez, but his basis of support is more the masses of poor that were forgotten by the previous regimes.
JM: So they are pretty unthinking about whether this is a good idea or not?
CG: They would believe that Chavez is doing the right thing.
JM: Do you think he will leave office at some point? Is he thinking about someone to succeed him?
CG: People say that he is says he wants to stay in power until 2021. To do this, he needs to change the constitution. The new constitution gave him access to two mandates of six years.
JM: But he was behind that new constitution.
CG: He changed it already because previously it was one mandate of four years, and after that you had to go away. Venezuela had a lot of history of dictators before the 1960s. So, two mandates of six years was not so bad, but he’s already said he’s going to hold another referendum to give himself the opportunity to present himself [for election] indefinitely. But they say that in 2021, his daughter would be ready. (laughs)
JM: Oh, no. (laughs)
CG: To enter power. She’s the one who really helped him during the coup in 2002. She helped a lot with Castro, to distribute tracts, to organize the people, so she’s already known by the people.
JM: With regard to Cuba, because of what’s going on with Castro’s health, what do you think might happen when Castro dies? Will the Americans try to have more influence in Cuba, will Chavez take that as a threat?
CG: It will be interesting to see that because I think Fidel is also trying to continue his achievements through Chavez. Chavez is the one he’s chosen to continue his work. And when Chavez stepped out of prison in 1994, he was invited to Cuba and received as a great leader by Fidel Castro. And he was nothing at that time. It was Castro that said to him, don’t do it the same way as I’ve done it. Try to go on a democratic path. Maybe it was him who also told him not to use so much censorship, you don’t need it so much today. He’s the reference and even Chavez has presented him as a spiritual father.
JM: I think the difference of course is that Venezuela has oil. If you have money, it’s easy to make friends. These programmes are helping a lot of people. The presence of oil makes their realtionship with the United States a very important one. Canada is also mentioned a few times in the film. I don’t know very much about Canada’s relationship with Venezuela.
CG: For Chavez’ government, we’re part of the Empire. He refers a lot to the Empire.
JM: Sometimes he would say we don’t want to be a North American colony. So you’d think he’s not just meaning the U.S., but other times he says Venezuela needs new trading partners, which is very true, because Latin America has always just been America’s supplier of raw materials. Does Canada have any sort of influence there? Did you get a different reception there as a Canadian?
CG: I was better received than if I was an American, that’s for sure. There’s still a difference. Canada used to have a good reputation, that could change, I don’t know.
JM: There’s a strange scene in the film where there’s an American guy at some demonstration. He says “I’m not a communist and I’m not a liberal.”
CG: It was a detail, but it’s a detail about what kind of people you could encounter in an opposition march. Is he an American or is he just pro-American? He just says that he fears the threat of communism, and for a lot of Americans, liberal is a synonym for perdition.
JM: One of the things in the earlier film (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) was that all of the television stations were owned by the opposition. Is that still the same?
CG: What has changed is that just a week ago, Chavez didn’t renew the licence of one of the biggest private broadcasters, so some sort of censorship is starting. He has been really criticized for this, but he justified it by saying that this network was really bad, that they were involved in the coup d’etat of 2002, and that society didn’t need this kind of thing. It’s sort of an authoritarian beginning.
JM: I’m probably like you in that I sympathize with what he is trying to do, but I worry about his personality.
CG: His personality is necessary to do what he’s doing. You have to invent a system. He’s the only one who could do what he’s doing. You need to be really strong and powerful and have this charisma that he has. But afterward, you need to build a system and then leave the system.
JM: And I don’t know if he’ll do it. I hope so.
CG: This is what Castro never succeeded in doing.
JM: And you have sent the film to him? Have you heard anything yet.
CG: Yes, right now it’s in the Vice President’s office. And I hope they’re going to take the time to look at it.
JM: I think the film is largely sympathetic but it has some good criticisms. And you point out some things that maybe he doesn’t see.
CG: I think I believe in his project, but I’m really afraid about how it has already started to get out of control and how it could continue to spiral out of control.
JM: The problem is that he has a lot of influence in the rest of Latin America now, so he can easily say he needs to stay to help these countries, Ecuador and Bolivia, for example, they’re all disciples of Chavez now.
CG: But he can’t enlarge his coalition like he was doing before. And go with Lula [in Brazil] and go with Kirchner [in Argentina] and all these other leaders that cannot associate themselves anymore with Chavez because he’s too radical.
JM: I think the good thing is that he started the ball rolling.
CG: He gave the possibility for all these movements to exist. Because before, every social movement was destroyed in the Cold War, and he’s the one in 1998 who proved that is was possible to create social change without being repressive and that it works. What he’s done is working. The poor are in better condition than they were before. He’s already changed the history of Latin America.