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Venezuela: Revolution From the Inside Out in PMR

By Damian Bramlett and William Armaline (Ph.D.), San Jose State University
Political Media Review

In the US mainstream, Hugo Chavez is generally seen as a “communist” (a la North Korea, Cuba, or China), tyrant, or both-often vilified by US news media and politicians. Further, the Chavez administration is often painted as illegitimate, particularly in comparison to those elected in dominant Western “democratic” models-such as the US or much of the EU. However, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out provides a more nuanced perspective on Venezuela and a thorough investigation of modern socialism as now manifested in Central and South America.

California poet Clifton Ross, who is both writer and director of this modest film, provides an outsider’s perspective on Venezuelans in the 21st century and their struggle to change their way of life. Ross splits the film into three parts, with each providing interviews of both native Venezuelans and international scholars. Part one tells the story of Venezuela’s tumultuous past, with a large focus on Chavez’ rise to power. The second part of the film is dedicated to the emergent Venezuelan educational model, based largely on expanding literacy and civic education to all Venezuelan communities. The final act focuses on cooperatives (”lanceros”) and the struggle (of some) for a decentralized socialist political economy and political apparatus.

The dominant historical narrative, newly constructed under the Chavez administration(s) has striking similarities to that of the US: They fought for and won their independence from colonizers; Venezuela was largely shaped by “founding fathers” whose contributions form the “tree of three roots”-now studied in civic educational curriculum; and they experienced civil war that also threatened complete rupture in the 19th century. Contrary to popular belief, current Venezuelan affairs are similar to the US as well: drug wars raging along their borders, indigenous peoples being displaced from their homes via “development”, and a problematic dependency on oil as a finite and ultimately unsustainable resource. However, the Chavez administration and the modern socialist movement more broadly appear in stark contrast to the contemporary US. Recently models of “change” in the US in the face of economic recession and potential collapse have included the bailing out of capitalists, the rescuing of modern finance capitalism from itself, and the election of an African American president. In Venezuela, such change has included a real challenge and alternative to unbridled corporate tyranny (exemplified in the nationalization of Venezuela’s major natural resource industries), and the overwhelmingly democratic-populist election(s) of socialists to positions of high state authority.

Ross does an excellent job at giving outsiders an inside view as to how contemporary Latin American socialism operates and is perceived by its own constituents. He takes to the streets, back alleys, and urban cafes to conduct interviews with those from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and employment sectors. Ross’ passion for the voices of common working people in Venezuela is apparent in every frame-this is possibly the greatest strength of the film. Although Ross showcases many of the current successes of the “revolucion bonita” in the first two sections of the film, he does not hesitate to explore the problems with establishing a markedly state socialist system in the third. For this reason, the third section is likely the most interesting in terms of the modern socialist project. As has been the case for previous experiments in state socialism, one question for Venezuela is whether or not they can avoid the devolution into bureaucratic dictatorship, and establish political economic models of decentralized community control over resources and decision making.

Where Ross makes some attempt at this critical approach in the third section, at times, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out almost feels like a Hugo Chavez bio-doc rather than a film about democratic social change from below. The filmmakers come off as somewhat (and understandably) enamored with Hugo Chavez–as made apparent in their letter to Chavez–that they fail to fully present some of the potential problems with state socialist models, or the various critiques often levied at the Chavez administration from international sources representing the right or left. This seems like an opportunity lost in an otherwise very thorough presentation of contemporary Venezuelan social and political movements.

In sum, this film is very useful for audiences in the US, particularly with regard to debunking the fallacious assumptions we initially mentioned. Though somewhat uncritical of the Chavez administration, the filmmakers do an excellent job employing the narratives of common working people to describe the history and contemporary form of Venezuelan socialism. This is not simply a good point of methodological practice, but a way of communicating the potential collective movements for vast social change from below in (and potentially against) modern nation-states.

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Venezuela: Revolution From the Inside Out in DVD Talk

VenezuelaBy Chris Neilson
DVD Talk

Democracy is alive and well in Venezuela, or so it seems from Clifton Ross's intriguing feature-length documentary Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out. Ross explores Hugo Chávez's rise to power, and the subsequent experiment in 21st century Bolivarian Revolution through interviews with American and Venezuelan academics, and Venezuelan government officials, community activists and educators, and co-op farmers and merchants.

The first third of Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out consists of historical background on Chávez's rise to power. This introduction is elementary enough that it can be followed by viewers with no prior knowledge, but lively enough that it can sustain the interest of viewers already knowledgeable about this material. Through archival footage and interviews, Ross lays the groundwork for the more interesting subject of the Bolivarian Revolution following Chávez's rise to power which occupies the later two-thirds of the documentary.

In February 1992, Chávez, a senior Venezuelan military officer, launched a coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Though popularly elected in 1989, American-back Pérez was generally reviled by poor Venezuelans by 1992 following a prolonged period of economic decline. The coup failed, but Chávez negotiated a surrender that included a televised address to his troops and the Venezuelan people explaining that he'd acted in the interests of the poor, and he promised to continue to struggle on their behalf.

Chávez was jailed, only to be pardoned as a fulfillment of a campaign promise by the next Venezuelan President, Rafael Caldera, in 1994. Following his release, Chávez began laying the groundwork for a political victory. In 1998, he successfully ran for President, receiving 56% of the vote.

As President, Chávez launched a broad reorganization of the Venezuelan economy that included a massive public works program, universal social security, free health care and university education, land reform, vigorous corporate tax enforcement, and the nationalization of the oil, mining and heavy manufacturing sectors of the economy. Unhappy with the massive redistribution of wealth, a coup from the right seized power and arrested Chávez on April 11, 2002, but two days later he was freed and restored to power by a popular countercoup. The failure of the reactionary coup, Ross's interviewees tell us, delegitimized the opposition, and propelled the Bolivarian Revolution ahead twenty years.

The remaining two-thirds of Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out examines the Bolivarian Revolution in practice. It is here that the documentary really gets good. Ross roams around Caracas and the countryside doing interviews and visiting cooperatives and state enterprises. Ross visits a rural savings and loan, a community kitchen, a subsidized community store where the food labels include informational blurbs about the finer points of the national Constitution, and various businesses, farms, and even urban utilities operated as cooperatives by poor slum dwellers.

Ross interviews a manager of a state-owned bookstore who also happens to be a poet and poetry teacher who is enthusiastic about the educational opportunities now available. Ross also interviews another educator who explains that the existing universities are still resistant to reform, and that parallel "Bolivarian universities" have sprung up to train community development organizers. All the interviewees seem generally supportive of Chávez, but what makes these interviews interesting is that the interviewees all express some degree of dissatisfaction with Chávez but in wildly divergent ways.

Views diverge most widely on the Bolivarian Revolution tenant of seeking societal change through immediate economic empowerment rather than gradual economic adjustment. More specifically, the divergence of opinion concerns the practice of providing government loans directly to cooperatives without ensuring that the cooperatives have a viable business plan and capable membership first. A member of a longstanding co-op is critical of this practice because it puts the established cooperatives at a competitive disadvantage. A junior government official complains that only social benefits should be distributed by the government not cash payments to co-ops since most fail without repaying the loans. On the other hand, new co-op members and those seeking to form cooperatives complain that funding has been delivered more slowly than promised, and that loans are not keeping up with needs.

Ross is even allowed to document a poorly performing cooperative business over an 18 month period. When Ross first interviews the all-female membership of a cooperative restaurant, a power struggle is underway between two factions. By the time of Ross's last interview, most of the original members have been forced out, and the handful remaining are hiring and firing temporary workers on a regular basis to avoid giving them a share in the co-op. This is not how the government envisioned the cooperatives would operate. Worse yet, this is one of the few mildly successful co-ops: 80% fail within two years of opening without paying back the government loans. Despite this poor record, the government officials interviewed do not try to hide any of it, professing only that even the failures are acceptable and expected formative steps in the economic transformation.

Despite the diversity of opinion captured by Ross, the glaring omission is anyone squarely opposed to Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution. Ross interviews no one who has had land appropriated by the State, no one whose wealth has dissipated under heavy taxation, and no one in the universities resistant to the educational reformation initiatives.

The Video:
Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. There is aliasing and macroblocking of the image, but the overall look is acceptable, and in keeping with the handheld shooting style.

The Audio:
The 2.0 audio suffers from minor dropouts and distortion. The forced subtitles are overly small and badly colored, with the yellow text often lost against light colored backgrounds. However, the subtitles, in English when the audio is in Spanish, and Spanish when the audio is in English, do appear to provide excellent translations.

The Extras:
Extras consists of two short documentary features by Clifton Ross. Both are far more polemical than the main feature. The first, Messages to the North American People (12 min.) consists of statements by the Venezuelan interviewees from the main feature, addressed to viewers in the United States. Likely these were originally to be included in the main feature, but were cut because of their overt political posturing. These statements all express disbelief that George Bush was reelected President in 2004 after the perceived debacle of his first term. Some are angry, but most are simply bewildered or sympathetic to an American people out of touch with reality. The best of the bunch was this statement seemingly formulated on the spur of the moment by a man in late middle-age:

I don't know how you're going to escape the fiction the media has you in so you'll at last see reality and understand that your lifestyle isn't yours, but rather was stolen from us in the Third World. We're willing to share it. We can live in harmony. But the fantasy the media has sold you isn't real. We're not terrorists. We don't want to kill you. We want to live with you, but in equality, if you please. You've been partying for a long time. The car you have is half mine. Now give me my half.

The second short, entitled Meeting Chavez (10 min.), is a rant by Ross against the Bush Administration's lack of response to Katrina and underfunding of primary public schooling. Ross documents a friend who is a teacher in a struggling public elementary school in California. The teacher buys school supplies out of her own pocket. Ross writes a letter to Chávez on behalf of the school asking for funding for the library, athletics program, and school supplies. Chávez reads the letter on Venezuelan television, and follows up with an undisclosed amount of to the school.

Final Thoughts:
Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out is an intriguing look into the Venezuelan socialist economic experiment known as the Bolivarian Revolution. Thanks largely to oil revenues and wealth redistribution, President Hugo Chávez's Administration has injected enormous amounts of capital into the bottom rungs of the economy. Whether this vast economic experiment will be successful in relieving poverty and producing a sustainable, just, egalitarian, democratic society, remains to be seen.

Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out, and the shorts Messages to the North American People, and Meeting Chavez, have been made freely available for download by Clifton Ross under a Copyleft limited license. They are lawfully available as BitTorrent files on numerous sites.

Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out is highly recommended.

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Grassroots lessons from Latin America

MST March in BrazilAn interview with Michael Fox
By Benjamin Dangl
Beyond Freedom

Michael Fox is a Brazil-based independent journalist and co-producer of the new documentary Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas (PM Press). He is also the co-author of an upcoming book called Venezuela Speaks: Voices From the Grassroots, also available through PM Press and set to be released this fall. Throughout his research for this film and book, and as a radio and print reporter who has covered political and social issues across Latin America, Fox has come to know to hopes and struggles of the region’s social movements, and what US activists might learn from the experiences of these movements.

In this interview, he talks about what lessons US activists might consider from social movements throughout Latin America, and the challenges of applying Latin American activist strategies in the US under an Obama administration.

Benjamin Dangl: Taking into account the challenges posed by an Obama administration and the current economic crisis in the US, what lessons do you think US activists could learn from social movements in Brazil and Venezuela, as far as methods and strategies to radicalize and pressure politicians and combat economic strife? 

Michael Fox: First off, folks in the states need to remember that just because Obama is in office doesn’t mean that US activists should sit back on their heels and consider their “mission accomplished”.  For Obama to be able to push for changes, he needs to be pushed. That’s just the reality.  It can be difficult for activists in any country to maneuver the subtle balance of demanding their rights from a friendly elected official, while not playing in to the game the opposition (in this case the Republicans). Nevertheless, this must be done.  In Brazil - as I wrote in an article for Toward Freedom – shortly after Lula was elected in to office, Brazil’s progressives “gave Lula time”.  They were willing to work with him and humored his embracing of international economic norms as shrewd.  A year and a half later, they had had enough, and they formed a dissident party called the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL).  The MST held off on land occupations for a period, until they realized that despite Lula’s commitments to agrarian reform, the Brazilian president had befriended the international agro-industry, and he wasn’t looking back.  In hindsight, perhaps they should have pushed harder from the beginning of the Lula government, supporting his administration and at the same time demanding their rights.  This is what you see often in Venezuela, although you wouldn’t know it by reading the mainstream press.  

Autonomous Venezuelan social movements like the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front (FNCEZ) and the National Association of Free and Alternative Community Media (ANMCLA) are very clear that they support the Chavez government, but that they are autonomous social movements and that they have their own demands which they expect to be met.  It may at first appear contradictory when you see hundreds of Venezuelan campesinos and community media activists come marching through Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, to block a major intersection for hours, and at the same time they say they support the President, but that is the reality.  They understand – as activists in the United States need to learn quickly – that they have an agenda rooted in the community and in the grassroots, and the President (albeit friendly) is going to have another.  There are many interests at the top.  And often a President – even Chavez or Obama – isn’t going to be able to do what he or she would like, without really hearing it from the people on the streets. 

US activists need to be aware of these dualities, and not be afraid of what may appear contradictory. As one of Venezuela's founding fathers Simon Rodriguez once said, “o inventamos o erramos”, That’s the motto of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Movement: “Either we invent or we fail”, meaning that we need to be free to take chances, leaps and bounds, try things that seem crazy and if those things don’t work, get up and try something else. 

Especially in this time of global economic crisis people need to come together and look to develop their solutions in their local community.  Last fall, my partner and I traveled all across the United Status showing our movie, Beyond Elections, about these new democratic experiences all across Latin America.  At the same we interviewed communities and individuals from California to Virginia about their alternatives and solutions, about their thoughts, hopes and opinions of this ridiculous bank bailout. Nearly everyone – from urban progressives to salt-of-the earth Midwestern farmers – said the same thing, “Get all the politicians out of Washington” and turn the government back over to “we the people”.  We now have a new president, elected to do just that with his platform of change, but that is just the beginning.  

Latin Americans know this story well, and over the last three decades a number of experiences have been developed across the region, from which activists in the United States can learn. For me they are all based around democracy and place-based organizing, two ideas which may seem irrelevant, but they can be transformative.      

You ask your average North American for his or her definition of democracy, and the answer is usually free and fair elections.  But as I said above, that is just the beginning, it’s not the end.   

Latin Americans, especially in Venezuela and Brazil, have been developing these concepts and working with these themes in transformative ways.  

Since President Hugo Chavez came to office in 1998, Venezuelans have been working to shift the hierarchical organizing to horizontal in local community-based committees – first the Bolivarian circles and then local water, electricity, land committees, etc…   In 2006, Venezuelans all across the country have been organizing themselves in to tiny local “communal councils” which are made up of 100-200 families which elected spokesperson for the local community in order to carry out local projects.  The concept is powerful, because it is the community which decides on local issues and projects.  If the community needs to fix a road, it develops the project, brings it to the pertinent institutions and they can receive funding.  The concept is radically different from the past, when the community would have to fight with the local government for public works projects, and radically different from the former community associations in which a select group of people decided for everyone.  In Venezuela, right now these communal councils are trying to put decision-making power directly in the hands of citizens, and there is talk of expanding the power of these communal councils out, so they would also have decision-making power in the municipal, region, state and national level also.  Optimally they make decision by consensus, sometimes by voting.  The spokespersons of the council are the spokespersons- that elaborate the project and the communal council, but not representatives, which means that the entire community must be consulted on important decisions. There are now tens of thousands of communal councils all across the country, being funded by more than a billion dollars from the Venezuelan government.   

Participatory Budgeting (PB) began in Porto Alegre, Brazil and has now spread throughout the world. It is a process in which everyday citizens participate in the allocation of a chunk of city funds.  Each year community residents vote on their priorities and demands for the next year, and throughout the year representatives hold weekly or biweekly meetings to ensure that the community’s will is carried out.  The idea is giving communities a democratic say in the direction of government.  While Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting now has its problems, and some of the PB delegates and council-members have turned in to more bureaucratic positions, the program has become a necessary element of the local government and citizens have learned to see themselves as part of a larger picture, to see their needs together with the needs of those around them.  

As I mentioned, PB is now in cities and local governments all across the planet, and is promoted as a way in order to ensure transparency in the local government.  What if participatory budgeting were implemented in local governments, organizations, and groups across the US?  What if the $700 billion bank bailout had an incorporated a component of participatory budgeting in which US citizens could have participated in where they wanted the bailout funds to be allocated?  A sector would have had to have followed up with the implementation to ensure that the funds actually went to where they were supposed to go, rather than the US government handing over billions to the same people that got us in to this mess, without any checks and balances.  Is that democratic?   

In terms of social movements, Brazil’s Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) recently turned 25 and while there has been little said about the MST for quite some time in the US press, it is as alive as ever. As a local organizer in Brazil’s Southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, João Amaral confirmed last July, this is largely due to the fact that in the MST, decision-making is rooted in the community, in the everyday MST members and in local grassroots groups of 10-20 families that make up the base nuclei of the movement in MST encampments and settlements.  A spokesperson from each of these groups then joins with the spokespersons from each of the other “base nuclei”, where they also work with consensus to make decisions or return to the local groups to debate further. Only with this process they are: 1. Able to truly reflect the will of the movement overall and 2. Ensure that everyone feels like their voice is heard and is, and 3. Willing to continue with the decision of the group, even when it perhaps was not their first choice.  

This is the heart of the MST, truly one of the most radical social movements. You feel the sense of community as you walk in to an encampment or settlement and spend some time with those around you.  It is astounding: one group cooks for everyone else, another group is taking care of the children, another is planting- and that’s how they live their life.  There is a sense of oneness with those around them, and their form of decision-making – rooted in these local groups. They decide by consensus, and the added focus on gender neutrality ensures that everyone’s voice is heard and that everyone feels a part of the process.   From its humble beginnings in 1984, the MST has won millions of acres of land and says it now has 370,000 families settled across the country and 100,000 camped.

BD: What are some of the challenges posed by transferring such strategies to the US to be applied there? 

MF: The sense of community in the above Latin American examples cannot be highlighted enough.  Oftentimes in the United States it is easy to feel separate from one another.  Many times you don’t live near those with whom you are used to organizing, and especially in the suburbs, our lives are created to keep us isolated from one-another.  There are many forms of poverty across the globe, but truly that which most affects the United States is a poverty of community, a sickness of community, in which individuals feel isolated and separated from one another, basing their decisions not on communication, collaboration, deliberation, but on the fear they feel from the negative news that is spun at American citizens through one of the most highly consolidated media in the world.       

MST Rally in BrazilThis is why I mentioned place-based organizing.  All of the above experiences are “place-based”, not issue-based.  They are rooted in solving the issues of the local community, and can then move in to the larger issues from there.  Some activists in New Orleans are starting to develop this, such as Khalil Shahyd of the New Orleans Citizen Participation Project, who is promoting Participatory Budgeting in the Louisiana city.  The Survivor’s Council, which takes place in the Katrina-devastated Lower 9th Ward, is inspired by Venezuela’s communal councils and is a way for community residents to connect, debate, discuss and work towards to resolve the problems in their community.   

Activists also need to remember – as my Brazilian wife highlighted during our tour around the states last fall showing our film Beyond Elections – that the best way to support movements abroad, is to make change at home.   

In the United States, the Left is often fragmented in to factions and issues.  How many times have you gone to an event on “Venezuela” or “Cuba” or some specific issue in the community, and you know everyone in the crowd, because they are the same handful of people that go to all of these types of events.  That’s great, they are active, but they are often disconnected from the other issues, and from the community and the issues affecting the local community sometimes only a few miles from where the event is being held. 

Activists in the United States may be quick to protests loudly against the “illegitimate” US war on Iraq or Afghanistan, but when it comes to the internal illegitimate low-intensity warfare waged by the US government against poor communities in the United States, many middle-class activists don’t make the connection.  US activists need to bring the “buy local” banner of local farmers, in to the activist realm – “organize local” around local issues – which are, of course connected to the big picture.    

Activists need to think about not only how to create organizations but movements with grassroots committees that will ensure that everyone has a roll to play, and that their voice is heard.  I believe that San Francisco lost a huge opportunity in 2005, when the SF People’s Organization was founded.  I excitedly asked one of the new directors when the general assembly would meet again and if we would be setting up local grassroots committees in the communities around San Francisco.  He responded that we wouldn’t have to meet again until the next year, and until then, he and the two-dozen organizers would fight throughout the year for our interests.

He didn’t get it.  I tell this story to my foreign friends and they laugh.  In the United States, activists are used to getting out on the streets to protest, e-activism – clicking buttons to sign protests and forward urgent actions, but with all the other activities US citizens are involved in (with music, sports, dance, art, socially etc…), many don’t want to think about joining another group.  That’s not the point. 

The only way that Uruguay’s Leftist political coalition, Frente Amplio, retained so much of its support, despite being brutally repressed and exiled during a more than decade-long dictatorship, was because of its grassroots committees.  As I pointed out in an article in 2007, Frente Amplio’s rise to Uruguay’s Presidency in 2005 was an important victory, but by turning its back on its grassroots activists, the coalition has lost the fervent support on the streets which kept its dream alive for so many years.  

Many of these examples take time.  Consensus takes time.  Local grassroots committees take time.  And that is not something that US activists have a lot of.  They could, but they don’t, in large part due to an entertainment industry which ensures that we are encouraged away from such activities.   

Another issue that US activists must contend with paradoxically is the traditional lack of needs.  Participatory Budgeting, Communal Councils, MST organizing works because the local community has a series of very immediate needs that aren’t being met: Perhaps it’s electricity, or potable water, or land.  Only by joining forces will the community be able to accomplish their demands.  In the United States, many communities have traditionally not had these desperate needs.  Of course, some have, but many have not.  Which means that individuals haven’t felt the desperate need to come together because they are content with their homes, their cars, their jobs and their cable TV.   

But times are changing.  Even suburban neighborhoods are falling apart as a result of the Mortgage Crisis. The financial crisis is growing, and rather than correct the failures of the system, Washington promises to hand over more to those that got us in to the problem in the first place.  Meanwhile, unemployment is rising, homelessness is rising, and no one has resolved the lack of health care for millions of US residents.  These are pressing issues, and they are issues which must be dealt with from the bottom up, from the local, from the community out.  As they say in Venezuela, “endogenous development”  

So, in the United States, activists have to contend with: 

-people’s busy lives

-lack of community

-lack of interest or needs

Of course, no model can ever be simply lifted up and plopped down on top of a completely different reality and expected to work.  That concept is part of the same hierarchical system which these experiences are trying to correct.  These experiences must be a creative process and collaborative.  Activists need to listen and work together.   Deliberate and build shared space together that are rooted in faith and love, and not fear.  And this can be done without the large funds many in the United States believe you need for a healthy organization.  

Of course resources help, but if they don’t exist we just need to be creative.  Like the barter trade systems which were set up across the Southern Cone after the December 2001 economic crisis, in which community members came together to trade what they had for things that they need, or things that others had to offer.
Lastly, Latin Americans are more than willing to support these experiences across the
US, and to share experiences and trade ideas.  Activists in the United States just need to be willing to take chances and unite with those around them. 

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Black and Gold Reviewed in DVD note

Black & GoldBy Dave "Corvid" McCallum
DVD Note

For all the strugglers and sufferers of whatever origin, this film is an inspirational kick in the ass to rise up and unify in the face of oppression. This is the story of the Latin Kings - who in 1994 made the transformation from NYC’s largest street gang, into the Latin King and Queen Nation - a revolutionary socialist organization dedicated to uplifting community and influenced by the Black Panthers and the Young Lords.

Through interviews with members and spokespeople like King Tone and Puerto Rican revolutionary Richie Perez, the word is made flesh - the story of the marginalized Latin community in the US and the government approved program of self -destruction through gang violence and internal conflict. Most surprising is the local priest who, embracing the King and Queen Nation and casting it in a Biblical perspective references Jesus - “who lived in the ghetto just as you all do for thirty years, and when he took his Nation downtown…they killed him in three weeks!”.

When minority people are engaged in a lethal struggle for survival that keeps them from manifesting their own destiny, Uncle Sam is A-OK, but when the same community rallies around socialist principles and restructures for autonomy, you know he’s bringing in the big guns - and thus the Nation was subjected to one of the biggest round-ups in American “history” - over ninety Latin Kings were arrested on various trumped up charges, with founder King Blood given one of the most outrageous sentences ever - life with no parole, with a minimum of 45 years solitary confinement !What is truly inspiring to me is that the Nation is one of the most visibly multi-racial communities I’ve seen, with Kings and Queens ranging from black to white to Hispanic to Asian looking (by American visual race categorization standards anyway), with the common bond of language, community and culture that bonds them as family and separates them from Anglo America’s self-righteous insanity.
If you want to hear inspired and inspiring words from youth and elders in a community that has more to say and more depth of feeling than can be put in the dirty language of the English overlords, then watch Black and Gold, and watch it again. Ultimately it’s all about Amor del Rei - King’s Love, the meaning of which is obvious in the eyes of all the King’s - men who have faced death, oppression, and destruction both internal and external, and have used it to become something so much greater.

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The War of 33 in Political Media review

war of 33 Letter From Beirut
By Bill Templer
Political Media Review

The War of 33 tells the story of the 33-day Israeli attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006 through a series of blog letters written by Beirut journalist Hanady Salman, an editor with the Beirut paper As-Safir. Hanady knew the worst images of that war would not be shown by the Western media or television. So she decided to dispatch regular email updates to a group of friends and colleagues, relaying her personal accounts and many very graphic photographs from around Lebanon. Hers became one of the most powerful voices emanating from Beirut during the war. This documentary film is the later product of that, in part a cinematic monument to the power of people’s blogging in the midst of war’s carnage, and the will to resist (1). Hanady’s original 2006 blog is here: .

The poignant narrative is coupled with still shots and video of the widespread carnage and destruction, often expressing Hanady’s own bewilderment and anxieties, trying to protect her tiny daughter from the catastrophe enveloping the country. Hanady strings together many real stories of ordinary Lebanese, their struggle to maintain sanity, their sumoud (grit) in the midst of this nightmare. On August 9th, she writes:

Under the rubble, one village after the other, one house after the other, memories take their owners along. Ashes. Pity the living, pity those who are left behind. Pity those who are dreading the day when it will be their turn to run down the streets, screaming, collecting the legs and arms of their loved ones, calling their names so loud their voices would reach the skies.

The 35-minute film is a moving tale of indiscriminate bombardment of the innocent, and their resistance and will to survive, as Hanady puts it: “the story of a great people, one that never lost faith despite all the crimes, pains and injustices [...] and how we prevailed.” It is singularly iconic for our era, as similar scenes of horror perpetrated by a state military bombard us day after day from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Gaza, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, constructed as a ‘war on terror.’ It echoes profoundly the core theme of the classic Fourth World War (also from Big Noise Films).

The War of 33 film won the Juried Award for Best Short Documentary at the Ashland Film Festival in Oregon in 2008.

The documentary can be combined with geographer Derek Gregory’s trenchant analysis of the geography of the ordinary citizen in the ‘war on terror,’ focusing on this same Israeli attack: “Targets, Civilians and Late Modern War,” THE ARAB WORLD GEOGRAPHER, Vol. 9(2), 2006, available in full online: . Gregory notes that nearly a million Lebanese were displaced by the fighting, and hundreds of thousands more were “trapped in the indistinction between combatant and civilian.” Human beings were “reduced to spectral figures in a shattered landscape where they could be killed with a click or a shrug [...] They were targets, shields, terrorists; often less than that” (p. 102).

As a filmic supplement to Hanady’s work, a 6-minute documentary on the impact of the 2006 Israeli attack seen through the eyes and lens of a young woman trapped in her small Beirut apartment is Absent Spaces, by Lebanese filmmaker Laila Hotait Salas: . Show it together with Hanady’s film, as I will do here in Malaysia.

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Dispatches on Political Media Review

By Ernesto Aguilar
Political Media Review

Given a durable track record when it comes to feature-length films, it is indeed risky to step into the news clip reportage comprising the DVD collection Big Noise Dispatches, Volumes 1-4. Unwritten in such choices is a potential for perceptions to shift and the existing body of work to be somehow diminished. After all, the closest comparison to Dispatches could be the autonomous Independent Media Center’s Indymedia Newsreal shorts; such affairs have been more simple than anything Big Noise has done, including these four volumes. Managing to make this series work is tricky.

True to Big Noise style, the visuals in Dispatches are dizzying. Volume 1 opens with some of the most terrifying film work in relaying the 2006 bombing of Lebanon by Israel in its quest to crush Hezbollah. The enormity of the destruction in the opening sequence is breathtaking. Subsequent volumes deliver on the media team’s penchant for hard-hitting camera work. From firsthand narratives from Jena, Louisiana, to investigative journalist Greg Palast’s signature correspondence, featured in various segments throughout the series, Dispatches wrests from corporate media the idea that only the commercial press can do genuinely entertaining, heart stopping reporting. Big-budget television, it is true, cannot compete with passion and commitment.

is at its best in profiling the movements that have no representation in the corporate or independent media. Film from Iraq, Ecuador and other far-flung areas is without peer. Big Noise’s ongoing imperative to bring viewers the on-the-ground struggles at their most realistic is daringly conferred. Courage against a backdrop of repression, victimhood blossoming into indignation, and intransigence growing into bottom-up insurgency are grist for great chronicles. You find truly moving efforts on Dispatches.

Though often dated from the periods of release, many segments are riveting. The Winter Soldier hearings, for the uninitiated especially, are telling; at the 2008 gatherings, Iraq veterans told their stories of abuses by the U.S. military and their participation in same. Even if you have followed the coverage by reporters like Dahr Jamail and Aaron Glantz, nothing can really prepare you for seeing the anguished faces of ex-soldiers recounting and recanting their misdeeds in the Mideast. A few speak in no uncertain terms about the killings they committed and their regret to the families whose loved ones they murdered. Such words are singularly the best reason to watch Dispatches. At a time when journalism has lost its socioeconomic diversity and class bias thus pervades reporting, Big Noise is willing to go there in ways I. F. Stone must be smiling down on.

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Beyond Elections in the Americas on GNN

Beyon electionsAn Interview with Michael Fox
By Ben Dangl
Guerilla News Network


A new documentary looks at Latin America's most controversial democracies

The new documentary Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas (buy from PM Press) proves that democracy can and should be more than casting a ballot every four years. This empowering film gives hopeful and concrete examples from around the Americas of people taking back the reigns of power and governing their own communities. Beyond Elections is a road map for social change, drawing from communal councils in Venezuela and social movements in Bolivia to participatory budgeting in Brazil and worker cooperatives in Argentina. The film gracefully succeeds in demonstrating that these grassroots examples of people’s power can be applied anywhere. Particularly as activists in the US face the challenges of an Obama administration and an economic crisis, this timely documentary shows that the revolution can start today right in your own living room or neighborhood.

In this interview, Michael Fox, Co-Producer of Beyond Elections, talks about how the film was created, what its aims were and what the films impact has had among viewers in the US.

Benjamin Dangl: How did you decide on the focus and message of Beyond Elections?

Michael Fox: I’ve been living and working in Latin America for many years, studying and reporting on, above all else, the experiences in participatory democracy- cooperatives, communal councils, participatory budgeting, social movements, community radio, etc… Sílvia (my wife, who grew up in Southern Brazil, and who is also Co-director of the film) and I were living in Venezuela in 2006 when the communal councils law was passed, and local communities all across the country began to come together and take on this new form of organizing. You could see how it was empowering people on an individual and local level.

In March of 2007, Sílvia and I found ourselves in Porto Alegre, Brazil – where we now live – at the same time that the 2007 Participatory Budgeting cycle was about to begin. We realized that although there have been many local videos on the experiences of participatory budgeting, cooperatives, social movements and even some on the recently-formed communal councils, there was no documentary film that tried to give both the big and local picture of these new participatory concepts of democracy across the hemisphere.

This concept is almost completely absent in the United States, and yet, it is absolutely necessarily for people to understand what is going on across Latin America, and also extremely important for activists and people in the United States to understand the failures of our own system and the lack of participation and input from everyday citizens.

We originally planned the film to focus only on participatory democracy, but quickly realized that the only people who would want to see it would be activists that are already doing this type of work. We needed to open it up to the very concept of democracy itself.

This was important to us, because time and again in the United States, pundits, elected officials, everyday folks and even journalists use the word “democracy” as an excuse to de-legitimize extremely democratic groups and governments. They say, “Venezuela is threatening democracy in the region,” and yet depending on your definition, Venezuela is perhaps the most democratic country in the region – much more so than the United States. But these realities are very subtle, and if you have never been to Venezuela, or Brazil or Bolivia or Ecuador (or if you go and only stay at the resorts and the upper-class part of town), then you’re never going to know what to believe because the mainstream media is quick to repeat the manipulations.

There are some mainstream media that actually call Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a dictator, despite the fact that during his ten years in office there have been more than a dozen free and fair elections in Venezuela legitimately-recognized by international observers from around the world, and that he has always respected the Venezuelan Constitution and the laws. He may be a very charismatic, domineering, and powerful figure, but he’s not a dictator.

Then the real question is, “What is democracy?” And that’s where we wanted to focus our attention – giving people the space to tell their stories across the Hemisphere.

As the Portuguese Sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos says, (and you can find the link to more of his work on our website,, the United States has created a monopoly on the definition of democracy- U.S. style hegemonic representative politics.

But Sousa Santos points out that in reality, democracy is a work in progress. As he says, “democracy without end.”

His colleague, Leonardo Avritzer, professor from Brazilian Federal University of Minas Gerais, points out in our film, “What we’ve tried to stress, is the idea that democracy is an open concept and the frontiers of democracy are always imprecise. For instance, in the 19th century you could say that it’s democratic to expand suffrage. And that’s true. It was democratic at the end of the 19th century to expand suffrage to women. Or at the beginning of the 20th century it could appear democratic to expand democracy to the countries of the global South. So the question today in the Southern countries is how to think about the democratization of things like the budget, health policies, education policies, urban policies, the democratization of life where you live.”

Of course, it’s not always easy. Especially when you are trying to make a film for not one audience, but audiences in various languages all across the Hemisphere. But that’s what we set out to do, and I think we succeeded.

BD: Could you talk a bit about the process of making your documentary?

MF: This is very important, because we wanted the making of the film to reflect as much as possible the “democracy” that we are trying to portray. We used very little narration- only about two and a half minutes worth –because we wanted people to tell the stories in their own words. We tried not to change the scenery where we were filming. We only used music from local musicians, and tried to only use it when it was part of the scene. It is also a testament to what two people can do without any external resources or really expensive equipment.

The entire budget came out of our own pockets and Silvia and I filmed nearly the entire film with our Panasonic 3CCD handycam, and edited it all on our aging G4 Powerbook.

Of course, we had more than a half a dozen individuals and groups that supported with b-roll, and either shot for us, or allowed us to use footage they had already filmed in areas that we couldn’t make it to like Ecuador, Bolivia, and the Bay Area.

The SF-based musician and sound editor, Ben Bernstein, donated his time to post-produce our audio, which came out great. The Venezuela-based film group, Panafilms was a huge support, as were hundreds of folks all across the region.

BD: What was the response among viewers during your tour in the U.S.?

MF: We did our tour last fall from mid September straight through till two days before the 2008 Presidential elections. We drove from the East Coast to the West Coast and back, covering our costs with donations from the nearly two-dozen showings all across the U.S. It was an amazing experience. Of course, we were organizing the tour ourselves, so our audiences varied from a couple hundred people at some Universities all the way down to a living room showing with a few people in Oklahoma City. But really, the response was the best we could have hoped for, and both Silvia and I were impressed with the diversity of opinions. Some viewers were struck by the amount of local democracy and participation in Venezuela specifically, especially with the negative press that it gets in the United States. Many viewers were impressed with the democratic experiences, and the fact that people all across the region are all participating in similar ways. Others were shocked because so little of this is happening in the U.S. Others felt the movie really put things in to a perspective that they had rarely seen or heard of before. This was the case of one gentleman in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans where we showed Beyond Elections with a projector on the side of a building. He said, “Wow, I’ve always known all of this, but I had never understood that everything was connected. I feel like I have a new perspective on things.”

Without a doubt, the biggest and only major critique was that it was, and remains, a long documentary- just under two hours, which we’ll keep in mind for our next documentary. The DVD version of the movie is divided in to chapters, which can each stand alone, so it can easily be used in university and high school classrooms according to theme. The right hand side of the website, has dozens of links to additional information, all also sorted according to the chapter and the theme.

We tried to build the film in order to give people an understanding of the realities, and also leave them with a sense of hope. Because these experiences anywhere; be it in Latin America or the United States, in the local government, the community, the office, the school or the home can only happen if we take the steps to open the democratic spaces of participation. This is the exciting thing about the film and I believe that people could feel it. The film gave people an idea about some of the things that are being done, and some of the things that they can also do. As Sílvia often said in our after-film discussions, “the best thing you can do to support these democratic experiences abroad is to make change in your own communities, attempt to open democracy in your own community.” As a Brazilian, she knows the affect that this can have.

In our discussions after nearly all of our showings, we tried to stress this point; how we can open up these democratic experiences in our own lives. After numerous requests, we actually developed a “Beyond Elections Democracy Discussion Guide”, which attempts to help people to do just that, Bring Democracy Home. It is also available to download halfway down the right-hand side of our website, under “Beyond Elections Materials.”

And that is our job now- to spread the word about the film, and open up the space for democracy where wherever you are. As we wrote shortly after the 2008 US Presidential elections, “We can no longer leave important local, regional or national decisions in the hands of our elected representatives alone. They should be held accountable, not to their campaign contributors, but to the citizens who they are supposed to represent.” (See this link)

Please let us know if you are interested in supporting Beyond Elections, finding out more, or setting up a showing in your own community. We would love to be able to support your local efforts.

For more information, visit


Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, and the editor of, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.

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Beyond Elections on reelgrok

beyond elections

Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas
By Mathius Mack Gertz

What is democracy? Freedom, equality, participation? Everyone has his or her own definition. Across the world, 120 countries now have at least the minimum trappings of democracy-the freedom to vote for all citizens. But for many this is just the beginning, not the end. Following decades of US backed dictatorships, civil wars and devastating structural adjustment policies in the South, and corporate control, electoral corruption, and fraud in the North, representative politics in the Americas is in a crisis. Citizens are now choosing to redefine democracy under their own terms: local, direct and participatory.

Beyond Elections is a journey that takes us across the Americas to attempt to answer one of the most important questions of our time: What is Democracy?

While the material and journey that Beyond Elections takes us on is incredibly important; the  technical filmmaking is documentarian in the  older style of talking heads and long uncut scenes that many younger U.S. Americans are no longer patient with. At 114 minutes it is on the long side for U.S. audiences more accustomed to sound bites and short-form news and information. Most of the structural problems are in the middle of the film where Director/editors Fox and Leindecker repeatedly go back and forth to local citizens to allow them to fully explain their projects and results. It suffers from a combination of spoon feeding and hitting us over the head with just the Again we see why filmmaking is supposed to be a collaborative effort. Having a third person with a strong story telling sense as editor would have saved Beyond Elections.

On the other hand there is nothing wrong with Beyond Elections that cutting out about twenty minutes of the above wouldn't solve. And that can be very easily done by the viewer with the DVD fast forward button.  The local projects that are going on all across the two American continents are fascinating and at times riveting. Particularly in light of the grass roots style of the Obama election of 2008, the recent reach out that President Obama has given to America's leaders at the 2009 Summit of the Americas, the derivatives debacle and world wide financial collapse. Oh, excuse me... financial adjustment. This is an extremely important piece of documentary filmmaking and is deserving of a look by anyone interested in the future of democracy in this century.

Beyond Elections is an important asset for teachers of American history and democracy, community organizers, participatory citizens and grass roots activists. And it would also be nice if a nativist or two took a look.  Even though I can only give it three stars, I highly recommend making the time to see it.

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Shots Magazine reviews the Jook

By Ayo Anotade
Shots Magazine
(Reiew of 1st edition of The Jook)

Welcome to the destructive world and lifestyle of Zelmont Raines, a one time Super Bowl wining all Pro Receiver. Raines once had a string of wealthy endorsement deals but these were terminated as a result of a statutory rape charge. However, his life has also become a complete mess as a result of his over indulgence with crack cocaine, expensive brandy and a fondness for entertaining sports groupies. While trying to maintain his lifestyle he also has to contend with three failed stints in a drug rehab unit, a paternity suit, a recurring injury and some misguided investments. Raines soon begins to accept as true the fact that the good times (for him) have come and gone.

Back in LA after falling out of the European League, he finds his one last chance is with the Barons an expansion team. Zelmont realises that apart from the fact that that he will no longer be making huge amounts of money, but that he will also no longer have the cry and adulation of the crowds and the female company that he has been used to. Zelmont’s problems continue when he is fingered for the murder of his girlfriend Davida and the religious football commissioner who is less than enamoured with his off the pitch behaviour is determined that he will not play pro-football again.

Raines soon realises he has met his match both morally and sexually when he encounters and falls for Wilma Wells, the smart, but devious and attractive lawyer for the Barons. While Zelmont is sexually attracted to Wells, his gut feeling tells him to stay well away from her, but somehow he can’t. Wells has hatched a scheme to rip off the mob-connected owners of the team and Raines desperate for money and always on the look out for ways of making a quick buck soon finds himself drawn into the plan along with his bisexual friend and former defensive tackle Napoleon Graham. Wells leads Raines into a world where the lines of violence that takes place in professional football can be considered to be insipid in the face of automatic weapons and constant double crosses.

If you like your crime novels full of greed, gritty, realistic and with lots of anatomically correct sex then this is the book for you. The Jook is an excellent and enthralling standalone novel from one of the best in the genre of noir there is no honour, no respect, no love but plenty of money. It contains so many elements that will please readers. From the profanity loaded street talk, to the end of the novel which is certainly reminiscent of a Jim Thompson novel and the homage that has without doubt been played to black-exploitation films, The Jook is more of a violent crime novel than anything else. While funny at times as well as being violent the reader is led on a ride that makes for entertaining reading.

In no way shape or form is this a politically correct novel, but who cares? It was not meant to be. It is a crime novel that not only makes you think twice about becoming an athlete, but shows what happens when pro-football and venal ambition collide in the end zone. If you read and loved King Suckerman then you will love this book as well.

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BSC Review of the Jook

The JookJune 14th, 2009 by NerdOfNoir
BSC Review

There’s only one word for Gary Phillips’ The Jook and that word is fucking cool (you had to believe the Nerd would spice up said word with some Grade-A poop-mouth, am I right?). This fucking beast is just oozing with cool. I haven’t read any other shit from Gary Phillips yet, but if his other books are half as cool as The Jook, you can bet the fucking farm the Nerd’s gonna be on top of that shit toot-sweet.

The Jook tells the story of Zelmont Raines, a Super Bowl-winning wide receiver that’s fallen on hard times. He’s just been sent home to L.A. after getting the boot from the European leagues following his hip getting out of whack for the umpteenth time. Dude’s got bills and no money to pay them with, what with blowing all his NFL coin on drugs, alimony and lawyers (He swears she said she was legal). But Los Angeles is getting a new franchise called the Barons and nobody - not even the devoutly Christian NFL commissioner that hates the shit out of him - can stop Zelmont from trying out.

Surely he can make the team and start living the high life once again, fucked up hip or no.

But then a pretty little thing working for the owner of the Barons named Wilma Wells starts whispering in ol’ Zelmont’s ear, saying that there’s an easier way to gain the green. Namely, by ripping off some mobbed up NFL big wigs for cool millions…

So you have this classic femme fatale noir story with the neat twist of the main character being an ex-bad boy (well, not so “ex-“ I suppose) football player. That’s enough for me to recc this shit right there, but Phillips also loads this motherfucker up with tons of crazy sex scenes and gloriously violent, cinematic action sequences. Then there’s the fucking nutso heist shit towards the end and…

So yeah, you could say the Nerd dug this shit.

But what really makes it all work is Zelmont Raines himself. He’s telling his own story in a voice that is tres fucking cool, every other line dripping with distilled badassery. Zelmont’s a cocky motherfucker with flaws out the ass, but he’s so fucking enviably awesome (only a God like Jim Brown or Fred Williamson in the seventies could truly do him justice on the big screen) that you’re totally with him to the bitter end.

Like a double of Maker’s on the rocks, The Jook goes down easy then rocks your shit something fierce right afterward. It’s straight up hot sex, blazing action, and classic noir told in a bracingly modern, unabashedly cool way (I wish there were more words capable of expressing “cool”-ness, but there just fucking isn’t, dear reader).

So trust the Nerd, dear reader: your ass wants some of this shit right here. Your ass wants it in the right fucking now.

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