Law of the Land: the DVD Commentary, Minus the DVD!

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Quico says: In case you missed it, yesterday I posted Law of the Land, a documentary about Chávez’s Land Reform I made with Megan Folsom back in 2002 and 2003. It would probably make sense to watch it before you read this commentary. The video is an hour long, most of it is in Spanish with English subtitles.

Why the Law of the Land? Well, the project was born, back in 2001, out of frustration with the way the mainstream media was doing its job in Venezuela. By then, it was clear that the way journalism was being practiced was not really helping the whole society understand what was happening to itself. I had three peeves in particular in mind:

  1. Caracas-centricism. All the National Media was based in Caracas, and the journalism they present was overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, about Caracas. Newspapers often read as though Caracas and Venezuela were rough synonyms. Coverage of “the interior” was often confined to the crime blotter, and even then to the crime-blotter from a few other big cities. The countryside didn’t exist in the National Press. The regional press, which to some extent picked up the slack, was way underfunded, hackish and seldom worth your time.
  2. Elite-centrism. A huge majority of what passed for journalism consisted of shoving microphones in front of important people and recording what they said. Normal people who were affected by national stories were almost never taken into account, and never received sustained attention. TV Studio politics were the order of the day, producing a version of national reality that was closed onto itself, and had weirdly little to say about what was happening in the country as actual people experienced it.
  3. Finally there’s the more common complaint about editorial bias, the way oppo media never presented the Best Case the government had to make for itself and official media never presented the Best Case the opposition had to make for itself.

So we set out to try to avoid those pitfalls. The idea was to go out to the countryside and talk to normal people about how national events were affecting their everyday lives, and to do so without manipulation, allowing people to speak for themselves, to put their best case forward.

So we worked hard to get regular, likable, charismatic people to speak for each side, as well as pompous, dislikable, creepy people. For me, the real star of the show is Gilda, the chavista squatter on Campo Alegre farm, who (starting at 17:45 in the video) speaks with such passionate intensity about her life and what Chávez means to her that I almost turn chavista every time I see that clip. But we also hear that snakes-oil salesman of a chavista Cooperative Leader on Santa Rita farm towards the end, stumbling badly as he realizes we know he’s lying to us. We see Nicolas Orta, the cartoonishly villainous owner of Campo Alegre brimming with class hatred for the people who took his land, but we also see Rogelio Peña and his campesino neighbors, people so plainly grounded in simple, sturdy values of friendship, hard work and mutual respect you can’t help but admire them.

They’re all there, and they’re all real: neither side has a monopoly on goodness in Venezuela.

We wanted to jolt viewers – all viewers – out of the standard, caricaturish understanding of land conflict as a struggle between the good guys and the bad guys. We reject the standard Hollywoodesque framing of the story, with its easy moral certainties, its rejection of complexity, of the multiplicity of experiences and motivations that makes humans human. We wanted ambiguous characters, and I think we did a pretty good job getting them.

Gilda, probably the most likable character in the whole film, is nonetheless perfectly aware that she lives on stolen land. Rogelio, for all his soft-spoken good sense, however much his poor neighbors praise him, is an incredible fat cat and an AD político to boot. Even the Campo Alegre landowner, Nicolas Orta, can’t help to strike a chord with anyone who’s been mugged or had a car radio stolen – even while you can’t help but hate his guts on-screen.

The point was to make both sides cringe a little, we wanted to confront everyone with an awareness of their own blindspots, as well as with the basic humanity of the other side, so often maligned and demonized.

Megan in particular was struck by the similarities we found between the two sides when we dug just beneath the hyperpolarized surface. When we went to hang out with them, both chavistas and opposition people treated us with the same respect, the same extravagant generosity, the same eagerness to tell their stories, the same underlying wish to just be left alone so they can make a living and the same pride in identifying themselves as agrarian producers, as campesinos. As somebody once said about Northern Ireland, “they are the same, but they are on different sides.”

We were especially struck by the hospitality we received from all sides. We found it impossible to go out for a day’s shoot without coming back loaded down with gifts: bananas, hallacas (we were shooting in December), oranges, lechozas, beer…whatever people had, they would give us, whether they were very poor or very rich, whether they were for Chávez or against him. I found those gestures deeply affecting, not to mention more than a bit embarrassing: nobody ever taught me what I’m supposed to do when someone who probably doesn’t have quite enough to eat offers you food.

So when you peel away the layers of Caracas-centric, Elite-centric, media constructed reality, what you find was a country populated by mostly by perfectly normal, generous folk with perfectly normal concerns, trying to make a living the best way they knew how, and wishing they’d just be allowed to get on with it without interference. Which, when you stop to think about it, is not at all surprising.

Yet we also found, on both sides, people convinced that there is an evil, evil “Other” out there, an Other intent on hindering them, impoverishing them, taking away what is rightfully theirs, hurting their children, an amoral, conniving, thieving other that can’t be reasoned with and so has to be subdued. Polarization may have been born in the Caracas TV Studio, but by the time we shot this film it had spread, acquired deep tentacles in society. That part was no longer just hype: polarization had become a real force in everyone’s day to day lives.

Which brings us to the vexed question of the government and its role in all this. Now, unless you’re a raging reactionary, I don’t think there’s any way you can deny that land tenure is a serious, real problem for the squatters on Campo Alegre, the first farm in the film. You just have to take one look at their kids, at the amount of work they put into farming land that isn’t even theirs, to get a feel for how dire their alternatives must have been. You can quibble with the details – the scale, the importance in the overall scheme of things, etc. etc. – but you can’t argue with the basic fact that these grievances are real.

But what we found, again and again, was a government determined to exploit those grievances to advance an ideological agenda and to favor politically loyal constituencies.

On Campo Alegre farm, in the first part of the film, none of the squatters had any intention at all to form a cooperative. But you want to talk about spontaneous participation? They had squatted as a group. They had certainly formed a community: they helped each other out all the time, gossiped about one another, hung out with each other, shared the good times and the bad, etc.

But they were clear that each squatter family had its own plot, and each plot was its “owner’s” responsibility. Since they didn’t want to form a cooperative, they essentially got no help at all from the government: no credit, no seed, no fertilizer, no tractors, nothing at all beyond a rear-guard action to keep the old landowner from harassing them.

So the conditionality on the government’s actual assistance was clear, indeed explicit: adopt our idea about how you should organize production, do it our way, or say good-bye to official funding. They knew from personal experience that participatory democracy meant participating in the government’s terms, not theirs. They felt the pressure to do as they were told, not as they themselves thought best. And yet, they were still intensely emotionally attached to the president.

The second farm takeover we covered, on Rogelio Peña’s Santa Rita farm, was a contrast on every level. Here the government did impose its cooperative ideal…it’s just that this marvel of participatory democracy didn’t seem to have any participants! We just couldn’t find any evidence at all that the cooperative existed outside the realm of official paper. The tractors were there, and the fertilizer, and the soldiers for protection and lots and lots of good land…the only thing missing was the farmers.

From what we could gather – we couldn’t check this directly, simply because we never managed to locate any of these alleged cooperative members – the “landless peasants” who benefited from the official face of land reform were politically connected city people, weekend farmers who turned up for a bit of farm work a few times a year and then collected their share of their cooperative labor in the form of a check. Basically it was just clientelism – branded with a sickle and a hammer, sure, but clientelism all the same. It’s hardly surprising that the poor campesinos living immediately around Santa Rita were distinctly non-plussed.

Too often, Chávez critics are seen as simple reactionaries, people determined to deny that the grievances of Venezuela’s poor are real. But I don’t think anyone could watch the film and deny that the grievances of the poor in Obispos are very real indeed.

Our critique of the government is different. It’s a government gives every sign of being more interested in exploiting campesinos’ grievances for political benefit than in acting pragmatically to redress them. When the government does act, it acts through a strange melding of Marxist orthodoxy and old-style clientelism that is miles apart from what its constituents need or want or would choose if they were ever consulted, which they aren’t.

Well, there’s much more I could write about the video – and probably will. After all, we spent months slaving over the thing. But maybe I should leave it here for now.

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