El Comandante Will Not be Televised

The government’s response to a series they fear will slam Chávez for dictatorial excess is...a dictatorial excess.

Look, last May when Sony Pictures announced “El Comandante”, the new Moises Naím-produced series about Hugo, none of us seriously imagined the government here would allow us to see it. As it turns out though, it’s not just that we won’t get to see it…it’s that the government is piggy-backing on this series to roll back our freedom of thought and expression to an unprecedented extent.

The government is piggy-backing on this series to roll back our freedom of thought and expression to an unprecedented extent.

When they announced it, Sony’s Latin American TV unit described El Comandante as “…our most ambitious series on many levels, in terms of budget, cast – some 600 members – locations and the re-creation of 30 major events in Chávez’s life”.

Playing the late comandante eterno is Colombian actor Andres Parra, who took the role of notorious drug-lord Pablo Escobar in Escobar: El Patrón del Mal”, a wildly successful “narco-novela” from 2012. Recently, Parra shared some details with Colombian newspaper El Tiempo:

…in the series, you can see that he is one of the most controversial and complex personalities of Latin American history. When you face these types of complex and difficult characters, it’s key to learn to take them down a notch between scenes, make them lighter, treat them with humor. If you take them too seriously you end up going crazy…

“El Comandante” is far from a straight-up biopic of Hugo Chávez — it’s more a drama inspired by his life. The biggest surprise is its creator: Moises Naim, who’s now making his way into the wild world of TV production. [Full disclosure, Moisés has sometimes written together with our very own Executive Editor on the current state of Venezuela.]

In an interview last month with Colombian magazine Semana, Naím said the reason he wanted to make “El Comandante” is that “…it’s a fascinating story that leaves no one indifferent and deserves to be told.” Asked if the show could mythologize the figure of Chávez, he said:

I believe that those who support and admire him will keep on doing so, and those who oppose and criticize him will continue to do so. I don’t think the series will change people’s points of view.

So, since no minds are likely to be changed, CONATEL is chill with this, right? Not a chance! The broadcasting authority is already warning all cable and satellite TV providers they must not show it here.

Several cable companies which carry the Colombian channel RCN (the first TV channel showing the program) complied with CONATEL’s order by taking it off the air during the broadcast.

According to Carlos Correa, head of local NGO Espacio Publico: “There’s no court ruling or any other reason to order that a TV series of this kind can’t be seen, and it violates the Constitution”.

But CONATEL is just following orders: Nicolas Maduro attacked the program during his address to the Supreme Court, by calling it “A soap opera that is a piece of trash!”

But here’s the truly weird bit: Diosdado Cabello didn’t just denounce it. He took the chance to launch a new PR campaign to defend Chávez’s legacy: “Aqui no se habla mal de Chávez” (We don’t put down Chávez around here). Signs banning trash-talking Chávez are going up in public administration buildings up and down the country as we speak.

The government’s response to a series expected to slam Chávez for dictatorial excess is…a dictatorial excess!

But it’s not just Diosdi. The former first lady Marisabel Rodriguez attacked the producers of the program on her Twitter account and threatened them with legal actions.

For the record, Sony told AP that “El Comandante” wasn’t licensed in Venezuela (and got no offers from local networks, for obvious reasons). Some of the regional rights belong to the cable channel TNT, but they’re going instead with a re-run of “Hasta que te Conoci”, the mini-series about the late singer Juan Gabriel. It’s not like TNT had a beef with CONATEL before or anything.

The government ordered its film production studio, La Villa de Cine, to produce a couple of feature films and a TV series about el galáctico ASAP.

But the governent response is not all bluster. Instead they’ve taken to heart the quote attributed to the legendary New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard: “The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie”.

Hugo Chávez’s brother and now Culture Minister Adan Chávez announced on Sunday that the government had ordered its film production studio, La Villa de Cine, to produce a couple of feature films and a TV series about el galáctico ASAP.

Pa’eso si hay plata…

[Why was Adan friggin’ Chávez made Culture Minister in the first place? It’s a deep mystery. My guess: he got bored with being Barinas State Governor and trying to censor local newspapers.]

The series is already getting attention beyond our borders: NPR’s program “All Things Considered” made a report about the series (by once-deported journalist John Otis) and spoke with one of the series co-directors Henry Rivero, who grew up in Venezuela. For him, the project has brought up a lot of emotions.

In terms of style, “El Comandante” is bringing the North American addictive-series format to Latin America. That is, fewer episodes over a much shorter run than a telenovela (which usually lasts 6 to 8 months) but with much higher production values. El Comandante and chill…

As the hegemony is doing everything in its power to stop people from watching “El Comandante”, the Internet became its major folly: The first episode was leaked online hours after its dayview. Espacio Publico promoted on Twitter this leaked episode in order to “avoid the censorship”. Whatever happens next, the “Chávez-series” is getting attention at home and abroad.

And for those with no Internet, do not worry: there’s always money in the quemadito stand!