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