Thursday, August 25, 2005

Our Brand Is Crisis

The thing about the Festival is that you spend so long going to shows (and then sleeping them off) that you never get round to writing them up. Tsk. Time to start work on the backlog.

Our Brand is Crisis is a documentary about Bolivian politics. People say to me, Paul, why on earth are you paying good money to see a documentary about Bolivian politics at the Film Festival? Who the hell cares about Bolivian politics? Isn't this going to be indescribably dull?

I see things differently. To me, a documentary about Bolivian politics is a can't-lose proposition. What's the worst that can happen? Even if it's totally abysmal, you still leave the cinema with the warm inner glow of knowing that you're the sort of person who goes to see documentaries about Bolivian politics. The next time you encounter a mildly irritating shop assistant, an annoying loud person, or somebody who's beating you in an argument, you can think to yourself, "Ah, but I bet they've never been to see a documentary about Bolivian politics. In fact, I bet they've never paid money to see a documentary about any form of South American socio-economic issue."

A ludicrously obscure documentary every six months or so does wonders for topping up the reserves of inner arrogance, mark my words. Sometimes, if you're lucky, the film turns out to be interesting and good as well, which is a positive boon.

Our Brand is Crisis (that's not a typo, whatever the Festival ticket printers may think) is indeed interesting and good. It follows the 2002 election campaign of presidential candidate Gonzalez Sanchez de Lozada, universally known as "Goni." Ever willing to embrace new American ides, Goni has enlisted the services of James Carville - or rather, his office, since Carville himself only turns up occasionally in order to lend support to the guys on the ground when they're getting criticised. (Let's face it, would you want to spend the whole Bolivian presidential campaign in Bolivia unless it was absolutely unavoidable? No, you'd send some underlings to do it for you.) And what does Goni get for his money? Focus groups.

Now, to be honest, in some quarters there seems to be a perception that the political consultants come out of the film badly. I don't agree. Goni's problems seem to stem far more from ignoring their advice than from following it - and from his congenital lack of modesty or tact. And the focus groups do genuinely seem to concentrate how to present Goni's existing policies, rather than on trying to come up with new ones.

The consultants claim that they work around the world and try to support the local equivalent of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair. They insist that they honestly believe Goni is the best man for the job, and they're quite probably sincere. After all, the other two leading candidates are a major figure in Bolivian cocaine production, and a guy who's somehow acquired two mansions during a career in the civil service. In that company, the guy who wants to be American seems a reasonably good bet.

Then again, it's not like the focus groups are really telling Goni anything that shouldn't have been blindingly obvious from the word go. The major concerns of Bolivians, it seems, are poverty, unemployment and corruption. Well, duh.

Where the film falls short is in explaining some of the issues. We're repeatedly told that during his previous term as President, Goni introduced a controversial and hugely unpopular policy called "capitalization." He insists it was hugely successful, and that he achieved his campaign pledge to create half a million new jobs; the public is apparently convinced that it was a failure. Not only do we never get a clear answer to what it achieved, but it's never really explained what capitalization actually was. Something to do with incorporating the nationalised industries as government-owned companies and then selling a minority stake to foreign investors, I think, but that's largely speculation on my part. It's also never really made clear quite why the Bolivians hate Chile so much, which is a shame, since it's a crucial part of Goni's eventual downfall.

The filmmakers seem to think the lesson from Goni's eventual failure is the unsuitability of American political techniques for Bolivia. I'm not persuaded. If anything, the problem seems to be more to do with the Bolivian constitution, which puts Goni in power on 22% of the vote because there were eleven candidates - and Goni's own insistence on ploughing ahead with extremely divisive policies on the basis of such a weak mandate.

But even if I don't agree with the thesis, the events and the characters are fascinating. It's well worth seeing, and fortunately for those of us in Britain, we'll get our chance when it crops up in BBC4's Storyville later in the year.