PBS Frontline: 'The Hugo Chavez Show'
Wednesday, November 26, 2008; 11:00 AM
PBS Frontline producer Ofra Bikel was online Wednesday, Nov. 26 to discuss her film "The Hugo Chavez Show," which looks at Venezuela's controversial and outspoken president Hugo Chavez and the revolution he claims is turning his country into an anti-capitalist beacon for Latin America and the world. Through the lens of his unique television program "Alo Presidente," and the eyes of the Venezuelans who know him well, FRONTLINE digs below the surface of his presidency and his personality to try to understand the mercurial leader.
"The Hugo Chavez Show" aired Tuesday, Nov. 25 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).
A transcript follows.
Ofra Bikel has produced 25 documentaries for FRONTLINE, and collectively these films have received broadcast journalism's most prestigious honors, including the duPont-Columbia Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' "Champion Of Justice" award, grand prize and best of category accolades at the Banff International Television Festival, and six national Emmys.
Ofra Bikel: Hello everyone. Thanks for watching the show. Just starting to get to your questions.
Pawtucket, R.I.: Are you aware that the people interviewed and the framing of this program is toeing the Opposition line, or have you been paid to do so?
Either way this biased anti-Chavez rubbish has no place on PBS in the United States.
Ofra Bikel: We went to great lengths in our interviews to not toe the traditional opposition line, and we made a point to speak with anyone with an intelligent perspective. We were stonewalled in our efforts to interview the Chavez government, so it was left to us to look to the situation on the ground. The strongest critiques we found of the Chavez government were from the left, and from his own constituents.
New York, N.Y.: You paint President Chavez in a style that is typical for racist US media vis-a-vis Latin American leaders that Washington and Wall Street do not like: tin-pot dictator, swaggering loudmouth, etc. Why do you think the majority of people of Venezuela still support him and his party?
Ofra Bikel: I've done previous shows in Latin America criticizing US policy there. Captive in El Salvador; Bogota, One Day, and lots of research in Nicaragua and Guatemala. I'm very sympathetic to Latin America and informed on its unfortunate history with the U.S. But don't you think that one can be critical of a policy without taking the point of view that you describe?
The majority supports Chavez because he gives them hope, which they so desperately need, and the opposition has long been hopelessly disorganized.
New York, N.Y.: Do you believe Chavez will be willing to speak with representatives of an Obama government, more so than the Bush Administration? If the two countries can overcome their rhetoric, isn't it possible that we can make mutually beneficial trade deals that will assist each other's economies?
Ofra Bikel: Yes, I believe he would. It can happen.
Silver Spring: Man, that was a wild program last night!
The back and forth between the reporter from the Guardian and Chavez was fascinating.
The stress he puts on his "cabinet members" during his show was amazing to watch.
Can his show be watched in the USA?
Ofra Bikel: The material from the TV show is amazing. Here's a link to past broadcasts. Be prepared... the shows are very long.
Munich, Germany: On your website, I read that with outdated notions of martyrdom, nationalism and sovereignty, Chavez can get in front of the television screen and tell Venezuelans that they can be heroes again.
I suppose that this is media savviness, but for someone who is considered to be a strategic thinker and capable of tactical brilliance, the public knowledge of the powerful Chavez Clan seems to have detracted from his popularity. How does Chavez explain away a mayor, bank manager, governor, ambassador and oil executive at PDVSA all in the immediate family?
Ofra Bikel: People there certainly do complain about the nepotism. I don't think Chavez feels any need to explain it away.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Before embarking on this project, what idea or opinion did you have about Chavez as a political figure and as a human being? How did your opinion change?
Ofra Bikel: I didn't have much of an idea about Chavez, and my opinions changed back and forth many times while I researched and began to produce this piece.
Washington, D.C.: The Venezuela Information Office has encouraged its supporters to complain about the Frontline program.
Ofra Bikel: So we've heard. They are concerned about some very specific points which have to do with the history of the coup and the details about the recent campaign. We updated some of the campaign information. But the complaint is baseless, and we stand by our script.
Saint Paul, Minn.: Why were all five or six of the talking heads either opponents of Chavez or from the mainstream media that he distrusts? Why not have a talking head or two who are supporters of Chavez and/or of his policies?
In a country where he has won majority-vote elections, you surely could have found more, articulate and intelligent people to balance out the program, no?
Ofra Bikel: Again, we want to stress that we were denied access to Chavez officials. We met with some during the research stage and they decided based on our questions not to talk to us. The policy of the Ministry of Information, which I think is misguided, seems to be that if you are not 100% pro-Chavez you are denied access.
Miami, Fla.: Ofra, I read the discussion on pbs.com and was surprised to see comments linking Chavez with Obama. I know Chavez was their Messiah back in 1998 but never thought he and Obama would be placed at the same level. any thoughts?
Ofra Bikel: Nor did I.
Washington, D.C.: Are there emigres from Venezuela who like him? I've never met one who did.
Ofra Bikel: If you read the postings here and at the Frontline site, it's clear that some do.
Boston, Mass.: Dear Ofra, I've often seen your shows on Frontline and do believe you are a top notch documentary maker. Why people are saying that you are biased is beyond me. Putting that aside, was it easy to report and investigate this topic in Venezuela. If not, why?
Ofra Bikel: First of all, thank you. It was not easy at all. And it's not even easy in this space to count the reasons. This was a very difficult show to produce. Some of the challenges -- security, people's reluctance to talk, few English speakers, etc, etc.
Evanston, Illinois: Hey Ofra, I saw a lot of your documentary last night and it was pretty good. A few years ago I saw an extremely riveting documentary called "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." It was about the coup and had unbelievable inside footage of the entire thing. I would recommend it as must viewing for anyone who is interested in your work. Have you seen it?
Ofra Bikel: I have seen it. It's a very good film and I recommend it highly. I envy the access the filmmakers had during the coup.
Anonymous: How did your idea for a documentary about Chavez evolve into the Hugo Chavez Show (Chavez, the performer)? Did you have another angle in mind initially that was then over- powered by the performer?
So impressed with the program, Ofra, and to know you are still going strong!
Ofra Bikel: We originally imagined a more traditional documentary, and were led to believe we might have access to Chavez. Once we realized it wasn't going to happen, we turned to the next best thing. The show is an amazing archive of his policy and his character and what makes Venezuela tick.
Riverdale, N.Y.: Was there U.S. support or involvement in the coup attempt against Chavez? Don't you think this is something the viewer might be interested in?
Ofra Bikel: As we say in the film, there were strong rumors of U.S. involvement. This has been debated endlessly, the question is the level of US approval or participation. We didn't want to get into the role of the US, which gets involved in a lot of unsavory business in Latin America, and probably deserves a show of its own.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: When your perspective is challenged, as it has been by numerous posts on the pbs.org forum, how do you respond? What is your reaction to the criticism that this documentary was unfair in its portrayal of President Chavez?
Ofra Bikel: Some criticism is answerable, and we're trying to do that here. Some criticisms are so fundamental that you can't even engage in the discussion. We do our best.
Miami, Fla.: During the production of the show, were you threathened by any government official or persons opposed to Chavez?
Ofra Bikel: No, we were mostly ignored. This is not a police state, despite what some Western media say. We were in some security situations where we faced threats of violence, but this was based purely on the crime situation, and us having expensive camera gear.
Washington, D.C.: Does Chavez truly want better relations with the US? Historically, he has always railed against an enemy, real or imagined: Past leaders of Venezuela, his political opposition, the Catholic church, the upper classes and of course, the US. Doesn't he need a US punching bag?
Ofra Bikel: It's a good question. There might be more political benefit in a punching bag than a trading partner, but perhaps things will change now with the change of US administration.
New London, Conn.: Please explain how the narrator's sneering criticism of Chavez' media program, a program which shows sincere dedication to answering uncensored questions in regards to his own government's procedures and accountability, is not toeing the Opposition line. Why did you not show how much control the Opposition has over Venezuelan media in contrast to the amount of media time Chavez uses?
Ofra Bikel: Chavez has all the TV time he wants. There's freedom of the press in Venezuela, and you can find pro-Chavez or anti-Chavez viewpoints on TV at any time. The narrator was not sneering. As we often found, Chavez was not responsive to his own constituents on the show.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Why do you think Chavez is going against everything the US supports?
Ofra Bikel: It's primarily for political purposes. He has traditionally rallied his base by railing against The Empire. But let's not forget, the U.S. is his best customer.
Bronx, N.Y. : Maybe I misunderstood the program, but did you take the position that the coup drove Chavez into Castro's arms? Did he tack left after the coup, and with Bush gone and oil prices having fallen, can he tack right again?
Ofra Bikel: Chavez did turn further to the left after the coup, and again further in 2005. Castro and Chavez were close before, but Castro personally helped him during the coup.
Washington, D.C.: I am a Venezuelan-American. Left Caracas in the mid 80's as a kid. But now all my friends tell me they are afraid Venezuela is going down the path of communism. Did you feel the same way while in Caracas? Thanks.
Ofra Bikel: We didn't feel it there, but we were outsiders. As far as we could see, it's still very much a consumer society.
Washington, D.C.: News reports suggest Venezuela's government budget requires a much higher price of oil than the current market price. If the price of oil stays at its current level, how long can Chavez maintain his current level of support among the masses?
Ofra Bikel: Good technical question and we don't know the answer. It's clear that the collapsing oil price was not yet a factor in this election, but it might become one over the next several months.
Brookyn, New York: The documentary The Hugo Chavez Show was so astonishly biased against Chavez that I am sitting here reeling in disbelief that you actually broadcast an entire party line of Teodoro Petkoff without question! It's stunning actually how 'embedded' this perspective is within a particular political position that has been rooted against the MVR and now PSUV since the beginning. I expected far more independent judgment from this broadcast and felt that it was out to prove the 'failed' revolution and the G.G. Marquez theory from the beginning. This is deeply flawed and needs to be recognized as such, less PBS/Frontline be the backward stone throwers to what has been one of the most productive, honest and potentially transformational social works of this century.
The media loved Chavez in 1998? Baloney! I was there and saw every page and there was nothing but vile remarks, threats of a U.S. pull-out, and extremely anti-Chavez poll biases. Why do you think everyone was 'shocked' that he was elected? Because noone reported him in the top two newspapers until the final month of the elections!
The opposition was 'complacent' before the land laws and royalties?? - first, if mentioned, those laws should have been explained, which they weren't. But more importantly, the assumption followed by your story ignores that the opposition had openly engaged in sabotage, libel and wholesale legal and illegal efforts to remove Chavez from day one.
The set up to the very last moment was nothing other than that -- a set up to make a bogeyman.
Its not a matter of 'we just had too much to put in, what a problem' - this has to do with the fundamental approach of 1) removing cultural-specificity that effectively skews perceptions, 2) calculating an emotional and intellectual argument opposing him, and 3) ignoring any opinion other than yours, except for ones that you radicalize as only 'passionate believers'.
I realize these are frank criticisms, but they are valid and I ask you to address them openly in the forum.
Ofra Bikel: There was no reason to explain the details of the laws on television. We never said the opposition was complacent, but they were quiet, and certainly not rallying hundreds of thousands in the streets. This is according to several historians we spoke to.
We didn't think we were creating a bogeyman, we thought we were looking at a complicated public persona.
Ofra Bikel: Thank you everyone for watching and writing.
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