The Revolution Will Now Be Televised
Jill Freidberg’s New Documentary, “A Little Bit of So Much Truth,” Documents the Taking of the TV and Radio Airwaves by the People of Oaxaca
By Al Giordano
Publisher, Narco News
November 19, 2007
“The modern-day revolutionary runs not to the factory, but to the TV station.”
-Abbie Hoffman, 1967
Before its 2006 strike would spark a statewide rebellion and popular assembly movement in Oaxaca, Mexico, Seattle filmmaker Jill Freidberg had chronicled the quarter-century rise of the democratic teachers union there, Sección 22. Freidberg’s 2005 documentary, “Granito de arena” (“Grain of Sand”), like much good reporting out of Latin America, was viewed and praised in union and activist circles around the world, and bought by some university libraries, but was largely ignored by commercial and public television stations.
That documentary provided a detailed and inspiring account of the union’s successful struggles to break the undemocratic national teachers union’s grip: a victory that sparked other unions throughout Mexico to do the same. The true story of how workers, when organized, can win better pay for themselves and also improve conditions for students and their families demonstrated, too, that the commercial and state-run media had not been honest in their own demonizing accounts of labor and other social movements.
But on June 14, 2006, when the state police of dictatorial governor Ulises Ruiz tried to violently squash the massive encampment by protesting teachers and their supporters in Oaxaca City’s historic downtown, only to be chased out and replaced by the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO, in its Spanish initials), a new and wider global interest in the roots of that movement brought a sharp rise in online sales of Freidberg’s 2005 documentary. The up-tick in funds to the subsistence-level filmmaker allowed Freidberg to return to Oaxaca repeatedly during 2006 and 2007 to shoot hundreds of hours of video documenting the historic events.
And on August 1, 2006, when thousands of Oaxacan women peacefully occupied the state television station, Channel 9, “Granito de arena” – along with three video newsreels that Freidberg helped Narco News produce in early 2006 about social movements in the state – was broadcast statewide at the very moment when nearly all the eyes and ears of Oaxaca were transfixed upon the suddenly liberated screen. Independent media had, for the first time in Mexico or any other part of North America, gone primetime to a mass media audience.
New from Jill Freidberg’s Corrugated Films, in collaboration with Mal de Ojo TV in Oaxaca, comes “Un poquito de tanta verdad” (“A Little Bit of So Much Truth”), narrated in Spanish with English subtitles, is the definitive documentary on the six months that shook the world during 2006 and the continuing story into 2007. The new documentary brings the viewer on a 93-minute rollercoaster ride alongside the dramatic six-month occupation of the state capital and other cities and towns. The focus of “Un poquito de tanta verdad” turns the lights on, what this reviewer agrees is, the most significant advance to come out of the popular assembly movement in Oaxaca: the citizenry’s reclaiming of the broadcast airwaves from those that have monopolized and abused them.
In addition to the taking of Channel 9, participants in the popular assembly movement took 14 radio stations during the course of the struggle. I know of no other international journalist, and very few local ones, that have earned the trust, respect and access of the Oaxaca democratic teachers and other social movements, which gave Freidberg a unique perspective on the sometimes confusing and always conflicting events of what some historians now call the Oaxaca Commune. This new documentary now allows the rest of the world to share in Freidberg’s outstanding insight, ever evolving and improving over time. “Granito de arena,” the making of which Freidberg has described as an intensive lesson in shedding a foreign journalist’s preconceptions and learning to listen to the story’s own diverse span of local participants in Oaxaca and its peoples, was a very good film. “Un poquito de tanta verdad” is a great one.
Last month I traveled to New York and saw the Big Apple premier of this film at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan’s East Village. The most frequent comment I heard after the screening, there in the media capital of the world, was that of New Yorkers wondering aloud, “if they can do it there, could we also do it here?” The answer is a qualified yes: the retaking of the media in Oaxaca was the result of years of grassroots organizing among workers, neighborhoods, towns and particularly among 16 distinct indigenous peoples that blanket the city and the state. Taking a cue from Freidberg, rather than just tell it, let’s show it…
“Un poquito de tanta verdad” begins in the makeshift studios of Radio Plantón, a community radio station (what in the US is called pirate radio) in Oaxaca City that had already been broadcasting prior to the May 2006 strike by Sección 22. A volunteer broadcaster speaks into the microphone of the early May police riot and repression in the central Mexican town of Atenco, the political prisoners taken, and the coma of Alexis Benhumea, shot in the head by a US-made teargas canister. When he announces that, “next week there won’t be classes” we hear the gleeful cheers of schoolchildren.
The film is mainly narrated by the participants, with sparing use of voiceover narration, and subtitles in English (Chiapas dramaturge and writer Francisco Alvarez Quiñones assisted in the two-way translation). A female narrator summarizes 26 years of teachers union history, and the scarce resources available to students throughout impoverished Oaxaca, many of whom go to school hungry. (Many teachers there pay out of their own pockets to nourish the students.)
The abrasive din of commercial TV anchors then fills the screen, ranting about the “lawless” and “small” teachers occupation of Oaxaca City streets, “blocking the right of free transit.” But Radio Plantón, at the same time, is receiving a flood of live calls from parents, students, the electrical workers union, and other members of the public supporting the strike and its demands to raise the minimum wage for all Oaxaca workers and to supply books, school supplies and meals for the children. “The phone began to ring off the hook,” noted one community radio broadcaster.
We hear the frightened but continuing voices of Radio Plantón hosts in the predawn hours of June 14, as state police come storming into their studios, destroying the equipment as the station goes off the air. The station was the first target of the police raid. We watch the teargas bombs shot from helicopters above the city, and the wounded testify from hospital beds of how direct hits from the canisters ripped off human skin, now in bandages.
And then we see a miracle: neighbors throughout the city, despite the danger, come out of their houses en masse, angry, particularly housewives and elderly women, and join with the protesters to turn around and chase 3,000 heavily armed, shielded and helmeted police from the city center.
Radio Back Up
David Venegas, now a political prisoner, tells the story of how, simultaneously, students at the Benito Juárez State University (UABJO, in its Spanish initials) took over the school radio station once Radio Plantón had fallen. A new wave of phone calls pour into the studios of Radio Universidad and are broadcast live. 30,000 people take to the streets in what was then the largest march in state history (subsequent marches would exceed 100,000 calling for the removal of the corrupt and tyrannical governor). We see the creativity of the protestors: gigantic puppets on sticks, coffins representing democracy, a helicopter with copal incense symbolizing the teargas that had enveloped the city, and a large marionette of the disgraced governor Ruiz as a rat.
The cameras bring us into community meetings in which the APPO popular assembly comes to life, and the story of the debate, pushed by indigenous participants, that changed the movement’s name from the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca to that of the Peoples, plural, of Oaxaca. Here, and in other moments of the film, Freidberg doesn’t gloss over the difficulties and differences between diverse sectors of the movement. Although the film inspires and makes a convincing argument of the illegitimacy of the Ruiz regime and the justness of the pro-democracy cause, the documentary is not propaganda. The self-critiques by many in the movement are also part of the story, and they usually mirror the fault lines that challenge the unity of social movements everywhere on earth: democratic governance versus top-down leadership, nonviolence versus use of force, pluralism versus sectarianism, and seizing state power versus replacing it with something else.
Almost three weeks after the violence of June 14 and the popular uprising that turned it away came the national presidential election of early July, with a result plagued by electoral fraud to the extreme of the theft of 1.5 million votes nationwide. The APPO, although it rejects political parties, including those on the left or center-left, urged a “punishment vote” against the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI, in its Spanish initials) of Ruiz and the center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) won nine of Oaxaca’s 11 congressional districts. Again, the documentary shows the yellow and blatant dishonesty of what author Carlos Fazio explains is the duopoly of television media control by Televisa and TV Azteca. The state’s Channel 9 features the embattled governor forced to cancel the annual Gueleguetza festival that is the crown-jewel of tourism in Oaxaca, which he says is “postponed” so that “radicals” will not be able to “disrupt” it.
Indigenous teachers explain to the viewer the cultural history behind the Gueleguetza and we follow the cameras with the Mardis Gras style parade by tens of thousands of protesters that held their own popular Gueleguetza instead: An event that usually costs hundreds of pesos to attend, screening out most of the indigenous people whose traditions and dances and costumes are on display, becomes a free celebration, “the real fiesta,” with children chanting “He’s already fallen! Ulises has already fallen!”
Back to national TV: The peaceful and joyful celebration is described by the commercial media as one of “violence and anarchy” by “small groups.” But the cameras in this documentary reveal the massive and happy crowd. In particular, we see, at the side of gigantic stadium-sized fiesta, a young father, José Jimenez Colmenares, playing with his smiling children.
The Taking of Channel 9
An announcer on Radio Universidad announces an upcoming march by women of the APPO and adherent organizations for August 1, in which the organizers ask their sisters to bring pots, pans and wooden spoons as noisemakers. We see the women’s march as it suddenly changes course and head toward the studios of state television station Channel 9. “The TV says our Gueleguetza failed,” on woman denounces, and they enter the station demanding “a half hour, an hour” on the air to make their case. When the authorities refuse to put them on the air they take the studios and begin broadcasting. Commenting on the untrue version offered by the national TV duopoly, a woman tells the camera, “TV Azteca and Televisa are where this is headed.”
We see this historic moment both through cameras on the scene and simultaneously through multiple cameras throughout the state of families and assemblies of neighbors watching those first moments of liberated TV through their own black-and-white consoles. And in a scene similar to what occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the fall of Soviet bloc countries, a crowd of real people – only in Oaxaca, they are all women, from grandmothers to mothers to young girls – assembled in front of the camera sharing their stories of life under state repression, now, with virtually every citizen throughout Oaxaca.
The women that participated on that day offer subsequent interviews for the documentary, telling proudly of their accomplishment. One describes what occurred as “a little bit of so much truth,” from where the film gets its title. Another explains, “we put on videos that they wouldn’t put on the air.” And the assembly hall became statewide, in every home and store, all at once, through television airwaves now controlled democratically by thousands. The women denounce that the commercial media claimed that only 200 had seized the station, when they numbered 10,000 instead.
We are there with the women as they meet to discuss how to run the TV station, and doing the tasks of security, sweeping and preparing food for the occupiers. A group of women in a kitchen chant, “With Ulises’ balls we’ll make and egg and cook it,” as others taunt the governor on the air to “come down to Channel 9” and try to remove them himself.
Meanwhile the men of the APPO form shifts to surround and protect the TV station transmitter atop nearby Fortín Hill. The reaction by the governor is violent: He sends goons to raid the critical daily newspaper Notícias, the most widely read in the state. Infiltrators pour sulfuric acid on the Radio Universidad transmitter while paramilitaries create a distraction shooting bullets at the studio from outside. Police in civilian clothes and with a van without licence plates kidnap wheelchair-bound social leader German Mendoza Nube. And during a mass march by the APPO, a gunman assassinates José Jimenez Colmenares, the man we saw playing with his kids at the Gueleguetza.
Sects, Lives and Videotape
Within days of the seizing of Channel 9, state authorities cut the relay transmitters to the rest of the state, but the popular TV station continued to broadcast in the populous central valleys and the state capital. On August 23, after three weeks on the air, under a full moon, this historic chapter in a people’s media gave way to another. Gunmen attacked the antenna, making Channel 9, after the destruction of Radio Plantón and Radio Universidad, the third media to be taken off the air by the regime.
The movement’s response was instantaneous. Different participating organizations in the APPO then fanned out and seized 12 commercial radio stations: on the AM and FM dials, that had previously offered pop music and distorted pro-government news. The national commercial TV chains complain to the entire Republic: “It looks like this is the radicals’ moment,” claiming that the taking of the radio stations had been carried out by an “urban guerrilla.” The popular radio stations take on an important logistical role to brush back and counter against the wave of state repression, alerting the public to the locations of paramilitary convoys or where shots have been heard as neighbors headed to each conflict zone to protect each other with strength in numbers.
The more than 1,000 barricades erected at intersections throughout the state capital “are not just for defense, but a local focal point for organizing,” tells David Venegas, one of the documentary’s most coherent narrators. Today a political prisoner, Venegas’ anarchist political tendencies have caused him to be vilified by some adherents to more sectarian Marxist-Leninist organizations in the multi-colored APPO. Another man explains that the key to the APPO’s success in taking entire towns and cities back from a repressive regime is that it has broken the “individualism” of society toward a more communitarian form of organizing.
Abbie Hoffman would have loved to see, almost four decades later, his 1967 prophesy come true: the media, and who controls it, became as important, if not more, than that of the barricades in the streets. La Jornada columnist Luis Hernández Navarro tells viewers that, “it is impossible to imagine” what has occurred in Oaxaca “without the radio.” Mobile radio – in the form of walkeetalkees through which the people staffing each barricade communicated – was likewise vital. Eventually, the movement returned 10 of the 14 commercial radio stations to their owners, but internecine conflicts broke out between differing political factions for control of what was now a limited number of radio stations in popular hands. An indigenous leader from Gueletao, birthplace of Mexican constitutional lawmaker and president Benito Juárez, offers viewers a critique of the sectarian nature of some of the popular broadcasters: “Urgent calls to action animated the people but did not educate.” At the same time, hundreds of normal citizens learned, during these media occupations, how to operate broadcasting equipment and gained experience communicating through the media.
The Smackdown That Will Not Last
There is no way that a mere text of words can effectively relate the vast sweep of this documentary. Reading a review simply cannot compare with seeing and hearing “Un poquito de tanta verdad” directly. Without revealing how Freidberg resolves this chapter in what is the latest in a series of documentaries and newsreels she has produced on Oaxaca and its political movements, the film brings the viewer to the assassination of New York independent journalist Brad Will on October 27, 2006 and the corresponding calls by national TV anchors and commentators for the deployment of federal forces into Oaxaca to squash the movement. On the Days of the Dead, November 1 and 2, we see the locals honoring their fallen neighbors and the murdered visitor (“Brad! Brad! What have they done?” cries one woman wailing at his posthumous photo), at traditional makeshift and candlelit altars: The film documents the invasion by the federal police an the victorious battle by the citizenry to protect Radio Universidad – back on the air and in popular hands – from those federal forces on November 2.
Freidberg and collaborators also filmed the long march by thousands of Oaxaqueños to Mexico City, their encampments, protests and hunger strikes in the nation’s capital, and the betrayal of the teachers union and the APPO by Sección 22 president Enrique Rueda Pacheco. We see the union rank-and-file reject their leader’s deal-making, one of whom tells the camera: “When some of our leaders say, ‘We’re not part of APPO,’ it is easier for us to say, ‘You’re not our leaders.’”
The documentary also brings us to the terrible events of November 25, 2006 when the boot came down and hundreds of social leaders and citizens were beaten and imprisoned by the federal government. The national TV screamed, “there is no repression” as the governor’s own pirate radio station broadcasted home addresses of APPO participants urging assassination and violence against them, as well as against members of the press including, by name, Nancy Davies, who has chronicled the movement from the start with her commentaries on Narco News and the book, The People Decide. On that night, the filmmaker Freidberg was trapped between two invading squadrons of federal police that had been savagely targeting and beating anyone with a camera and only escaped thanks to the brave generosity of a family on that street that took her into their home. The risks that she and her collaborators took to bring this footage to the world were considerable, and constant over many months. It was Freidberg’s historic knowledge and relationships with Oaxaca and its peoples – with her uncanny street-wisdom – that saved her from the terrible fate of Brad Will and so many others.
Before viewing “Un poquito de tanta verdad,” I confess, I had been very disheartened over the past year by the apparent smackdown of a movement that truly gave the world a new way to fight, particularly regarding the central problem facing change agents everywhere: taking back the airwaves from the dishonest corporate and state-owned media. But leaving its premier at St. Mark’s Church in New York, a smile came back to this face. Freidberg, returning to Oaxaca in 2007, brings a scoop that, kind reader, you really must see for yourself to believe it. Without offering a spoiler, I predict you will smile, too. And so will any person of conscience to whom you give the DVD in this upcoming holiday season.
The struggle is hard, those that control the airwaves are powerful, and the media have become the new state power. The people of Oaxaca figured that out, and came up with solutions to that overwhelming problem. “Un poquito de tanta verdad” is every bit as powerful and effective as the renowned documentary about the coup d’etat and the movement that defeated it in Venezuela in 2002, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Only in this case, in Oaxaca, it was. And it will continue to be televised every time the DVD of Freidberg’s tour de force is shared and seen on monitors throughout the world.
“Un poquito de tanta verdad” (A Little Bit of So Much Truth), produced by Corrugated Films in collaboration with Mal de Ojo TV, can be ordered in DVD via the website www.corrugate.org or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone to the United States: (206)851-6785.
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