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March 21, 2006

Our Brand is Crisis

I caught Rachel Boynton's Our Brand is Crisis (IMDB), a fascinating and frustrating documentary about US political consultants hired to assist Bolivian presidential candidate Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada in his bid to return the office during the 2002 election (Goni previously had been president from 1993-1997). Boynton's documentary takes on added interest with the election of one of Goni's political rivals, Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, who campaigned as a socialist on the MAS (Movement to Socialism) platform, but the film itself is an incredibly rich portrait of what it means to export US election strategies to other countries. This portait becomes even richer and more fascinating given that the consulting film hired by Goni is none other than James Carville's GCS, with Carville's down-home screen style prominently featured. While other viewers might reach different conclusions, I was left feeling somewhat troubled by these consulting strategies, and I'm not quite sure Crisis pushes this critique far enough.

In one of the film's opening scenes, Jeremy Rosner describes the role of GCS in somewhat startling terms: "We listen very aggressively." While Rosner seems to intend to say that GCS works hard to listen to and understand the opinions of the voters, "listening aggressively" took on a different connotation for me. Instead of properly hearing the discontent of the Bolivian people, "listening aggressively" became an aggressive act, in which an image of Goni was foisted upon the various focus groups assembled to watch the latest advertisements about Goni or news reports about his rival candidates. Given that Goni himself is often dismissive of the various voters that GCS is trying to court, their task becomes a rather difficult one. The title itself also has an interesting resonance as Carville and other GCS staffers author a narrative for the election, in which they point to Bolivia's unemployment and economic insecurity and conclude that "our brand is crisis" and that Goni will be the solution to that crisis, the means by which that crisis narrative is resolved.

Boynton's greatest strength as a filmmaker was her attention to the ways in which Goni's candidacy--and I would argue GCS itself--seemed out of touch with the rising tide of opposition to Goni's neoliberal economic policies and support for the socialist policies of Morales, who is constantly marginalzied as a candidate during the 2002 election. This disconnect is conveyed strkly through visuals of "focus groups" in which Bolivian voters are shown advertismenets for Goni while GCS consultants, especially Rosner and Carville, watch from behind a two-way mirror while a Goni employee translates. The two-way mirror visually suggested a divide between the Goni campaign and the voters. But more starkly, Goni's sterile campaign office stood in stark contrast to the protests that took place outside, in the city streets. Such distinctions are also highlighted by the fact that in Goni's office, English is the primary language (Goni studied at US universities and spent much of his life in the US), while in the streets, Spanish dominates.

There were several aspects of Bolivian politics that went unexplored. We rarely hear from Bolivians "on the street" about their perceptions of the political situation there, other than through the highly mediated context of focus groups, in which many of the questions already come "pre-answered," packaged by Goni's advertisements and by the framing of the question itself. While Boynton suggests that she found it difficult to include such interviews "organically" with relationship to the narrative, the absence of such interviews only served to reinforce the looking-glass effect with which Goni's campaign seemed to view the Bolivians, especially the indiginous people. I also would have liked a slightly more explicit meditation on what it means to brand "crisis" as Goni's campaign did. There is little question that Bolivia was in economic turmoil, but the film didn't fully explore the intersections between campaign narratives and other attempts to understand Bolivia's economic situation.

Crisis culminates with the 2002 election and its aftermath. While Goni won the election, the vote was deeply divided, with the top three candidates (Goni, Morales, and Manfred Reyes Villa) each receiving between 20-22% of the vote. As these numbers suggest, Goni's position as president was weakened by the lack of popular support (that a president can get elected to office with such a small percentage of the vote is, of course, surprising), and because he offered no quick fix for the Bolivian crisis, what little support he had quickly dissipated, leading to the massive riots that eventually led to Morales being elected with 54% of the popular vote, an incredibly high percentage by Bolivian standards (and, as Boynton herself noted in a Q&A, Morales' support came from across the political spectrum), but through the course of the film, we are offered little to explain Morales' appeal other than soundbites from several of his speeches, though significantly Morales is almost always seen among the people, rather than above them in the glass-and-steel skyscrapers or expensive mansions where we see Goni.

As Stuart Klawans points out, Carville's presence in the film will recall Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's documentary The War Room, and like the earlier documentary, I found myself troubled by the image of deomcracy that I was witnessing, one that, as Klawans notes, "ought to be about something more than steaming up people's emotions, venting the pressure and then hoping the populace will simmer down again, so the work of capital markets may go on undisturbed." As always, though, Carville is a bluntly honest and darkly funny screen presence. Rosner, who has the most screen time, is also quite engaging, though his dismissal of Morales as an "irresponsible populist" only reinforced, for me, his distance from the situation on the ground in Bolivia.

Thanks to The Washington Note for sponsoring the screening.

Posted by chuck at March 21, 2006 10:36 AM

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