Magazine article Art Monthly

Oliver Ressler and Dario Azzellini: Comuna under Construction

Magazine article Art Monthly

Oliver Ressler and Dario Azzellini: Comuna under Construction

Article excerpt

What does Latin America mean to you? Richard Nixon reportedly said that people 'don't give one shit about the place'. For many on the left, by contrast, it is a beacon of socialism. From the mid 1990s to the early 2000s, onlookers followed Mexico's indigenous Zapatista movement; many saw its partial successes as proof of the potency of the autonomist ideas of John Holloway, and Antonio Hardt and Michael Negri. Since then, the torch has been passed to the rather different figure of Hugo Chavez, the charismatic, real-politiking president of Venezuela and the head of the Bolivarian movement. An outpouring of documentaries has ensued: Kim Bartley and Donnacha 0 Briain's vital and astonishing The Revolution Will not be Televised, 2002, John Pilger's proselytising The War on Democracy, 2007, and Oliver Stone's mainstream South of the Border, 2009. Lesser known are the three films made by Oliver Ressler and Dario Azzellini (Comuna Under Construction, 2010, 5 Factories--Worker Control in Venezuela, 2006, and Venezuela from Below, 2004) all of which take a close look at the everyday experiences of ordinary Venezuelans.

In Comuna Under Construction, Ressler and Azzellini have bypassed the cult of Chavez in order to look at the grassroots facets of the movement. Across Venezuela, activists have established thousands of Consejos Comunales (community councils) where citizens discuss local concerns and seek solutions to common problems; these councils in turn can combine to form the 'Comunas' of the film's title. Jaquelin Avila is one such activist. In the film, we follow her as she sets about establishing a new commune in a barrio on the outskirts of Caracas. The locals want a sewerage system that works, legal recognition of their property and connection to the internet. The process of achieving these targets is evidently a mix of advocacy and ad-hoc experimentation: Avila tells one local man, 'if you are willing to work then I will support you', and reassures an assembled group that they also have the support of a neighbouring Consejo Comunal called Emiliano Hernandez, which has been established for three years. Avila proudly talks about the drains they have already installed there, the walls to prevent landslides and the replacement of mud huts with well-built brick houses.

Most of the action feels entirely spontaneous. Indeed, Ressler has edited his film with only the lightest of touches--primarily selecting material from hundreds of hours of footage. Shots are long, and filmed using a roaming camera. There are moments, however, when the viewer might suspect that we're not getting a neutral impression of real, unmediated life. For example, when Ressler and Azzellini's cameraman enters the recently completed home of one of the residents of Emiliano Hernandez, the situation smacks of propaganda: owner Miriam Colmenares praises God for Chavez and talks about how happy she is with her lot. The disruptive logic of the documentary process is even more obvious in another section of the film: the filmmakers decide to travel into the countryside to visit a rural commune; the Emiliano Hernandez commune gets wind of this and sends a delegate to travel with the filmmakers to establish trading and bartering ties with the 'peasant' group. …

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