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Beyond Elections in the Americas: An Interview with Michael Fox
By Indy Media / filmsforaction.org
Apr 1, 2009
The new documentary Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas (buy from PM Press) proves that democracy can and should be more than casting a ballot every four years. This empowering film gives hopeful and concrete examples from around the Americas of people taking back the reigns of power and governing their own communities. Beyond Elections is a road map for social change, drawing from communal councils in Venezuela and social movements in Bolivia to participatory budgeting in Brazil and worker cooperatives in Argentina. The film gracefully succeeds in demonstrating that these grassroots examples of people’s power can be applied anywhere. Particularly as activists in the US face the challenges of an Obama administration and an economic crisis, this timely documentary shows that the revolution can start today right in your own living room or neighborhood.

In this interview, Michael Fox, Co-Producer of Beyond Elections, talks about how the film was created, what its aims were and what the films impact has had among viewers in the US.

Benjamin Dangl: How did you decide on the focus and message of Beyond Elections?

Michael Fox: I’ve been living and working in Latin America for many years, studying and reporting on, above all else, the experiences in participatory democracy- cooperatives, communal councils, participatory budgeting, social movements, community radio, etc… Sílvia (my wife, who grew up in Southern Brazil, and who is also Co-director of the film) and I were living in Venezuela in 2006 when the communal councils law was passed, and local communities all across the country began to come together and take on this new form of organizing. You could see how it was empowering people on an individual and local level.

In March of 2007, Sílvia and I found ourselves in Porto Alegre, Brazil – where we now live – at the same time that the 2007 Participatory Budgeting cycle was about to begin. We realized that although there have been many local videos on the experiences of participatory budgeting, cooperatives, social movements and even some on the recently-formed communal councils, there was no documentary film that tried to give both the big and local picture of these new participatory concepts of democracy across the hemisphere.

This concept is almost completely absent in the United States, and yet, it is absolutely necessarily for people to understand what is going on across Latin America, and also extremely important for activists and people in the United States to understand the failures of our own system and the lack of participation and input from everyday citizens.

We originally planned the film to focus only on participatory democracy, but quickly realized that the only people who would want to see it would be activists that are already doing this type of work. We needed to open it up to the very concept of democracy itself.

This was important to us, because time and again in the United States, pundits, elected officials, everyday folks and even journalists use the word “democracy” as an excuse to de-legitimize extremely democratic groups and governments. They say, “Venezuela is threatening democracy in the region,” and yet depending on your definition, Venezuela is perhaps the most democratic country in the region – much more so than the United States. But these realities are very subtle, and if you have never been to Venezuela, or Brazil or Bolivia or Ecuador (or if you go and only stay at the resorts and the upper-class part of town), then you’re never going to know what to believe because the mainstream media is quick to repeat the manipulations.

There are some mainstream media that actually call Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a dictator, despite the fact that during his ten years in office there have been more than a dozen free and fair elections in Venezuela legitimately-recognized by international observers from around the world, and that he has always respected the Venezuelan Constitution and the laws. He may be a very charismatic, domineering, and powerful figure, but he’s not a dictator.

Then the real question is, “What is democracy?” And that’s where we wanted to focus our attention – giving people the space to tell their stories across the Hemisphere.

As the Portuguese Sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos says, (and you can find the link to more of his work on our website, www.beyondelections.com), the United States has created a monopoly on the definition of democracy- U.S. style hegemonic representative politics.

But Sousa Santos points out that in reality, democracy is a work in progress. As he says, “democracy without end.”

His colleague, Leonardo Avritzer, professor from Brazilian Federal University of Minas Gerais, points out in our film, “What we’ve tried to stress, is the idea that democracy is an open concept and the frontiers of democracy are always imprecise. For instance, in the 19th century you could say that it’s democratic to expand suffrage. And that’s true. It was democratic at the end of the 19th century to expand suffrage to women. Or at the beginning of the 20th century it could appear democratic to expand democracy to the countries of the global South. So the question today in the Southern countries is how to think about the democratization of things like the budget, health policies, education policies, urban policies, the democratization of life where you live.”

Of course, it’s not always easy. Especially when you are trying to make a film for not one audience, but audiences in various languages all across the Hemisphere. But that’s what we set out to do, and I think we succeeded.

BD: Could you talk a bit about the process of making your documentary?

MF: This is very important, because we wanted the making of the film to reflect as much as possible the “democracy” that we are trying to portray. We used very little narration- only about two and a half minutes worth –because we wanted people to tell the stories in their own words. We tried not to change the scenery where we were filming. We only used music from local musicians, and tried to only use it when it was part of the scene. It is also a testament to what two people can do without any external resources or really expensive equipment.

The entire budget came out of our own pockets and Silvia and I filmed nearly the entire film with our Panasonic 3CCD handycam, and edited it all on our aging G4 Powerbook.

Of course, we had more than a half a dozen individuals and groups that supported with b-roll, and either shot for us, or allowed us to use footage they had already filmed in areas that we couldn’t make it to like Ecuador, Bolivia, and the Bay Area.

The SF-based musician and sound editor, Ben Bernstein, donated his time to post-produce our audio, which came out great. The Venezuela-based film group, Panafilms was a huge support, as were hundreds of folks all across the region.

BD: What was the response among viewers during your tour in the U.S.?

Read the rest at GNN.TV
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Beyond Elections in the Americas: An Interview with Michael Fox