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Our Brand is Crisis (2006)
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by Chris Parry

"Politics isn't life or death... it's usually more of the latter."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: Progressive political types like to thing of themselves as being all about the people. They like to think of themselves as being good folks, dedicated to positive social change. But the problem with all political types, be they liberal or conservative, is that the one thing matters to them more than anything else is winning. The firm of Greenberg, Carville, Shrum is a political consultancy group that is regularly asked to come into an election and, basically, take over the campaign. They handle the focus groups, the marketing, the strategy, the attack ads, the polling, and they take home a hefty sum for their trouble, win or lose. But the whole winning thing is far better for business than the social change is, which means that sometimes the good of the people has to be sacrificed for the good of the mission statement. One such episode that followed this path was in 2002, when Bolivia headed towards an important Presidential election with the population split behind three candidates. One of those, a former President named Sanchez de Lozada (or Goni to the kids on the street), hired GCS to run his campaign. And that’s when the shit really hit the fan.

Goni is a moron. No two ways about it, he’s a privileged, upper class, old money, my-way-or-the-highway moron who wouldn’t know an impending civil revolution if it jumped up and bit him on the ass. This, despite the fact that it already had bit him on the ass once before, when the people booted Goni out of office in disgrace after he’d blown through the government’s resources, sold off a load of publicly-held state companies to large overseas corporations in return for foreign aid and loans, and failed to deliver the jobs that the 90% of people living in poverty in that country had been promised years earlier.

So from the very outset of Our Brand is Crisis, you begin to wonder why GCS, which features political consultants like Stan Greenberg, Clinton hatchet man James Carville, and nine-time US Presidential campaign loser Bob Shrum (a 0% success rate – new record!), would even bother to take on Goni’s campaign. He’s not particularly progressive in any sort of traditional liberal sense. He’s definitely not a man of the people. He’s got baggage from earlier disgraces, he can’t talk on camera, and he’s really not the kind of guy who announces to a room “I am one of you.”

But Goni has one thing going for him that the GCS boys love, and that’s a fondness for globalization. That big G-word is the stuff that has looted the developing world over the past decade plus, as struggling second and third-world governments look for an easy way out of debt by selling off the things that actually keep their finances alive – electricity utilities, trains, roads, phone companies, water utilities – even hospitals and schools. The usual result of these sell-offs is a massive increase in prices, followed by incredible increases in poverty, further debt by the governments in question, and national bankruptcies are never far behind.

The line-up in the Bolivian election could not be more polarized – you have the old school, old money Goni, then there’s the coca-farmer’s friend, union-loving, power to the people, fuck the USA, indigenous Aymaran option, Evo Morales. But the leader of the pack is a man who epitomizes the ‘change’ movement – a moustached, pouffe-haired, Saturday morning matinee hero-styled Bush goon, “Manfred”. Early on, the people are digging Manfred’s routine, holding massive rallies and offering him almost twice the vote of any other candidate in the race. But the GCS boys aren’t panicked, and as their test marketing groups and focus gangs pick apart Manfred’s weaknesses, they begin a negative ad campaign to paint him as corrupt and an option likely to drive the country to bankruptcy.

At first, the negative American-styled campaigning has the opposite effect on the politically naïve Bolivians, who shy away from Goni because his tactics disgust them. But over time, the GCS plans begin to take hold as doubts open up over how Manfred received his wealth. Before long, Manfred is plummeting in the polls and the hapless Goni is a contender once more. But shortly behind him is the anti-drug war Evo, who seems to be picking up the rebel vote and riding a people power platform to victory.

As the election nears, it’s anyone’s race, but the one thing that can be accurately predicted is that, if Goni wins, he’ll need to be a changed man very quickly to avoid civil unrest. Ultimately, the American influence is the strongest influence on the election, as warnings from the American ambassador that an Evo win will make the US an enemy forces the fearful to abandon him at the zero hour.

Amidst all this, GCS shows itself as an organization that knows how to play the political game, and certainly knows how to win a battle, if not the ensuing war. Allowing filmmaker Sarah Boynton into their fold, they’re alarmingly frank with her about their intentions, their tactics, and their utter lack of concern for anything outside of the task at hand – getting an idiot re-elected President. As Carville reveals, on the eve of being ‘brought down’ to the campaign from the US, he’s nothing more than a talking head with a big reputation by virtue of his Clinton and CNN connections. He discusses how he really doesn’t know anything about the Bolivian situation, but will turn up, ask his guys what he should be advising Goni, and then simply parrot whatever they’ve already been telling him. “Because it’s coming from me, they listen,” he says, seemingly not caring that he could be feeding his client bad information. It’s clear that Carville is nothing more than a name for hire, but perhaps that’s a good thing when you hear his views on things such as globalization (not to mention his more recent thoughts on the current state of the Democratic Party).

Guys like Carville and Shrum always fail upwards, and though the job in Bolivia was most definitely completed as required, the end result of their victory makes even those at GCS seemingly stop and think hard about whether what they’re doing is actually a good thing. When politics can be broken down to formulas and marketing, focus groups and outside influences, then the system is broken from the outset. It’s clear that the man of the people in this election will simply not be allowed to win, and the people making sure of that aren’t Bolivian. Unseen in the documentary, during Goni’s victory rally, groups of Evo indigenous supporters were heckled with cries of “go home and take a bath”… and that really tells you all you need to know about who wins when American-styled politics are in the picture.

Democracy is defined by most as of the people, by the people, for the people. It is not “regardless of the people, by the focus group, for the rich.” People who really want to be called ‘progressive’ could do well remembering that.

Our Brand is Crisis is an amazing insight into the corporate swill that politics has become, even on the supposed ‘liberal’ side of the game. Poynton has received the kind of up close and personal, nothing hidden from the camera access that documentarians can usually only dream of, and throughout she keeps the format fresh, the information detailed and the quality level high. If there’s anything missing from the final mix it would be the dirty details – it’s never revealed is Goni actually did screw up the country or whether, as he claims, he did a great job. What did he sell off, how many did he hurt? Where did Evo come from and what are Manfred’s real connections to America? That’s the stuff that would have turned this into a groundbreaking doco, but as it is, Our Brand is Crisis is the perfect ‘affiliation-free’ look at how power corrupts, and how political mercenaries corrupt absolutely.

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originally posted: 03/14/05 04:56:22
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This film is listed in our political documentary series. For more in the Political Documentary series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/12/06 William Goss Impressively insightful doc about political strategy and its consequences. 4 stars
1/28/06 Fabiola Crespo I'm sure it's great, we bolivians haven't been able to see it, it's censored. 4 stars
12/07/05 ghassane a great insider look on marketing driven politics and it's disastrous effects 5 stars
12/06/05 Ana Khatira captivating, insightful, alarming and honest 4 stars
11/23/05 rosemary i really like to have a copy 5 stars
3/26/05 ninoska criales i will like ro get te fir, i live in la paz, bolivia, how can i get it? 4 stars
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  01-Mar-2006 (NR)
  DVD: 05-Sep-2006



Directed by
  Rachel Boynton

Written by

  James Carville
  Jeremy Rosner
  Stan Greenberg
  Bob Shrum

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