Comuna: Under Construction (2010) - A Review
The 2010 documentary, Comuna: Under Construction, by Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler, invites viewers into the inner workings of a few of the more than 30,000 Venezuelan community councils (consejos comunales). These self-organized councils are built from the bottom-up with support from the national government. They form the foundation of Hugo Chavez's vision of a Bolivarian Revolution enabling participatory governance in local communities. The film shows how this system decentralizes control over the distribution and direction of national funds through a network of democratic organizations. This ethnographic-style film traces the development of these councils in both poor urban and rural environments, and at different scales, and shows the impacts of democratic decision-making on the people and their communities.
Each council has three core committees to build internal accountability and leadership. The finance committee handles administrative concerns and the distribution of funds for the various projects. A control committee provides oversight ensuring funds are distributed properly. Most importantly, an executive committee sets priorities and makes decisions concerning which issues to address and the formation of subcommittees. Members of these committees are elected locally and receive compensation from the government for their time and efforts.
In addition to the three primary committees, additional subcommittees are formed to conduct outreach, research, and project planning as needed. Most community councils have subcommittees to focus broadly on issues such as health, education, environment, infra-structure, and quality of life which mirror national ministries. Other subcommittees form depending on both the general needs of a community and the management of locally specific programs and initiatives. The film highlights some of the efforts of a telecommunications and a trash removal subcommittee both in deliberation and in the community.
These committees and subcommittees are held responsible by local communities at regular general assemblies. They each select a representative to report regularly to the executive committee. Local citizens have the opportunity to voice their concerns, learn about specific programs, select council members, and propose new ideas for future projects. These forums represent the crux of the socialist goals of the Bolivarian Revolution as the place where citizens gain control over local governance. Where citizens have organized a local council, the benefits include home repairs, telecommunications lines, landslide walls, drainage systems, and more.
Poverty and underdevelopment remain critical issues in Venezuela where nearly a third of population lives at or below the national poverty line. Comuna suggests from the beginning that community organizing is critical for the alleviation of exclusion and alienation of poor communities which some attribute to the governance of the Fourth Republic prior to the Chavez regime. Though government officials provide information and assistance for developing a council, it is ultimately the responsibility of a community to work together to organize in order to become part of this network. For this reason, not every community is represented through this system. In one community where there is no council, the area struggles with frequent theft and a lack of public amenities.
Regionally, councils work together to form comunas to provide a higher level of organization. Comunas are institutionally similar to community councils, only scaled up. Typically, these groups consist of three to nine community councils depending on the area’s geography and how similar or different community interests are. The benefit of the larger organization is to facilitate collaborative work on larger projects that affect the region such as bringing in telecommunications lines, building universities, or establishing environmental regulations. Just as many communities have not organized community councils, many regions have not organized comunas.
Government officials support the councils through organizing assistance, trainings, informational sessions, funding, and technical expertise. This support may be at any of these levels of the system from committees, local councils, comunas, or general assemblies depending on the needs of the group. Through the network of councils, citizens can influence the implementation of government programs.The filmmakers tell the story of council processes and impacts by allowing them to unfold on the screen. Rather than relying on talking-head interviews or graphical representations, Azzellini and Ressler use footage of actual meetings and conversations between the parties involved to tell the story of community councils. While the film's portrayal of the community council system is generally sympathetic and optimistic, participants are seen as raising many practical issues such as insufficient pay for representatives, inconsistent government accountability, and unequal distribution of funds across councils. These problems do not necessarily undermine the entire project as a whole, but do present challenges to be addressed for continued success.
In the aftermath of Hugo Chavez's death on March 5th, this documentary provides a rare glimpse at one of Chavez's most enduring programs, and one often ignored by mainstream media. The film shows what is possible when neighbors are encouraged and supported by the national government to take responsibility of the local development processes. This is an important film for anyone interested in the future of Venezuelan politics, specifically, and processes of participatory governance and production more generally. For more information, see Azzellini's personal website, http://www.azzellini.net, where you can order the film as well as recent discussions on the future of Venezuela.
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