Listen To Venezuela is a film that has been made in the tradition of radical Latin American documentary. This tradition emerged in the 1960s in the context of the 1959 Cuban revolution and the subsequent wave of revolutionary struggles against the Latin American oligarchy and US domination. Film became a weapon in the political struggle, but a critical, interrogatory and sophisticated weapon, supported by an intellectual culture generated by the filmmakers themselves through a variety of manifestos and essays. The Latin American documentary broke with the social democratic model dominant in the west, and aligned itself with the struggles of the workers and peasants. The dialectical image was (re)born through this committed, aligned filmmaking from such people as Santiago Alvarez, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino.
The dialectical image is characterised by its ability to speak of social and historical processes, make connections between things and articulate contradictions and conflicts.
It does this frequently in an act of recovery, against the draining away of the social and historical, the social connections and the contradictions of life which is the hall mark of mass culture. The method of the dialectical image is various, but it generally involves composing images, or the relations between images and/or the relations between sound and images in such a way as to produce disjunctures and contradictions of meaning. This disjuncture opens up the space for critical thought and transformation, a re-organisation of pre-conceived ideas as the viewer works to identify and decode the social forces at work in the image at specific historical moments.
The dialectical image has its roots further back in time, in the film work of revolutionary Russian filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, whose theory of film montage stressed the importance of shocking the viewer into new emotional and intellectual responses, and Dziga Vertov, whose theory of montage explored new perceptions opened up in the space between shots. But for the dialectical image to work, it needs to be part of a general dialectical film structure, and not an isolated moment. There are many examples of such isolated moments of dialectical awareness in mass film culture, but they cannot be developed by the film or the spectator because the potential of such moments is quickly closed off and reintegrated into dominant ideologies.
For example, in King Kong (Peter Jackson 2005), the film opens with scenes of the mass poverty caused by the Great Depression. We see the shanty towns that sprang up in New York’s Central Park and this is juxtaposed with a song (contemporary to that era) from Al Jolson, called ‘I’m Sitting On Top Of the World’. This song provides an ironic juxtaposition between the utopian claims of the lyrics and the reality of hunger and homelessness for many people after the Wall Street Crash in 1929. We also see images of people who, despite the crash, are still sitting on top of the world: the rich. So the song provides an ironic and critical counterpoint to this image as well: the song’s utopian theme becomes a comment on the selfishness and indifference of the rich. But fairly quickly, the critical dialectical friction being generated by these images and this soundtrack, is neutralised as the film succumbs to racial and imperial myths deeply embedded into western culture.