Comuna Under Construction (Dir: Dario Azzellini & Oliver Ressler 2010) is an excellent new documentary on the exciting democratic process involving consejos comunales (communal councils) in Venezuela.
The film, featuring no narration whatsoever, basically presents a fly on the wall view of how the councils work, the vibrant debates held within them, the contradictions of building a democratic socialist framework within a still capitalist country and the conflicts with the bureaucratic structures of the state.
There have been huge strides forward under the Bolivarian government, with illiteracy eradicated, poverty drastically reduced and universal healthcare and education introduced. But as great as these achievements are, the next stage is to come from below, not above. These communal councils are built from below and alongside the existing institutions and are supposed to overcome the existing state through self-government. Several communal councils can then form a Comuna (commune) and finally a communal town.
In the meetings filmed, the participants discuss everyday problems such as decent housing, installing fixed telephone lines, waste collection and healthcare. They express pride at what they have achieved, with shanty town huts turned into proper housing and waste collection organised, for example, as well as frustration at slow progress in other areas, when applications for new housing grants are swallowed up in the labyrinthine bureaucracy that unfortunately still persists.
In one particularly memorable scene, a government minister is berated for the lack of progress on housing grants. "We are losing our credibility because of the incompetence of the state institutions!" says one activist. Within these state institutions there seem to be as many people pushing against the communal councils as there are pushing in favour of them. What the film gives is a deep sense of optimism that not only is the experiment working, it will overcome the bureaucracy and represents the future of democracy in Venezuela – vibrant, participatory, grass-roots democracy – which will serve as a model for the rest of the world. Essential viewing.