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October 28, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Once Upon a Time in Venezuela


Anabel Rodriguez Rios - 2020
Cargo Film & Releasing

The opening shot of Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is of lightning without the sound of thunder. This is a natural phenomena that takes place for those observing from the remote fishing village of Congo Mirador. One might also liken this silent lightning to the various government entities, seen from a distance via television, but in no way affecting the lives of people they have promised to help. The lighting is seen in the distance on the other side of Lake Maracaibo. This is an ecological horror film, a documentary about the slow death of a community.

The one weakness here is that there are no explanatory titles to indicate that the film was shot over a seven year period or when certain scenes take place. The structure is casually observational as we see a village composed mainly of tin shacks constructed on stilts dotting the shoreline. Everyone travels by small boats simply to go from neighbor to neighbor when not fishing. Though we never see the pumps, the oil drilling on the other side of the lake has caused a rise in sediment, polluting the lake. Aside from the affects of killing the fish, the population of the village has dropped to about thirty families at the time of the most recent filming.

Whether it is Hugo Chavez or Nicolas Maduro, or anyone else, government officials prove either ineffective or uncaring. Several leading residents go to Caracas at the invitation of one official who then ignores them while taking a call on his cell phone. The lone teacher is expected to use inadequate supplies for her handful of students. When Congo's leading political leader tries to bribe a woman into voting for an upcoming election, the bribe is refused, the woman choosing to not vote rather than be part of what she sees as a corrupt political system.

For the villagers, it is a choice between keeping the only life they know or hoping for a better life elsewhere. One of the older men speaks tearfully about Congo in the past. There are still village celebrations with several of the girls dressed up. The film ends with the image of one of the shacks mounted on two boats, rowing to a different part of the lake. While the village of Congo Mirador is the focus, for Anabel Rodríguez Ríos, the village is also the stand-in for the entire country. While government corruption and neglect is shown, through the depopulation of Congo is a hint of the creation of the refugee crisis that has affected Venezuela.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 28, 2020 06:43 AM