Margot Berrnacerof’s documentary Araya won the Critics Award at the 1959 Cannes Festival, shedding light on the industrialization of salt mines and bringing Venezuelan film into an international sphere. Sixty-one-years later, her legacy continues through the works of filmmakers like Anabel Rodríguez Ríos. Once Upon a Time in Venezuela premiered as the first Venezuelan documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. Rios grounds a story of polarized politics and displacement in complex characters making Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis palpable.
When salt was more valuable than gold, the Araya Peninsula was the preeminent region of interest in Venezuela—to the misfortune of those who lived there. In an economy where fossil fuel is precious currency, the paradox of plenty befalls the towns populating Lake Maracaibo, the largest crude oil reserve in Venezuela. Playwright José Ignacio Cabrujas analyzed Venezuelan national identity through the history of exploitive mining practices, “Venezuela is like a hotel, where people come, get the best out of the place and then leave.” Provisionality is an unwanted condition—a symptom of pernicious politics—that plagues the floating town of Congo Mirador on Lake Maracaibo in Once Upon a Time in Venezuela.
Director Anabel Rodríguez Ríos’ voice narrates the opening sequence of images, “The village has known better times. And now, in the night of an era, it will tell us its story.” The town that will tell its story is the stilted village of Congo Mirador that hovers over the murky waters of Maracaibo. Boats weave around raised homes, creating waterways that momentarily linger before disappearing. Clouds congregate at night as soundless lightning stretches across the sky—the mute Catacubo lightning remains an unresolved mystery for Congo people. Inhabitants step off their porches into the oil-contaminated waters of the lake where they play, bathe, shave, and brush their teeth. Oil drilling produces sediment that is a pestilent problem for Congo; water level rises as years of neglected dredging give way to compounding sediment. Political dereliction and ecological ruination force migration from Congo Mirador. Once Upon a Time in Venezuela tells the story of a village’s decay through the voices of Natalie and Tamara—two women whose polarized political views are a microcosm of Venezuelan politics.
Natalie is a teacher and oppositionists to dictator Nicolas Maduro. She refuses to comply with Chavismo: Hugo Chavez’s political legacy that degraded Venezuela’s democratic institutions paving the way for dictatorship. Insidious corruption manifests in the school as lack of economic resources and infrastructural upkeep. And eventually there is a lack of students as population diminishes. For years Natalie goes to school committed to helping Congo survive—despite acknowledging that leaving is inevitable. Migration out of Congo is simultaneously astonishing and poetic: Houses are unmoored from their stilts and lowered onto two pangas (small fishing boats) that motor these across the lake. They leave home with their houses.
A passionate monologue introduces Tamara’s limerence for Hugo Chavez. She stands proudly in front of a decal of Chavez’s face covering her door, smugly stating that anyone who enters has to touch Chavez first. Her Chavista loyalty will be forever. She voted for Chavez and will vote for his legacy as it incarnates through different leaders. As the local representative of the Maduro government, she takes onus in securing Chavista support. Tamara distributes food and phones and is willing to pay up to 4,000 Bolivars per ballot in local elections to ensure that the votes cast in Congo are for Maduro’s government.
Tamara often calls state officials inquiring about the dredges. The pending arrival of the dredges is as interminable as the illusory pension the cornel indefinitely awaits in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book No One Writes to the Colonel. Though a party member of the Maduro government, her political impotence is on full display when she travels to meet the regional government official. Voicing her concerns, she says, “Congo has problems, but we still exist.” The government official interrupts her plea by answering his phone and dismisses the meeting upon hanging up. Regardless of political affiliation, the corruption of dictatorial power is the same for all people of Congo Mirador.
Working knowledge of Venezuela’s socio-political climate is not essential but would help orient the viewer as Ríos doesn’t include expository information. Her approach to documentary draws from the French tradition of cinéma vérité that burgeoned in the 1960s. Cinéma vérité tries to capture the “realness” of the quotidian by introducing the camera into peoples’ lives with minimal directorial intervention. The “‘I’ reflexively recognizes its importance for structuring a gaze, but at the same time consciously fades into the background to avoid saturating the scene” (Latin American Documentary Film in the New Millennium, pg 28). But furtive glances look directly at the camera, making the process of documenting apparent. Ríos’ voice is occasionally heard as she nudges dialogue with candid questions. Her voice breaks with traditional cinéma vérité and reveals the structuring involved in documentary filmmaking. Ríos disclosed that they edited out her voice to preserve the intervention-less aesthetic. But when gaps in the narrative emerged, they decided to reintroduce moments that were crucial for preserving the film’s cohesive narrative. Rios’ voice is less of an aesthetic choice and more of a narrative necessity that helps connect paralleling stories into a single story.
Once Upon a Time in Venezuela eulogizes Congo Mirador. A town’s carcass is all that remains by the end. While the coda is despondent, Rios preserves dignity by depicting a gamut of emotions in the people she portrays in the documentary. Moral complexity replaces Manichean concepts of good and evil that are frequently at play in the portrayal of politics. By documenting a village that is going extinct, Once Upon a Time in Venezuela demands that viewers think about the political and economic dynamics that allowed the decay of Congo Mirador—to reflect on the precocity of democracy and the stifling effects of totalitarian regimes. But the final shot punctuates the documentary with somberness that is more of an ellipsis than a period.
María Guadalupe Arenillas, and Michael J Lazzara. Latin American Documentary Film in the New Millennium. New York Palgrave Macmillan Us, 2016.
“The Living Portrait of a Dying Town.” Caracas Chronicles, 23 Jan. 2021, http://www.caracaschronicles.com/2021/01/23/the-living-portrait-of-a-dying-town/. Accessed 18 Mar. 2021.