Review: Once Upon a Time in Venezuela (2020)

Once Upon a Time in Venezuela (2020)

Directed by: Anabel Rodríguez Ríos | 99 minutes | documentary

The lyrics of the song that an old inhabitant of Congo Mirador starts to sing while floating around on his boat, is very promising: ‘I am very lucky to be born in Congo Mirador…’.

Once upon a time it was indeed very fortunate to be born in this idyllic fishing village. The village on the edge of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela sits above one of the largest oil fields in Latin America and was reasonably prosperous for a long time. The floating houses formed a thriving community. But it turns out to rumble beneath the idyll: sedimentation (a process in which sinking material such as small and sand accumulates on the bottom) causes it to become shallower, making it more difficult for residents to keep their homes afloat. Aquatic life is in a bad state, amenities have been neglected by the government and many families are moving to the city or to neighboring Colombia in the hope of a better life. The residents no longer feel the great happiness of yesteryear.

Venezuelan director Anabel Rodríguez Ríos (herself from the capital Caracas) follows the remaining families in her intimate documentary ‘Once Upon a Time in Venezuela’. We see domestic scenes in the small community of wooden houses on stilts. A young girl gets ready for the day, combs her hair, prepares arepas and a little later leaves with her brother in their boat.

We also meet Tamara, a woman who considers herself the grande dame of Congo Mirador. A hefty diva, leader of the socialist party’s local branch and idolatrous of the late former president Hugo Chavez. Her house is full of his image and is a sweet raid for fellow party members.

It turns out that in addition to problems with the practical liveability in the village, the community faces another major problem: the great political division, as the teacher of the only primary school, Natalie, puts it. ‘Chavistas’ on the one hand and opposition supporters on the other are causing major tensions.

And it is not Natalie who sows the division, she says herself. The firing comes from Tamara, who is portrayed as a good but lonely and greedy woman, landowner, fond of food and telephone, whose only distraction is apparently to organize evenings for her comrades from the Socialist Party. Natalie on the other hand is the altruistic and critical teacher, who pays for all the necessities for the makeshift school out of her own pocket and does not let herself be bullied away by representatives of the federal government who make her work impossible with bullying visits.

The battle between these two camps goes from small to large: the two women represent the whole of Congo and the village again represents the rest of the country. For example, director Rodríguez Ríos subtly but penetratingly shows how this division, in combination with neglected facilities such as food, care and education, is slowly but surely pushing a country to the abyss.

The shot of five young girls is beautiful, just before the annual beauty pageant that takes place that evening. After a long dress up, they sit in white and pink princess dresses, their faces covered in make-up and their black hair tied back to the back, side by side on a bench. Their faces speak volumes: bored, insecure and with a fresh reluctance they head for the evening. Moving, but also wry since we saw just before how an older sister of one of them got married recently, at the age of 13, and now – barely 14 years old – is pregnant.

Tamara, meanwhile, is preparing for the upcoming elections: every vote counts for the socialist party, and the local leader does not care about getting the votes in. How shameless it is, she just lets them film. Voting in exchange for a telephone, for cash, for gifts, food; there is nothing strange about it to her. Besides shameless, it is also the sad reality of what remains of the ‘socialist revolution’: an army of local party workers who mainly meet, cherish a story that no longer exists and go into the country at every election to buy votes.

A few scenes later we see Tamara herself visit the governor in Maracaibo, an exciting visit that ends in disappointment. It is striking how she is treated: riddled with chic rooms and a tasty breakfast, but her – surprisingly emotional – account of Congo’s problems is ignored. In the middle of her story, the governor picks up his phone to have a completely different conversation.

The film cleverly builds up to the parliamentary elections of December 6, 2015, which had a surprising outcome. The sad aftermath of this is unfortunately history: although the opposition won, President Maduro replaced the parliament in its entirety a year and a half later with a newly set up sham institution. Because of the special characters and the surprising structure, ‘Once Upon a Time in Venezuela’ very convincingly portrays how one village symbolizes the entire country: despite its lucrative location on top of a gigantic oil field, it is deserted, cut off from the outside world, corrupt, divided to the bone and sinking.


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