Who knew socialism could lead to such privation and poverty? Except maybe anyone who ever studied economics to any extent. In the case of Venezuela, there really is no excuse for the devastating effects of state command of the economy, because the nation is blessed with considerable oil reserves and was ruled by a dictator who was considered a folk hero by his famous international admirers. Nevertheless, viewers can see the devastating results of Chavism over a twelve-year period in Anabel Rodriguez Rios’s documentary, Once Upon a Time in Venezuela, which screens during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Congo Mirador is a small village on stilts that sits not far from Lake Maracaibo, the center of Venezuela’s oil industry. Its proximity should make it prosperous, but instead it is dying. In fact, it might not survive the film as a viable community. Pollution has devastated the water-bound town, but the Chavists only seem to care about them during election years. Even then, they just offer small tokens like cell-phones, rather than any long-term relief.
Indeed, Mrs. Tamara, the village’s hard-core Chavist political coordinator is so nakedly corrupt, she openly offers bribes to villagers in exchange for votes, but this year, even her friends are defiantly refusing to go along anymore. In contrast, the local school teacher, Natalia is not explicitly political, but her independent inclinations earn her the scorn of Tamara. She must also endure constant harassment from the regional school supervisor, who always looks for petty causes to reprimand the devoted teacher, such as the organization of the supply shelf (fully stocked with defective pens that do not write). Yet, Natalia is widely popular among her students and their parents, at least while they remain in the dying village.
Although Rios largely takes an observational approach, a narrative form slowly but surely takes shape. Nor does she merely cull together some representational footage from the twelve years she filmed in Congo Mirador. Throughout the film, viewers can see the director has a keen sense of visual composition. Each shot is carefully framed and included for a reason. At times, it is a hauntingly eerie film, especially when a senior resident sings ghostly old folk songs during the film’s after-hours scenes. Arguably, Once Upon a Time follows in the tradition of documentarians like Henri Cartier-Bresson, who made exposes that were also art.
This is a quiet film, but there is power and poison concealed inside. It also holds the distinction of being the first Venezuelan documentary selected for Sundance. As a filmmaker and a Venezuelan in exile, Anabel Rodriguez Rios has malice for none, not even the Chavistas, like Mrs. Tamara, but there is no escaping the disastrous economy and desperate living conditions their policies have wrought. Highly recommended as truth and art, Once Upon a Time in Venezuela screens again this morning (1/31) in Park City and tomorrow (2/1) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.