Perched on the quivering waters of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela’s northeastern corner facing the Caribbean, the tiny village of Congo Mirador is as tranquil as it is remote, but only the most obtuse visiting backpackers would describe it as idyllic. Poor and increasingly depopulated as it bears the economic weight of the country’s political discord, it is a village almost literally on the verge of slipping in the mud: water pollution and sedimentation from oil drilling nearby have strangled its local fishing industry, while modest homes struggle to keep afloat. For several years, Anabel Rodriguez Rios’ sentimentally lacking documentary “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” quietly observes the Congo Mirador being brought to its knees, with an increasingly powerful and infuriating effect.
Yet it is not a work of heart-wrenching miserability: the film equally captures community resilience and institutional corruption. Since its premiere in the Sundance Global Documentary Competition, Rodriguez Rios’ first impressive foray into non-fiction feature films has racked up considerable mileage on the virtual festival circuit and has been selected as Venezuela’s official entry for the feature. international Oscar feature. This debutant Topic streaming service recently acquired the North American streaming rights to the film is a fitting recognition of its emotional accessibility and limited technical polish.
However, some viewers might want to brush up on the Venezuelan headlines before getting to the heart of the matter: Pleasantly free from hand-holding title cards and talking heads, “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” assumes its audience has an interest in it. working knowledge of the country’s political polarization and economic difficulties since the death in 2013 of Socialist President Hugo Chavez. Yet he is vague enough about the details that his study of rural communities ignored by those in power resonates across borders. Although the film’s criticism of the current Venezuelan political regime is implied, its point of view is not one-sided: Rodriguez Rios shares his attention equally between two residents of Congo Mirador at opposite ends of the national political divide.
Middle-aged Ms Tamara is a formidable local businesswoman and staunch devotee of Chavez, to the point that she demands that visitors touch a statue of the late president before entering her home. Since her death, she has completely trusted her successor Nicolás Maduro, blinded by accusations of corruption and economic mismanagement leveled against her administration. The young village schoolteacher, Natalie, is however a staunch supporter of the opposition, openly critical in her criticism of the government. As the 2018 national elections approach, the two women stick together. Ms Tamara doesn’t think of bribing other villagers to vote for Maduro, while also seeking to push Natalie out of her job by hovering over school inspectors in Chavista.
Often filming in the sun-drenched daylight, Rodriguez Dios and cinematographer John Marquez devote considerable time and care to calmly observing the routines and rituals of the people doing their best to live in the face of ruin: there are fish to gut, classes to be taught, and junior beauty pageants must be held before too many residents make the decision to pack their things and float on new pasture (or waters).
Because however passionate the conflict between Mrs. Tamara and Natalie is, it is always a fight for the soul of a dying community. Once home to several hundred households, Congo Mirador has shrunk to around thirty families, the victim of a population exodus which will not be reversed as long as the environmental pollution of the region continues unabated. As high and powerful as she may be in her own murky little pond, Ms. Tamara’s appeals to the Caracas government to remedy the situation are greeted either by silence or by empty platitudes. In a revealing scene that invites empathy for this optimistic and rather closed-minded woman, the camera follows her to a promising arranged meeting with a governor of the capital, only to watch her almost ignore him, taking pictures. calls throughout. It is as close as this calm and measured documentary comes to a palpable boiling point. Stray glimmers of life and hope draw near to us – at least, in the limited time that Congo Mirador remains home to anyone.