Review: Once Upon a Time in Venezuela

This immersive documentary was seven years in the making. It takes place in Congo Mirador, a small village bordering Lake Maracaibo in northern Venezuela. At one time it was a thriving little town, but sedimentation and pollution from the country’s oil drilling industry have killing the fishing industry and people are either starving or moving away. Against this backdrop two women are in a personal political fight. Mrs. Tamara is a die-hard Chávista, and so backs Chávez’s successor Maduro and sings the government’s praises, despite how clearly it is not working for Congo Mirador. She’s also the elected representative of the town. Natalie is a schoolteacher who is vocal about her opposition to the current government, risking her job, but defiant. One of them will not come out the winner. 

Mrs. Tamara is the richest person in town with her own pig farm.  She’s overly confident of her power as she calls officials in Caracas about coming to dredge the lake, and listens to them promise year after year, but do nothing. Her devotion to Chavez has blinded her to the horrible corruption. There’s a very sad scene where she’s invited to the capital to meet with a high official. And she’s so excited, only to find that when she gets there, he barely speaks to her. But when the elections near, she chats again with the party bosses about how many cell phones she gets to bribe voters and how many votes she can buy. And she shows absolutely no shame about it.

Meanwhile, Natalie tries to keep her one-room schoolhouse afloat, both literally and figuratively. A Chávista education official harasses her on a regular basis, urged on by Mrs. Tamara, no doubt. And at the same time she’s raising a family in a house on stilts that will soon be underwater.

Of course both women think they’re doing the right thing for Congo Mirado. Mrs. Tamara has bought the party line, but Natalie is seeing a more just, less corrupt future. Feels very familiar, no?

What keeps the film going though is the quotidian life of the town. The children play in the lake and grow up as the film progresses. The town celebrates holidays, puts on beauty pageants, and an old musician plays his songs. While the town may be sinking, the people keep living their lives, knowing what’s coming. It’s both sad and uplifting.

 

No Comments Yet

You can be the first to comment!

Leave a comment