(ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENEZUELA is available at DocPoint 2020.)
In a land far, far way
ONCE UPON, directed by Anabel Rodríguez Ríos in her feature-length debut, feels like a fairy tale. It has all the elements of a classic battle of good versus evil set in an extraordinary location, where towns float on water and the night sky thunders silently in the darkness. But looking beyond the elements over seven years, it reveals a heartbreaking elegy for a world already doomed by the time we arrive. At the epicenter are two powerful women, cast on opposing sides of the political spectrum, each treading water, which is rising every day.
On one side is Natalie, a school teacher and fervent critic of Chavez and Maduro, who now sits in power. On the other is Tamara, a devout follower of Chavezian politics, who considers herself the de facto leader of their sinking town. The location is Congo Mirador, a once-thriving settlement of 300 families, now down to less than 70. It’s also the location where Venezuela drills its oil, leaving the environment uninhabitable and the ecosystem permanently changed.
It’s their conflict that becomes the forefront of this stirring, epic documentary. While other figures come and go, many leaving a mark in the soul, Rios’ camera fixes on the quiet battle between these two women over their community. And while it would be easy to cast the film in a traditionalist light of good and evil, seven years with her subjects give Rios a unique perspective into the heart of desperation born from the banal evil of capitalist economics.
Neither good nor evil
Watching Tamara hustle from one place to the next, I can’t help but feel that there has to be a reason beyond power why she stays in Congo Mirador. Her influence, while meager, clearly gets her invited to places far beyond her home, and in the beginning, her financial situation appears far better than anyone else’s. So it must mean that there is true love for her community and seeing half the citizens of the small town fervently defend the ghost of Chavez at every turn, that feeling is all the more prevalent.
But when her attacks focus on Natalie, the selfless teacher hoping to improve the lives of the last generation growing up in the town, much of that empathy goes out the window. They might be both strong people trying to survive in an impossible situation, but it is Tamara who is kicking others off her lifeboat to maintain a level of comfort solely for herself.
Watching them struggle against a dispassionate government descending on their home is an exercise in contained rage. Arriving from Caracas, they blindly ignore the pleas for help from a community in trouble. The party line is simple: “You fix your own problems.” Nevermind that the rising waters filled with oil are a side-effect of the macroeconomics involved in oil drilling. Or that the poverty is a direct result of failed Chavesian politics.
Everything is politics
For those of us not deeply versed in Venezuelan politics, ONCE UPON could easily become overwhelming. Instead, Rios elegantly keeps the narrative fixed on the human aspect, even as every frame drips with the political strife drowning the country. Her camera is revelatory, capturing the minutiae of everyday life in a world fading away. Many filmmakers speak of creating a mosaic of lives in fiction, but it is only here, witnessing time slip away, that it genuinely feels immediate and human.
Rios disregards objectivity for deeply humane interaction with her subjects, and her compassion towards the unjust fates permeates through the film. You can hear the heartbreak in her voice as she asks a twelve-year-old about her future. The girl sighs, aware will be married off to someone who can take care of her. What else could there be in this place?
An immaculate slice of life
Like a Greek chorus, a local aging musician sings traditional songs of regret, loss, and hope, knowing they too will probably never be repeated in these parts again. In committing these to film, Rios preserves a moment of cultural history as fleeting as the tide.
These moments, like many others, initially come off as too poetic, too otherworldly in their surrealism and beauty. I worried they’d overpower the narrative and stumble in the depiction of magical natives surviving against the odds – a Western trope designed to placate our guilt over the destruction of the world. Luckily, they are as organic to the truth as everything else. Reality conquers fiction, and things like houses sailing away or ruined ships called The Venezuela resting deep in the jungle feel true and honest.
Ultimately, this is a story of the failure of society, and Rios is at the right place at the right time in history. In a few years, Congo Mirador will vanish, and, as the film tells us, there is no telling where everyone who lived there has gone. They are now drifting with the current, hopeful of a better future somewhere on the horizon, as distant and ephemeral as the silent thunderstorms that once framed their community.