Why does Venezuela have this name? The origin is in an observation by Américo Vespucio (1454-1512). When the Italian explorer arrived in the territory we now know as Venezuela, he noticed the countless houses of the indigenous peoples that were on stilts, above the waters. According to historians, Vespucio made the observation that it “looked like Venice” because it was necessary to use boats to go from one house to another or to transport food. From then on, the territory is known under the name of “little Venice”. And, over time, it became Venezuela.
The historical anecdote helps to understand and give more drama to the plot of “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” (Once Upon a Time in Venezuela), a film that has garnered awards and praise at festivals and which had premieres in places where cinemas have already returned, such as Madrid and other European cities. It can also be seen in streaming, through collaborations for “crowdfunding” to help pay production costs (www.onceuponatimeinvenezuela.com).
The documentary followed the lives of residents of an endangered village called Congo Mirador, located on the shores of Lake Maracaibo. There, we live in houses on stilts, including the local school, food markets and other stores. By boat, a thousand inhabitants circulate. Its main activity is fishing. Life is that of a small community, everyone knows each other, gets married (usually very young), and has traditional customs of the country, such as misses competitions, in which very young girls participate.
Directed by Anabel Rodríguez, the film initially aimed to meet the expectations of the characters regarding the legislative election of 2015, which was won by the opposition and brought hope to the end of Chavismo. At the same time, the village was facing a serious problem, but at that time it still seemed to have a solution. Due to climate change and lack of health care, the Congo Mirador was becoming increasingly drier, and in many places uncontrolled forest replaced water, bringing insects, rats and disease and shaking up the main activity of the region, fishing.
In this scenario, two characters are the pillars of the story. Local Chavista leader Tamara Villasmil, a committed activist who truly believes in “revolution,” has Hugo Chávez dolls and posters of the former dictator in the house. He calls residents’ meetings, takes food, and distributes government allowances, including cell phones, to residents, asking them in return for their vote. “She believes in the revolution and honestly wants to save her village, mobilizes efforts, but does not know that her way of acting is undemocratic. She is deceived by the promises of Chavismo, as many have been and still are, ”the film’s producer, Claudia Lepage, told Folha.
One of the most striking scenes that places her as a protagonist is the meeting that, after much effort, manages to have with the governor of the province of Zulia (where the Congo Mirador is located), also Chavista Francisco Arias Cárdenas. In it, he asks that something be done so that the Congo Mirador survives the process of sedimentation that leads to the takeover of the village by the forest. The governor treats her very well, serves breakfast, talks about a thousand other subjects, but Villasmil leaves empty-handed.
The village is politically divided. The second pillar of the story is Nathalie Sánchez, who is anti-Chavist, sees no future for the regime, celebrates the opposition’s victory in this election, but is gradually disillusioned by the possibility of a bigger change in the Venezuela. Its greatest symbol is the school for which it is responsible. Its structures collapse, the textbooks begin to mold, part of the ceiling falls. She wants to go with her daughter.
The Venezuelan crisis is seen through these increasingly disillusioned residents who leave the Congo Mirador, carrying their own homes, transported by boat. The images of the place, on the other hand, are magnificent. Even in good times, children would swim, hunt for seashells, and fish. They find turtles, play and come out of the water often covered with oil. Which shows yet another contradiction in the Venezuelan drama. Residents of the Lake Maracaibo region, one of Venezuela’s largest oil reserves, are experiencing a fuel shortage that is affecting the whole country.
When the film started shooting, approximately 1,000 people were living in Congo Mirador. Today the place is overgrown, and there are only five inhabitants, who are old people who were born there and no longer want to leave. “We thought we were going to tell a dramatic story, but we didn’t imagine an ending like that,” says Lepage.
Tamara Villasmil, then chavist leader of Congo Mirador (Photo disclosure)