Anabel Rodriguez Ríos — director of “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela,” the first Venezuelan documentary to ever premiere at Sundance — is fairly certain her film will be censored by the Venezuelan government. But she’s willing to climb through hoops to get it the attention it deserves.
“Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” is the story of Congo Mirador, a once-thriving fishing village nestled on a tributary of lake Maracaibo. Lake Maracaibo is the largest lake in Venezuela and home to one of the largest oil reserves in the world. Ríos spent five years following families in Congo Mirador and documenting their struggles to save the sinking village they’ve inhabited for generations. When Ríos started filming, about 400 people were proud to call Congo Mirador home. Today, only six remain.
Congo Mirador is strong and resilient in the face of constant neglect by the Venezuelan government on a local and national level. Residents are constantly being displaced because of increased sedimentation spurred by climate change. Many live without basic needs and sanitation, and some are turning to the tourist market to sell goods. While the film was still in the works, representatives of Congo Mirador were determined to make a change. Today, that hope seems to have disappeared: Congo Mirador has fallen into the same cycle of neglect as other Venezuelan communities.
“[This film] comes from this feeling of de-rooting that we have had as a whole society, as Venezuelans,” said Ríos as I caught up with her after the screening. “If we artists don’t tell the story, it’s as if we (Venezuelans) don’t exist. It comes to a point where one has to tell it or die.”
Ríos is determined to tell Congo Mirador’s story authentically. She spent years convincing the village to let her film, waiting as long as three years to shoot Tamara, the local representative of the village. Camera shots are rarely rapid, instead lingering on the faces of citizens, capturing their concern for their families and community.
“They wanted to communicate that it was an existential, desperate situation. They saw the film as a tool,” Ríos said.
Congo Mirador was sharply divided along political lines during filming. Some, including Tamara, supported the socialist party leader Nicolas Maduro, a descendant of Hugo Chávez’s dictatorial reign. Others, such as soft-spoken but adamant schoolteacher Natalie, backed the opposition party, which won more seats in Venezuela’s legislative body in the 2015 elections but was effectively silenced by Maduro in 2017. Congo Mirador is a microcosm for the rest of Venezuela: Corruption is just as rampant in this community of 400 as it is in the nation of 32 million.
“Corruption is almost a value, and it became culture,” Ríos said. Yet all the villagers want the same changes: more funding, more representation, more national awareness of Congo Mirador’s desperate and evolving situation.
“Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” came too late to bring the awareness that would help save Congo Mirador — today, the village is practically deserted. But Ríos isn’t disheartened. She’s certain that the film’s focus on local politics will hit home for many silenced communities in Venezuela.
“As well as this little village, a country can lose its integrity and existence if one doesn’t look after democratic values,” Ríos said.
“Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” is important for Venezuela, but equally integral for the whole world. Ríos considers Venezuela’s situation a genocide. Maduro’s policies have left a hyperinflated economy and the country is suffering from widespread hunger, a lack of medical supplies and unaffordable healthcare. This documentary is a poignant introduction to Venezuela’s problems on a small scale.
“Congo has problems, but we still exist,” said Tamara, representing Congo Mirador in a national conference. The government official she was addressing didn’t hear her — he’d stopped to take a phone call. This micro-interaction ironically speaks to the whole country: What can Venezuelans do if their own government won’t listen?