A sleeper hit at Sundance, the sublimely disturbing Once Upon a Time in Venezuela has been taken under wing by the Topic streaming service and forwarded as the troubled nation’s Oscar submission for Best International Feature. Although it speaks very directly to the moment, Anabel Rodriguez Rios’ documentary simultaneously gives off unmistakable airs of the eternal in the way it pointedly yet serenely presents the slow-motion crisis of a poor, aquatic-based community on the brink of extinction. The things of life — family, nature, the environment, education, politics — all figure prominently in the mix to create an indelible picture of a literal backwater facing devastation. It’s both a striking and deeply sorrowful work.
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There is no question that what we see happening to the fishing village of Congo Mirador on Lake Maracaibo in northern Venezuela represents a humanitarian and ecological tragedy. Most documentarians would treat it exclusively as such, goosing up the politics and milking it for maximum emotion.
But director Rios, a Venezuelan based in Vienna and trained at the London Film School, takes a more bifurcated view, one that is immersed in the human realities of a small and isolated community while also taking stock of the larger political, economic and ecological disasters emanating from the fumbling regime of the socialist dictator Nicolas Maduro.
The environment in which the residents live is at once paradisiacal and perilous. Homes are makeshift wooden structures supported by stilts rising out of the water. Transportation is by boat, protection from the elements is minimal and, as the documentary begins, in 2015, sedimentation, diseased rats and oil-covered turtles suggest that the area’s ecological equilibrium has been broken.
The political situation is equally fraught. Hugo Chavez, the leftist revolutionary strongman beloved by many Venezuelans, died in 2013, but his successor Maduro proves a far more bumbling and divisive figure, creating tension among the diminishing number of residents. Girls as young as 13 get married out of economic necessity, cellphones are in short supply and citizens are seen being paid to vote for the socialist ticket.
But even supporters of the status quo can hardly be happy with the steady deterioration of the waterlogged community; residents prepare to move to Colombia, the school is reduced to one teacher, environmental decay is in evidence everywhere, mismanagement and simple neglect abound. In a very short time, corruption has infected every aspect of the delicate local society to the point that it will never return. At the end, with the area’s population having decreased from several hundred to about 30, Congo Mirador is all but officially dead.
Once Upon A Time is striking in the way it judiciously balances the urgent with the timeless; while there is considerable political debate and disagreement about what to do in the moment, laid over that is a sense of the eternal, that this too will pass, even if the community is soon swallowed up once again by the jungle. It’s a dichotomy not often felt in issue-oriented documentaries, which are always so anxious to impress with their timeliness and political relevance.
International Critics Line
February 26, 2021
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