Oil spills everywhere: how is cinema in Venezuela recovering from the crisis?

In most of the countries we’ve talked about in this cycle, the film industry originally existed only in the “show” format – that is, it was limited to the showing of imported “moving pictures”. With Venezuela, everything was different: here his own film production began almost immediately. Cinema reached Venezuela in the last decade of the 19th century, when the country briefly emerged from a state of turbulence with frequent regime changes, uprisings and uprisings (before falling into two successive dictatorships). And already at the beginning of 1897, residents of Maracaibo, for example, participated in the screenings of the first Venezuelan film “A famous specialist is pulling his teeth at the Grand Hotel Europe” (some researchers call this documentary proto-horror). Now in January, on the anniversary of these screenings, Venezuela celebrates Cinema Day.

In total, at least eight films were shot during the first “film ten years” in the country, and three film crews appeared. However, as Andrés Bello Arturo Serrano, a teacher at the Catholic University, wrote, Venezuelans treated domestically produced tapes with cold indifference. There were no sold-out movie screenings. However, that didn’t stop the enthusiasts. In the 1910s, Venezuelan filmmakers began making not only non-plot documentary films, but also artistic narrative films. One of the first was Lady of the Camellia, which parodied the novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas (her son) about a prostitute and a young romantic love. At the same time, Venezuela found its gold mine: oil was discovered in Lake Maracaibo and began its industrial production, which triggered decades of rapid economic growth.

Soon, full-fledged production companies and a film school appeared in Venezuela. Despite this, Serrano believes the country lags noticeably behind the USA and the USSR: “While David Wark was shooting Griffith’s movie Intolerance or Sergei Eisenstein was shooting Battleship Potemkin, Venezuela still didn’t have a single professional filmmaker.” The researcher claims that all the figures of that time were swept away by their foreign counterparts in terms of the quality and use of film language. This was partly due to the fact that the film industry had been “nationalised” over the course of a decade: attempts at artistic writing led to propaganda fake documentaries praising the dictator Juan Gomez. However, immediately after his death in 1935, extensive state intervention came to naught.

At the same time, a full-fledged sound film appeared in Venezuela. According to researchers, in the 1938 film “Taboga/Hacia el calvario”, director Rafael Riviero was the first Venezuelan to demonstrate a real understanding of “the possibilities of cinema as a means of visual expression.” The picture was divided into three parts: a prologue and two musical numbers. The most impressive was “Taboga” – shots with musicians there, interspersed with landscapes of Panama Island, sung in the composition.

In the 1940s, Venezuelan cinema began to take the form of an industry with a commercial component. Local producers undertook to copy successful Mexican-made tapes (they were even ahead of Hollywood in Venezuela at the time) to at least secure some sort of audience. However, not thoughtlessly, but by attempts to adapt to “local peculiarities” (mainly this was expressed in numerous panoramic shots with local open spaces and scenes from national folklore). Also, the co-production process began to evolve: Venezuelan producers paired their artists with Mexican films to increase their recognition and sought to attract foreigners to the audience.

In 1950, Isabelle’s Yacht Arrives This Afternoon, a passionate drama about a sailor who cheats on his wife with a cabaret dancer, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Best Cinematography Award. It was an attempt by producer Luis Guillermo Villegas Blanco, founder of Bolívar Films, to launch a massive national film industry. The subject was approached extremely seriously: the actor Arturo de Cordova lived for several months on the island of Margarita, surrounded by sailors, to get used to the role. The attempt failed: From 1949 to 1953, Bolivar Films managed to make eight feature films, all of which failed miserably at the box office, and the company returned to documentaries, commercials, and news feeds. However, the “real birth of Venezuelan cinema” has taken place, at least in the artistic sense.

The next Venezuelan film was at Cannes in 1959. A “poetic cinematic masterpiece” about the workers of the salt mines was the documentary “Araya”. According to some estimates, it was this picture that became the founder of the socio-critical direction in Venezuelan cinema, although it was released in the homeland only in 1977. At the Cannes show, Araya shared the Critics’ Award for Alain Resnais’ melodrama Hiroshima, my love.

Arai’s director, documentary producer Margot Benacerraf, it must be said, was far from being the only woman in her profession: in the early 90s, the history of modern Venezuelan cinema already included 45 directors who made 75 films. total movies. Only Argentina and Brazil can boast of a larger percentage of women who actively participate in and significantly influence cinema. Films made by women regularly tackle social issues (from abortion to the environment) and are often hugely successful (and were also frequently nominated for an Oscar by the country). Thus, in 1987, Swedish-Venezuelan director Solveig Hogestein’s drama “Police’s Wife Maku” – about a woman who testifies against her suspected husband of murdering her lover – outperformed even Steven Spielberg’s “Superman” and “Alien.”

Wide participation of women in film production began in the 70s, when cinema in Venezuela became a “national-cultural movement” supported by a wealthy state (oil prices on the world market at that time rose 400%). This decade is considered the “golden age” of Venezuelan cinema. Then several foreign directors moved to the country at once – such as Mexican Mauricio Wallerstein, Italian Franco Rubartelli and Bolivian Jorge Sanginez.

Wallerstein’s 1973 film, When I Want to Cry, I Don’t Cry, with three namesakes of the same age and from different social backgrounds, was a box office hit and sparked an explosion in the so-called “new Venezuelan cinema.” He turned to Italian neorealism and focused on public issues. Another important hero of this direction was Clemente de la Cerda. I Am a Criminal, a 1976 film dedicated to the plight of a boy from the slums of Caracas, has long held the title of the most popular Venezuelan film in history. At the box office it even surpassed Jaws – the tape that gave rise to the “summer blockbuster” phenomenon. Another popular painting of the “golden age” was “Smoking Fish” by Roman Chalbaud, a melodrama about an enterprising brothel owner.

Film production peaked in the mid-80s, then began to decline along with the rest of the economy. The nationalization of the oil industry and inefficient management led to recession and a decline in GDP. The year 1986 was the most commercially successful: later locally produced films were watched by more than 4 million people.

Then, the industry collapsed, triggered by the economic crisis (oil prices collapsed), state shock therapy, and the ensuing political chaos (violently suppressed protests, two coup attempts, the impeachment of the president). According to the Venezuelanalysis website, 4 million viewers in 1994 had no dream – less than 80,000 tickets were purchased for Venezuelan movies. The government didn’t really care about the filmmakers, so the industry began to fade: although a formal national law was passed in 1993 to protect and support the film industry, it actually didn’t help at all – until it was revised 12 years later.

In the 2000s, after the autocrat Hugo Chávez came to power, the situation began to improve a little on the one hand and worsened on the other. In 2005, Honatan Yakubovich’s crime thriller Express Kidnapping was a huge hit in its homeland and was also the first Venezuelan movie to be acquired by a major Hollywood company: Miramax, which took over for distribution in the United States. In the same year, America began to impose sanctions on Venezuela, especially for its inadequate fight against drug trafficking and terrorism. But how chaotic and criminogenic Yakubovich portrayed modern Caracas angered Chávez. He stated that the director was involved in a “Jewish conspiracy” aimed at opposing the Bolivarian revolution, and then began to publicly threaten him with imprisonment. Yakubovich left the country.

In 2006, on Chavez’s behest, the Fundación Villa del Cine – “Cinemaville” was founded, a major production center designed to overcome the “Hollywood dictatorship” that occupied more than 80% of the film market at the time. On the one hand, many Venezuelans have the opportunity to go to the movies. Cinemaville, on the other hand, wasn’t called the “propaganda factory” for no reason.

With the arrival of Chávez’s heir, Nicolás Maduro, the country’s economy eventually collapsed, and corruption, political repression and foreign sanctions have repeatedly increased. Within this framework, Venezuelan cinema entered a stage of renaissance in the 2010s. As with society as a whole, it has become much more poignant and political: films such as Jorge Tilen Armand’s Loneliness and Gustavo Rondon Córdoba’s The Family are about surviving the worst crisis. The title of the documentary “Chavismo: The Plague of the 21st Century” speaks for itself.

In addition, one of the main themes of the movies of the 2010s is the life of queer people. Ironically, in a country where the rights of LGBTQ people are so bad, some LGBTQ movies have received government funding – precisely because of the law that was revised under Chavez. Among the most famous paintings of this period are Mariana Rondon’s “Naughty Hair”, Miguel Ferrari’s “Blue, Pink and Not So Pink”, Lorenzo Vigas’s “From a Distance”.

Under the conditions of crisis that has been going on for many years, the national film industry, which could not completely overcome the prejudices of its citizens, began to stand by its word of honor. But Venezuelan cinema seems to refuse to accept its fate and die.


Ancient texts of the cycle – about Iranian, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Afghanistan.

“socialbites.ca” continues to study the cinemas of countries that have been closed from part of the world for various reasons. The fifth material of the cycle is dedicated to Venezuela, which is stuck with the oil needle, but instead of getting rich, it is going through a severe economic and political crisis and facing sanctions.

Source: Gazeta


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