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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene, professor at Hunter University, accredited member of the Foreign Press Center,  U.S. Department of State NY.


Once Upon a Time in Venezuela, Anabel Rodriguez Rios, Venezuela, 2019

Submitted as the Venezuela official feature entry for the next Oscar, this outstanding documentary filmed over  seven years portrays the slow death of a small village of Congo Mirado situated in the Maracaibo lake, next to the largest oil producing region of Venezuela.  Anabel Rios’ production focuses on the destruction of an impoverished island community by forces beyond its control. Such a presentation could be filmed about the fate of poor communities in many other  countries  independent of their political orientation. Her story of the environmental impact of industrial  pollution of the village’s lake, terminating fishing, declining water levels, and forcing  residents to relocate  is a superb example of investigative journalism. Though political strains can be detected, the film maker stays clear of taking a position about who is responsible  for the  growing disaster. Congo Mirado once had about 300 families living there; now reduced to about 30. They all live in in shack like homes floating on stilts.  But any viewer expecting praise for Maduro’s socialist government or for the groups opposing him, including its leader Juan Guaido who has been recognized  by some countries as the legitimate president of Venezuela, will be disappointed. Rios’ subdued documentation centers on how the villagers cope with their apparently certain unfortunate fate and she incorporates the fissures in the community which do reflect Venezuela’s split between Chavezistas and the opposition. They are openly expressed in Congo Mirado during an election campaign by factions of Chavez-Madura followers and the new democratic opposition.

Despite the uncertain future and pervasive poverty, the villagers and their many children do not appear unhappy. They continue their rituals and celebrations, like junior beauty pageants, and the film provides an extraordinary cinematic reportage of the everyday life of the villagers, the work carried out, including  children removing the slick, and records of political disputations. Most villagers want to stay in Congo Mirado and preserve its soul, yet governmental agencies have not provided the requested industrial dredging of the rising slick under Congo Mirado. Promises by Chavez followers and functionaries  to help the village now and by the opposition to do so in the future once the system changes remain empty words. After the opposition prevailed in the elections it was removed from power by a constitutional assembly set up by Nicolas Maduro. In meetings, villagers are told that “you must solve problems, the state cannot”. Personal perspectives are mirrored by Tamara, an ardent follower of Chavez who competes with the village mayor representing the opposition. Both openly try to buy votes through cash and promised gifts. Tamara is a successful owner of real estate and animal husbandry. Her lifestyle is far superior to what villagers have and she maintains that her life will be fine no matter what happens. But when she sees the regional  governor, he remains deaf to her pleading that the village is disappearing. Her counterpart Natalie is the local schoolteacher who articulates her opposition to the government and knowledge of the pervasive corruption disregarded by Tamara. Her employment is threatened by supervisors from the Chavez party, but she resigns instead.

Whereas in the beginning of the film there seem to be some remnants of hope by old villagers for a return to Congo Mirado as it once existed, very few of them are left at the end. The Chavezistas lost the election and the steady flight from the village continues. Even Tamara leaves her home, slaughtering her pigs. The schoolhouse is abandoned and towed away, as are other empty shacks. There are no people or children in sight. An old man returns to lead the viewer to the rusting hulk of the steamboat “Venezuela” near the river and points out that the government abandoned it decades ago but never returned to claim it. He will not leave Congo Mirado.

Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is a testament to the resilience of people living in a perishing community. They have no instrumental access to power and the film documents their impotence as well as the arrogance of policymakers shaping their lives. This Anabel  Rodriguez  production is one of the best documentaries I have screened in the last year.

 Claus Mueller      New York



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