Propaganda tool or keen new studios?

Chavez gov't may be making most use of Villa del Cine

The Venezuelan government believes it has found an answer to what President Hugo Chavez calls the "dictatorship of Hollywood."

Although U.S. movies continue to dominate the market, state-run film studio Cinema City is ramping up production in a bid to offer an alternative to U.S. fare. Known in Spanish as La Villa del Cine, Cinema City produced feature-length films at a frenzied pace last year and is showing no signs of slowing down as it develops this year's slate of productions.

The upstart studio complex, launched in 2006, produced and financed 14 full-length pictures last year, as well as two miniseries set to air on public broadcaster TVes. Cinema City's first picture to hit Venezuelan theaters was the biopic "Miranda Returns."

"Miranda," about the life of Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda, has pulled in more than 150,000 admissions, a strong outing for a film that bowed in October with only 40 prints.

As evident in "Miranda" and other Cinema City productions due out soon, the films revolve around historical, political and social themes close to the ideological heart of the Chavez administration.

Hardly surprising, then, that Chavez opponents and some industry figures have criticized the state-sponsored studio, claiming the government is using it as a tool to spread propaganda at the people's expense. Chavez supporters, however, insist that Cinema City is nurturing a new wave of Venezuelan filmmakers.

"Those who suggest that Cinema City is doing (propagandistic) films are expressing political opinions that do not permit them to see that these films are allowing us to develop a (local) industry," Cinema City director Lorena Almarza says.

Venezuelan filmmaker Eduardo Arias-Nath, whose feature-film debut "Ellipsis" was distributed in Latin America by 20th Century Fox, sees things differently.

"I wouldn't say there is censorship, but unfortunately Cinema City is making handpicked films," he says. "They are making films in line with the government's principles."

Almarza estimates that foreign fare captures 98% of Venezuela's market share. With 10 Cinema City productions slated for release this year, Venezuelan cinema may gain some ground at the boxoffice, yet industry insiders point out that quantity doesn't guarantee quality.

For distributor-exhibitor Cinematografica Blancica, it's a win-win situation. Blancica handles Sony and Warner Bros. titles and also released Cinema City's first two productions, "Miranda" and the drama "La Clase." Thanks to Venezuela's generous screen quotas, domestic product enjoys built-in advantages for theatrical release.

"The current federal film law consists of benefits that sometimes make it better to release a national film than a foreign film," Blancica programming director Jose Galarraga says.

In its efforts to level the playing field against the Hollywood movie machine, the government also has launched state-run distribution arm Amazonia Films and has built an independent theater circuit.

Venezuela's most ambitious film projects are yet to come, among those a biopic by actor-turned-director Danny Glover. Glover, a long-time Chavez supporter, received $18 million in financing from the government to film "Toussaint," which centers on the leader of an 18th century slave revolt in Haiti.

The financing drew the ire of a local screenwriters guild and producers association, as they considered the grant an excessive amount for one production when so many independent filmmakers are struggling to get their projects off the ground.

In a letter addressed to Glover urging him to decline the funding, the groups said the money could be better used to "finance 36 Venezuelan films."

"We can't help feeling that you should bring U.S. dollars to Venezuela, not the other way around, considering how much you esteem our country and its revolutionary process," the letter says.

For the time being, it appears that Glover is moving forward with the project.

In the meantime, Cinema City is working with Amazonia Films as they prepare to release a slew of features, including "Bambi C4," a political thriller about an anti-Castro militant, and "Libertador Morales," the story of a Simon Bolivar-quoting motorcycle taxi driver seeking social justice on the streets of Caracas.

Arias-Nath acknowledges that Venezuela sorely needed a production facility, yet like many up-and-coming indie directors and screenwriters, he doesn't share the studio's ideals.

"I don't believe in the filmmakers at Cinema City," he says. "I believe in Venezuela's new breed of filmmakers, but they are not the ones who are making films at the studio."