'Once Upon a Time in Venezuela': Film Review

Courtesy of Sundance
A powerful true tale of corrosive pollution and corrupt politics.

Director Anabel Rodríguez Ríos’ first feature-length documentary, about the decline of a Venezuelan fishing village, premiered in January at Sundance.

In Anabel Rodríguez Ríos immersive fly-on-the-wall documentary Once Upon a Time in Venezuela, one lakeside town serves as the embodiment of an entire nation racked by corruption, pollution and rampant inflation as it slowly but surely drifts toward abandon.

Seven years in the making, the film is a testament to what happens when a chaotic and, many would say, illegitimate government wreaks havoc on its own populace, destroying lives and communities forged over several generations. Indeed, the sad takeaway from this deep dive into Venezuelan affairs is that whether you’re on the left, the right, a purebred Chavista or a diehard anti-socialist, you may find yourself powerless against the colluding forces of nature and man.

Prior to its world premiere in Sundance’s documentary competition, Ríos’ debut was picked up by Cargo Film & Releasing in the U.S. and has since been booked in a handful of festivals, including Cleveland, Miami and CPH:DOX in Denmark. Although the lack of explanatory titles and a few key facts may prove frustrating for viewers unfamiliar with the situation in Venezuela — a situation that seems to get worse by the month — the film provides an illuminating first-hand account of a country in despair.

Ríos and her crew spent years chronicling the misfortunes of Congo Mirador, a small village perched above the murky waters of Lake Maracaibo in northern Venezuela, bordering on the Caribbean Sea. Once home to a tight-knit group of fishermen and women, the village has seen its population gradually dwindle from roughly 700 to 30 families over the past decade, with unfettered pollution from oil drilling rendering the place nearly uninhabitable due to the level of sediment unleashed in the lake.

Once Upon a Time focuses on two remaining denizens of Congo Mirador who sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum. On one end there’s Mrs. Tamara, a defiantly pro-Chavez, and now pro-Maduro, representative who wheels and deals in votes, small favors and government-provided cellphones like some sort of lakeshore Boss Tweed. And on the other end there’s Natalie, a local schoolteacher and fervent critic of the current regime — whether it’s Mrs. Tamara’s bullish tactics or the powers-that-be in Caracas.

(Given how much the film’s conflicts are steeped in Venezuelan politics, a brief primer is necessary: Following the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013, the country has become increasingly divided and impoverished, with inflation rates reaching earth-shattering levels and millions of citizens fleeing abroad to Colombia and other countries. The current president, Nicolás Maduro, who was named Chávez’s successor in 2013, was re-elected in 2018 in a vote marred by massive corruption and whose results remain unrecognized by the majority of Western powers.)

Over the course of the movie, we see Natalie trying to somehow keep her one-room schoolhouse afloat — literally afloat, since, like the rest of Congo Mirador, the building rests on stilts above the rising waters of the lake — while staving off attacks from a Chavista education inspector who harasses her to no end. Meanwhile, Mrs. Tamara, who’s not only the most powerful person in the village but, as the owner of the area's biggest pig farm, also the richest, makes her best efforts to consolidate Maduro’s local base of supporters, while working the phones to beg the government to come in and deal with the ongoing environmental crisis.

In a sense, both women are fighting hard for the future of their village, albeit from opposing political perspectives. Both women are also shown to be completely subordinate to officials over in Caracas, whether it’s the intrusive and seemingly unhelpful education board or, in one sad and humiliating scene, a governor who invites Mrs. Tamara all the way to the capital for what’s meant to be a fruitful political discussion, only to ignore her throughout most of their power breakfast. In the end, neither woman manages to prevail, although the real loser is really Congo Mirador itself, which eventually turns into a ghost town.

As despondent as that sounds — and Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is far from uplifting, reflecting the state of the country as a whole — Ríos captures the village’s decline with a fair amount of affection and a keen eye for natural beauty. Working with cinematographer John Márquez, she shows families united together to save their homes from ruin, until they have no choice but to move out, with the move requiring them to tug their dwellings by boat across the lake. It’s a powerful image of forced exile, of people being eaten out of house and home by foul waters and phony officials. And it’s mirrored by an equally potent image of lightning mysteriously appearing in the sky on certain nights, like a storm just on the horizon that will one day wash it all away.

Production company: Spiraleye Productions Ltd.
Director: Anabel Rodríguez Ríos
Screenwriters: Anabel Rodríguez Ríos, Sepp R. Brudermann
Producer: Sepp R. Brudermann
Director of photography: John Márquez
Editor: Sepp R. Brudermann
Composer: Nascuy Linares
Sales: Cargo Film & Releasing (U.S.), Rise and Shine (International)

In Spanish
99 minutes