Monday 18 March 2019

An Introduction to Venezuelan Cinema

In attempting to write an article about the recent history of Venezuelan Cinema one thing that becomes apparent very early on is just how difficult it is to find Venezuelan films translated for the English-speaking market. 
Location is one reason. Like film-makers from other parts of the Global South, Latin American film-makers often struggle to reach western, and especially English-speaking, audiences. 
Politics may be another. The last few years has seen Venezuela subject to quite severe economic sanctions imposed by its rich neighbour to the north, so this would undoubtedly affect the countries' film distribution.
By way of an introduction, I will try to provide here a very brief overview of what I see as some of the highlights of Venezuelan cinema over the last three or four decades. I hope that this gives film buffs in the west a better understanding of Venezuelan film-making not just before the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, but before the uprisings of the early 1990s, right up until the present day Maduro years of collapsing oil prices, economic sanctions and allegations of internal mismanagement.

El cine soy yo (The Moving Picture Man) (dir. Luis Armando Roche; 1977)

This drama starring Juliet Berto was Venezuela's entry into the 10th Moscow International Film Festival. It tells the story of a moving man who becomes a film projectionist, and who shares his movies from a van disguised as a red whale!

Bolivar, a Tropical Symphony (dir. Diego Risquez; 1981)

This art house film from painter and film-maker Risquez became the first Super 8 film to be selected for the Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. It could be loosely described as a biographical drama. It forms part of the directors' ambitious 'American Trilogy' which took as its subject the history and mythology of Latin America.
You can view a clip here:

Orinoko, New World (dir. Diego Risquez; 1984)

Part of the same trilogy, this anthropological drama uses simple sounds, devoid of any dialogue, to recreate what the Americas would have been like before Spanish colonialism. We see indigenous people engaged in activities such as art and fishing, celebrating rituals, dances and local indigenous beliefs. 
You can watch a short clip here:

Amerika, Terra Incognita (dir. Diego Risquez; 1988)

This is the final part of the directors' art house trilogy, although I can find almost nothing about it online.

La Casa de Agua (The House of Water) (dir. Jacobo Penzo; 1983)

This was the Venezuelan entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, although like Terra Incognita I have been unable to find detailed information about it.

Oriana (dir. Fina Torres; 1985)

Set in a hacienda or ranch, this drama tells the story of a lady named Maria, who returns to the house where she spent time as a child in order to uncover the secrets of her aunt, the Oriana of the title, who has left the property to her in her will. 
This film won the Camera d'Or Prize at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, and if you are lucky enough to own an American region DVD player you should be able to buy a copy online.

Jericho (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 1991)

This historical drama is set during the early 16th century. It concerns a priest named Santiago who joins a Spanish expedition in order to bring Christianity to the natives. Once there the expedition discover there is fierce resistance from the native peoples, and the entire expedition is murdered, with the priest being the only person spared. Santiago initially attempts to continue his mission of religious conversion before he decides to join the natives in their own way of life...until another expedition of Spaniards arrive.

Amanecio de Golpe (The Coup Awakened) (dir. Carlos Azpurua; 1998)
Historical drama about the 1992 attempted coup (the last one conducted by leftist elements in Venezuela, subsequent attempts having come from the right-wing opposition). The film was produced with international support from film companies in Canada, Cuba and Spain, which appears to be a not uncommon feature of Latin American film finance, and perhaps one reason why, after Chavez finally won power democratically in 1998 he set about creating the Ville del Cine film studios and Amazonia Films distribution company, launched in 2006 as a means of promoting local film-makers.
You can watch the trailer (again, in Spanish) here:

Punto y Raya (A Dot and A Line) (dir. Elia Schneider; 2004)
Taking its name from the anti-war song by Soledad Bravo, this action drama starring Edgar Ramirez is about Cheito, a street-wise Venezuelan conscript, who is thrown together with Pedro, a straight-arrow volunteer in the Colombian army, when the latter deserts his company and the other survives an ambush. They survive guerrillas, drug producers, corrupt narcotics officers, not to mention each other, as they make their way through the jungle. From being enemies they become allies, and finally friends, although their loyalties are tested along the way by women and politics. 
This film was a joint production with production companies in Chile, Spain and Uruguay, and won four international awards including the Special Jury Prize at Havana. It is also available on European region DVD!

Secuestro Express (Express Kidnapping) (dir. Jonathan Jakubowicz; 2005)

This crime drama is one of the few Venezuelan films to be picked up for distribution in the Anglophone world. It was made by a Venezuelan expat who lives in Los Angeles.

El Caracazo (dir. Roman Chalbaud; 2005)

This historical drama, which recounts the uprisings of 1989 and their violent suppression, walked away with awards at film festivals in Havana and Trieste.

Mi Vida por Sharon, o que te pasa a ti? (dir. Carlos Azpurua; 2006)

In a departure from earlier films like Amanecio de Golpe, this comedy concerns the attempts of Carlitos Lopez to recover a stolen car named Sharon, even if it risks his relationships with his ex-wife, girlfriend and family. 
Here is a clip:

Postales de Leningrado (dir. Mariana Rondon; 2007)
This is an award-winning coming of age drama about kids growing up in the left-wing insurgency of 1960s Venezuela. The director loosely based it on her own experiences as the daughter of FALN guerrillas. You can also find it on DVD. Yayyy!

La Clase (dir. Jose Antonio Varela; 2007)
This romantic drama from Ville de Cine is based on the novel by Farruco Sesto, which contrasts the different ways of life of different social classes in Venezuela. The film walked away with awards from the Merida and Malaga film festivals. You can view the trailer here:

El Enemigo (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 2008)
Drama, in which two people from very different worlds are brought together in the corridors of a Caracas hospital. Here's the trailer:

Macuro (dir. Hernan Jabes; 2008)
Drama. Sadly this is another film I can find almost no information about online in English. Anyone who has seen it is welcome to leave a brief review in the comments section of this article.

Zamora: Tierra y hombres libres (dir. Roman Chalbaud; 2009)
Historical drama about Ezequiel Zamora, who led a struggle in Venezuela during the late nineteenth century for land rights, a key factor in the entrenched inequalities of the nation at that time.
Here's the trailer:

Libertador Morales (dir. Efterpi Charalambidis; 2009)
Comedy-drama about a motorcycle taxi driver who assumes the alter ego El Justiciero in order to fight the criminal gangs in Caracas.
Here's the trailer:

Taita Boves (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 2010)
Historical drama. From the directors' summary on IMDB: “TAITA BOVES chronicles a thirst for revenge that devastated a country. It tells the true story of Jose Tomás Boves, a cruel man who became a legend during the Venezuelan War of Independence, the most violent in the Americas. He went from seafarer to pirate, horse smuggler to prosperous merchant, prisoner to military chief. Spanish by birth, he spearheaded a grass roots troop of slaves, mulattoes, Indians and mestizos that crushed Simón Bolívar and his patriot army. Respectfully referred to as "Taita" by them, he fought for the underprivileged and the poorest of the poor, and curtailed three centuries of order in this colonial region. This film is about his passions and power, his loves and misadventures, and a bloody saga that rocked Venezuela.”
Here's the trailer (in Spanish):

Habana Eva (dir. Fina Torres; 2010)
This romantic comedy from the director of Oriana was filmed in Havana, and walked away with an award at the New York International Latino Film Festival.

Dias de poder (Days of Power) (dir. Roman Chalbaud; 2011)
Drama concerning Caracas society during the 1960s, times of struggle and change. After the fall of the Perezjimenist dictatorship, Fernando Quintero, a revolutionary leader, ascends to power in the new administration, thus betraying his ideals to become an accomplice to the repression that he had previously fought. His son Efraín, holding to his old convictions, generates contradictions that make him an active adversary of the government and of his own father, leading to a tormented and instructive end.

Azul y no tan rosa (Blue and Not So Pink, released in the US as: My Straight Son) (dir. Miguel Ferrari; 2012)
A joint-production with Spain, this became the first Venezuelan film to win the Goya Award for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film.

Tiempos de Dictadura Tiempos de Marcos Perez Jimenez (dir. Carlos Oteyza; 2012)
Documentary about both the human rights abuses and infrastructure development of the twentieth century Venezuelan dictator.

Piedra, Papelo, Tijera (Rock, Paper, Scissors) (dir. Hernan Jabes; 2012)
Drama, in which a mistaken kidnapping sets in motion a delicate chain of tragic events.

Azu: Alma de princesa (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 2013)
Adventure drama, set in 1780. A group of slaves flee from a sugarcane plantation, looking for a cumbe. They are pursued by Don Manuel Aguirre, an obsessed landowner who has fixed his eyes on Azú, the beautiful slave who has an ancestral destiny. This story combines action, mysticism and the struggle for freedom and dignity in an environment filled with magic and the richness of the jungle.
Here's the trailer (in Spanish):

Bolivar, Man of Difficulties (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 2013)
Biographical drama starring Roque Valero, focusing on the period in Simon Bolivar's life (from May 1815 until 1816) when he was exiled in Jamaica. The film, produced in collaboration with other international film companies including Cuba's ICAIC studio, explores the experience of the human being behind the heroic myth of the Latin American independence hero.

Desde Alla (From Afar) (dir. Lorenzo Vigas; 2015)
Armando, a wealthy middle-aged man, becomes involved with Elder, a young man from a street gang.

El Amparo (dir. Rober Calzadilla; 2016)
Historical drama, made as a Venezuelan-Colombian joint production, which won awards in Sydney and Sao Paulo. At the end of the 80's, by the creeks of the Arauca river, near the Colombian-Venezuelan border, two men survived the brutality of a shooting in which 14 of their mates were killed. They claimed to be mere fishermen, but the Venezuelan army accused them to be guerrilla fighters, intimidating them in every possible way and even attempting to remove them from the cell where they were guarded by a policeman. Their neighbours prevented their transfer, but the pressure they faced to give in and submit the official version was overwhelming.
Here's the trailer (with English subtitles):

La Planta Insolente (dir. Roman Chalbaud; 2017)
Historical drama. The film rescues, in an hour and forty minutes, the historic moment when Cipriano Castro, then president of Venezuela, proclaimed: "The insolent plant of the foreigner has profaned the sacred soil of the country!", at a time when the coasts of the country were invaded by imperial forces in 1902.

La Familia (dir. Gustavo Rondon Cordova; 2017)

Social realist drama, produced with Chilean and Norwegian assistance, set in the barrios of Caracas about a father and his son.

This article aims to give a brief overview of some of the highlights of Venezuelan cinema from the 1970s up until the present day. It is by no means exhaustive, and I hope to be able to write more extensively about this subject as I learn more. 

It often seems that when Venezuelan popular culture like film is discussed at all in English language media it is often seen through the somewhat distorted lens of western mainstream media, which of course all too frequently reflect the unquestioned political biases of the dominant culture. 
Anyone reading this who wants to see more articles in English about Venezuelan films from a more independent perspective, and thinks there are any important films I have missed out from this list is welcome to leave a comment below.