Once Upon a Time in Venezuela- At the Sundance Film Festival

Review by Jason Godbey, Creative Director, Behind the Rabbit Productions

Recently screened at the Sundance FIlm Festival this week is a new documentary from director Anabel Rodriguez Rios. Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is an intimate portrait of  the people of the small village of Congo Mirador on Lake Maracaibo where villagers have made their homes on stilts sitting just above the water. The village is in crisis as the water level is falling and sedimentation is taking over rapidly. Villagers are forced to leave the lake to survive. Battling for the soul of the village are two women, the Chavist, business woman Tamara and the teacher of the one room schoolhouse on the lake, Natalie. 

The film begins as the village awakes. As we float along the lake, there’s a feeling of being transported to another world where everything is done on the water. The people of the village all bathe, wash their clothes in the lake, and everyone travels by boat. We see villagers just going by their day seemingly unaffected by the presence of a camera, but as the months go by we see them in crisis as the water level falls, and their way of life is threatened.   

Tamara is a business woman with a farm, and she’s the political representative for the village. Faced with an impossible problem, Tamara reaches out to the city’s representatives for help but receives no real answers. During the primary election, she travels to potential voters’ homes, and even resorts to bribery, giving them food, money, and other useful necessities in exchange for their vote. 

On the other side of the lake is Natalie, the village teacher who is forced to work in a crumbling school house without the proper supplies. She’s threatened by government oversight and the slow realization that her village will die without help from the outside. 

Each of these women sees the struggle of the village in her own way and is forced to compromise. There are no easy solutions, and Venezuela’s bureaucracy can only provide short term solutions that have no lasting effect. As the days and months go by, we see the village dwindle. Villagers put their small dwellings on boats and tow them away hoping to find a better life in the nearby city or in Columbia. The writing is on the wall. The lake can no longer meet its inhabitants’ needs. In one seen it’s revealed that even a child can see the life on the lake is doomed. 

Everything about Once Upon a Time in Venezuela feels like it’s made by an insider. The soundtrack is mostly comprised of the songs of a local artist playing his guitar and singing which adds to the immersive experience. The  use of natural light and the choice to film people in their homes gives it a lived-in feel. In the interviews the subjects seem totally relaxed as if they’re just having a conversation with the filmmaker. Their conversations are captured as if the camera were invisible.  

From the opening image to the last, we are immersed in the world of Congo Mirador. We see the people as they are. Rios uses her camera as an unbiased observer never judging the villagers, never taking sides. The film never stops to explain the situation to us. We are left to draw our own conclusions and make our own judgements. 

Once Upon a Time in Venezuela shows us a culture as it is, which is incredibly rare in modern documentary filmmaking. It’s captivating and moving with the real drama of the life and death of a village hidden from the rest of the world. If you seek to broaden your horizons and are interested in exploring other societies beyond your own, I highly recommend this film. 

Photo credit: A still from Once Upon a Time in Venezuela> by Anabel Rodríguez Ríos, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by John Marquez.

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