Documentary Review: A waterfront village pays the price of corruption, pollution and incompetence — “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela”

You need to understand a lot of context to fully grasp what filmmaker Anabel Rodriguez Rios is trying to get across in her documentary, “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela.”

She tells the story of the country’s troubles through a waterfront microcosm, the stilt-village of Congo Miramar on the salt water estuary of Lake Maracaibo, downstream from the heart of Venezuela’s oil industry.

The lake is “a permanent black tide” of polluted water and toxic sediment, its shores creeping inward in a morass of weeds and fewer and fewer fish, and almost nothing edible. Rios shows us this rather than “tells” us most of the lake’s maladies. We see a child with an oil-covered turtle talking about “good eating” and not quite understanding how the oil changed that.

And locals, especially partisan political hacks, will only speak of the long-promised “dredging” which nothing, not even an impending election, will speed up and somehow solve their dying village’s problems.

The film shows us a war of wills between single-mom Natalya, a teacher struggling to make do with almost nothing, and political boss/fixer Tamara, who worships at the shrine of the late Cesar Chavez and holds her nose to keep the “Chavistas” in line, ready to vote the way she demands for one of the flurry of power-grabs Chavez heir Nicolas Maduro staged on his way to a dictatorship.

Rios shows us old school “retail” politics, as Tamara calls in local officials to harass the underpaid, under-supplied teacher because either she doesn’t like her politics, she’s not a relative or she isn’t doing enough to raise the next generation of Chavistas. Her excuse (in Spanish with English subtitles) “such a cold person can never be a teacher.” A hectoring bureaucrat lectures Natalya, whom the kids love (where or not they’re learning) on pens not distributed (they don’t work) and government brochures not handed out (the damp rots everything paper).

Tamara, a wheeler-dealer with a smug smirk and persistent manner, declares “I’m fine, as long as I have The Revolution.” She arm-twists voters (“I’m not voting.” “Oh yes you are!”), calls for updates on the dredging that never comes, and as a local mayor hands out cash for votes, she finds out what her voters”really” want — free cell phones.

In a dying town, where stilt houses are moved to deeper water, or abandoned as the inhabitants move on, party boss Tamara seems doomed to reign over a watery ghost town.

Rios captures this watery world of small children who grew up handling skiffs and working the waters, many of them kids being raised by their grandparents. This is like an inner city housing project — mostly the very old and the very young.

She’s found her perfect analogy for Venezuela — a country that mortgaged its soul to the oil that’s killed the lake, an underclass that maintains cult-like devotion to scam artist leaders who promised much, but only concerned themselves with lining their pockets and consolidating power, taking away voting rights and never truly bettering anyone’s life.

But the film cagily circles that message in tentative, scenic storytelling that hammers home the vote-acquiring part of the corruption, but barely touches on the dismissive officialdom whose kleptocracy keeps anything from getting done. Rios is too subtle, and at times, too easily distracted by “local color.”

North Americans can take that kleptocracy analogy to heart, even if — like Maduro — the cultists, voting against their self-interests, their children’s future and their own health, can’t be truly defeated with just one free and fair election.

MPA Rating: Unrated

Cast: Tamara, Natalya

Credits: Directed by Anabel Rodriguez Rios, written and Anabel Rodriguez Rios and Marianela Maldonado. A Topic release.

Running time: 1:39

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