Victoria Film Fest Review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Venezuela’ is a heartbreaking look at a country in crisis

Imagine living in a place that is literally rotting away beneath you. No matter what you do, what help you ask for from local and national governments, your home slowly but surely disappears. This is the story of Congo Mirador, a tiny village of fewer than 1000 people situated on Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela. It’s also the story of the whole country, and it’s heartbreaking.

Filmed over the course of seven years Once Upon A Time in Venezuela follows Congo Mirador’s people. They are divided economically from the rest of the country, living in what amounts to little more than shacks suspended on pilings above Lake Maracaibo’s waters, fewer than 150 kilometres from the city of Maracaibo. They are also divided politically from one another. Some supporting the Maduro regime, led by Ms Tamara, a local landowner and party representative. The rest supporting the opposition, loosely led by Natalie, the local schoolteacher whom Ms Tamara is trying to force from her job.

One of the through lines of the story is this political battle, leading through the 2015 Venezuelan elections. One segment of the film follows Ms Tamara as she attempts to bribe the population into voting with cash, phones, and food. Despite this, when the opposition wins, very little changes in the town.

Once Upon A Time in Venezuela is a portrait of the people at the bottom. People who are being exploited for what resources they have, and ignored when they need assistance. Even after the elections, the children are still rowing themselves to school in dinghies, swimming, playing, and bathing in water visibly polluted with oil and who knows what else, and sedimentation –the lake washing mud into the middle of their community of stilt-houses– literally erasing their place in the world.

While Ms Tamara and Natalie are battling the politics of the land, the children are watching the town –and their childhoods– disappear from beneath them. The town is dying a slow death, with dilapidated shacks being moved away on boats throughout the film as people are forced to leave as the town becomes more and more unliveable. It’s haunting to watch it happen so gradually, and it’s heartbreaking when the town’s pleas for help fall on deaf ears.

Once Upon A Time in Venezuela is a powerful documentary (and has already been selected as Venezuela’s entry for the Best International Feature at the upcoming 93rd Academy Awards), and a chance to see what the people at the bottom of the ladder deal with. The town of Congo Mirador is a microcosm of Venezuelan politics, and one can only hope that in holding up a mirror to that nation things might change, even if that is a fools hope.

Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is streaming as part of the Victoria Film Festival for residents of British Columbia through February 14th


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