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DOC NYC Film Review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Venezuela’ Is a Humble Elegy to a Dying Village

In the public consciousness, the South American nation of Venezuela is often associated with oil, beauty queens and in more recent years, a dire combination of political and economic instability. It hardly comes as a surprise therefore, when these elements emerge in Once Upon a Time in Venezuela, the new documentary from director Anabel Rodríguez Ríos. By zooming in on how these various facets of Venezuelan society affect one particular community, however, Rios introduces us to a Venezuela you’ve likely never seen before.

Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is the story of a unique floating village straddling the Lake Maracaibo. Known as Congo Mirador, it is the site of a mysterious phenomenon, where nighttime lighting strikes without thunder. The more significant attraction lies under the water, however, as it is home to biggest oil deposit in the country. But despite the presence of this lucrative resource, the Congo is on the verge of collapse due to sedimentation, pollution and lack of government support. With parliamentary elections looming, the people are encouraged to vote. But all signs point to an uncertain future regardless of the outcome.

Creating an immersive sense of place, Rios gets up close to the community to observe their ways of life. Traversing through the waterways via modest speedboat, she effortlessly highlights the minutia of this society’s daily grind. In doing so, we learn more about their peculiar infrastructure, where laundry wastewater is discarded through the floorboards of the stilted houses, and fishing provides much of the employment. Meanwhile, a children’s beauty pageant and other festivities show that they are hardly lacking in recreational activities.

Once Upon a Time in Venezuela

Indeed, Rios captures a plethora of indelible images. Juxtaposing the murky waters below with the vibrant life above, they also speak to the underlying issues at hand. From a house being transported atop two boats, to children scrubbing oil from their feet, to blatant buying of votes, the corruption and environmental decay is on full display. 

Admittedly, the film doesn’t go in depth about the political context or the ecological processes surrounding the sedimentation, forcing audiences to fill in the blanks. But through the efforts of two women on opposing sides of the political divide, we get an insight into the great political value of this community and the resilience of its people. One of them is Tamara, a representative for the Maduro-led socialist party who is determined to canvas votes by any means necessary. Meanwhile, Natalie is a humble schoolteacher who simply wants to keep her job, which is under threat due to her support of the opposition. As they both worry about the future of their home, their voices ring out as a humble elegy to a dying village. 

SCORE: ★★★

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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