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January 9, 2021


written by Anabel Rodríguez Ríos and Sepp R. Brudermann
produced by: Sepp R. Brudermann
directed by: Anabel Rodríguez Ríos
rating: not rated
runtime: 99 min.
U.S. release date: December 31, 2020 (Topic streaming service)


While the primary focus of Anabel Rodríguez Ríos’ documentary “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” is the people who live at a specific lakeside village, it serves as an indication of where the rest of the country is at as well. It could also be seen as an indictment of the corrupt politics and damaging pollution that has changed the landscape and way of life for the proud people who remain there. From start to finish, Rios is as immersed in this world as her viewers are, as the filmmaker offers an illuminating and often stunning looks at part of a country that is all but forgotten as it wallows in despair.

The film opens with the camera seemingly floating along the water toward Congo Mirador, once a thriving fishing community propped up on stilts just above the deep Lake Maracaibo in northern Venezuela. This is where the planet’s largest crude reserves can be found, an area once considered to be “Venezuela’s Saudi Arabia”, which borders the Caribbean Sea. There are no talking heads or clever animated sequences in this documentary, since Rios’ main goal is to introduce us to the people who live on these murky waters, showing the way of life for a village that has dwindled from around 700 to 30 families in the last ten years.


The problem of sediment building in the water over the years is due to oil drilling and because of the lack of help from Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela since 2013. Maduro’s predecessor was Hugo Chávez, who had held the position with fervent support since 1999. It was during that time he kicked off the Bolivarian Revolution, which was an emphasis on the importance of education, the creation of civilian-military unity, Latin American integration, social justice, and national sovereignty. It was a socialist political agenda with reforms that became unpopular with other countries, especially the United States.

When he died in 2013, Chavez still had a major following, such as Mrs. Tamara, a government coordinator, Congo resident, and mega Chavez fan, who’s not opposes to bribery and intimidation to get her way. Rios follows Mrs. Tamara, who can often be seen on her phone swinging on a hammock, as well as Natalie, a local school teacher who opposes Chavez and his base. Natalie contends with a cramped location for her classroom that has limited supplies, many of which she pays for herself, yet she doesn’t seem to have the support and pull that Mrs. Tamara has. The film captures the differences between the two women and how they are perceived by their community.



Rios following both women provides us with a human connection throughout “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” that brings to the forefront the concerns of inequality and disregard the director intends to highlight. These are after all two women who are fighting for their village and yet the underlying, lingering question is who is hearing them besides the filmmaker and the audience of this film. Where the film leaves their respective stories as the film closes is somewhat ironic and definitely disappointing, but nevertheless not very surprising.

One comes away from viewing Ríos’ film with very little hope for the future. Free from news footage or talking heads, Ríos prefers to show the life of these resilient villagers, as their way of life declines. While it’s heartening to know that this is a film which will give a platform to a people who are getting literally washed away – there’s footage of more than one stilt house getting transported on canoes (thanks to some fine cinematography from John Márquez)…yet it’s unclear to where.

“Once Upon a Time in Venezuela” premiered almost a year ago at Sundance and since then has been making the rounds on the festival circuit. It can currently be viewed on Topic streaming service (see link above) and the Venezuelan Academy has selected the film as its official submission to the 2021 Oscars. To help make that happen, click here.  






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