Burning down the reels: The life and times of Venezuelan publicly funded films

Government funded flicks haven't escaped the whips and scorns of the debacle. Happy cinema Day!

Like everything else in the country, the Venezuelan film industry has been suffering the effects of prolonged exposure to chavismo.

In 2016 attendance to movies made in Venezuela fell 59,72% compared to 2015. Experts offer many reasons, from blackouts to issues with distribution and promotion, but probably it’s the general economic collapse that’s mostly to blame. It doesn’t help, however, that 2015 was the year of Papita, Maní, Tostón, the most successful Venezuelan movie in history, inflating the baseline figures.

Still, after a decade-long resurgence comparable (if not better) to its heyday in the 70s and 80s, many worry the wave is over and we’re back to the 90s, when only a handful of Venezuelan movies were released each year to an utterly indifferent audience, with freakin’ Salserín being the highest-grossing movie of the decade.

The government never quite managed to get the hang of movie production, and not for lack of trying. In the mid-2000s, amid the oil bonanza of the Chávez years, two very important things happened to the industry. First of all, reforming many of the laws concerning the Centro Nacional Autónomo de Cinematografía (CNAC), the government entity concerning all things movie-related, including a new National Law of Cinematography, setting distribution quotas and creating a national registry for film production.

In 2016 attendance to movies made in Venezuela fell 59.72% compared to 2015.

Yet, the CNAC has a certain degree of autonomy, at least for the time being. This is partially due to its longer trajectory and, according to Article 9 of the National Law of Cinematography, being run by a council made up of representatives from several ministries, labor unions, universities and the private sector. Yes, it’s biased but it could be much worse.

Because the CNAC usually acts as a financing and regulatory body, it doesn’t intervene in the actual production. For instance, the biopic El Inca —about controversial boxer and outspoken Chávez supporter Edwin Valero— got shelved by a court ruling. The project’s script had been winner of an open contest done by the CNAC and also promoted by their social media. Awards and all, strangely there was no public funding involved in the making of the film, as its director, Ignacio Castillo, told Caracas Chronicles.

To talk about actually making movies, you have to look at other major forces that affected the Venezuelan film industry in the mid-2000s: La Villa del Cine, a rojo rojito elephant if there ever was one. On paper, this was going to be a Bolivarian Cinecittá in Guarenas, counting with a state-of-the-art studio complex managing to produce 12 feature films at the same time with top-notch HD technology and all the toys.

Despite a promising early output, many of the productions by La Villa del Cine were full of problems since day one. Films taking years to finish or delayed release dates, clashes between staff in mid-production, and, of course, giving Lethal Weapon’s Danny Glover US$ 25 million for a yet-unproduced biopic of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture.

And then, there’s the matter of content. A quick rundown through La Villa’s production list is quite revealing. It’s a peculiar mix of actually good movies (Azul y no tan rosa; Taita Boves), noble but harmless if forgettable efforts (Nena, salúdame a Diego; Venezzia) and outright down-the-rabbit-hole propaganda such as Comando X —a comedy about an everyday guy who unwittingly gets involved in an US-backed group of evil opositores— or Zamora: Tierras y hombres libres, hands down one of the worst movies I’ve seen at the theater, in which mid-19th Century llaneros read the writings of that promising young thinker called Karl Marx.

But things appear to have changed. It seems that the politically-motivated pieces have taken the backseat. Sure, there’s Maisanta and a movie about Allende and dozens of documentaries and overall their output seems to have been shrinking throughout the years, but now you have romantic comedies and even eye-rolling criollo-flavored self-discovery stories like this.

What happened? Did they notice their highest-grossing movies were an LGBT drama, a horror movie, and a thriller while the most dogmatic stuff went to die on early morning second-rate government-run TV channels? Probably. But overall I think the relationship of government and cinema suffered a wistonización (as in Winston Vallenilla, you know, the guy who made TeVes from this into this).

In other words, propaganda evolved.

The three highest-grossing Venezuelan movies in 2016? The biography of opposition deputy Tamara Adrián, a documentary on Carlos Andrés Pérez, and El Inca, despite its abruptly cut theater run.

The first time I noticed this trend was with Libertador, starring Edgar Ramírez. At first, it’s a refreshing palate cleanser after the frankly embarrassing attempt starring Roque Valero but once you get over the Game Of Thrones cinematography —and even a GoT actor, to boot!— you get yet another hagiography where Bolívar never did anything wrong. Except this time it’s heavily implied he was murdered by imperialism, incarnated as a British lord who shows up from time to time to tempt Bolívar with wealth and armies and who has the subtlety of Diosdado’s mazo.

Then there was Muerte Suspendida, a movie about the CICPC, Venezuela’s national police agency. Supposedly the faithful recreation of a real-life kidnapping that looks as realistic as the latest Transformers movie, it was made in partnership with the government agency, and even stars one CICPC operative! Elsewhere, this is nothing new. Hollywood and the US Army have had for decades. It’s just the degree of cara e’ tablismo in framing the propaganda that amazes me.

Finally, you have Papita, Maní, Tostón. The highest-grossing Venezuelan movie of all time with almost 2 million tickets sold. This is the most apolitical of the bunch, but I do think it benefits the government, by selling a comfortable image of Venezuela to Venezuelans, especially one where two opposing bands solve their differences by having a beer and enjoying the ballgame.

When I saw it at the cinema, the house was packed and people even sat on the stairs, quite a contrast after seeing so many Venezuelan movies seen with little to no audience. When the movie started, I actually mistook it for a mensaje institucional since the opening narration pretty much follows the same format: tepuys and beaches as a narrator tell us why our country is so great, which is basically summed up as oil, women, baseball and our happy-go-luck attitude towards everything.

Venezuela is, as the very first line of the movie tell us, paradise on Earth.

Now, I don’t want to imply every movie should be a 5-hour long highfalutin social critique that only those with a passing knowledge of Tarkovsky and Wittgenstein can appreciate. I enjoyed a few moments despite finding some of the humor cheap or downright offensive —good ole homophobia, the easiest way to get a laugh in Venezuela— but I wouldn’t call it anything near a masterpiece. Just a tailor-made crowd-pleaser that most of the time makes you feel as if you were watching a 90’s sketch show two hour special.

But when movies like El Inca get shelved or Joel Novoa’s Esclavo de Dios —based on the AMIA Bombing— gets tagged with a short to counterweight its political views, the apolitical innocuousness looks less like harmless escapism and more like a gag ball with a smiley face painted on. And that’s what wistonización is all about. Papita 2 is just around the corner and I’ve no doubt it will knock it out of the park.

But there’s still hope for dissenting voices. The three highest-grossing Venezuelan movies in 2016? The biography of opposition deputy Tamara Adrián, a documentary on Carlos Andrés Pérez, and El Inca, despite its abruptly cut theater run.

Yet, Maisanta is getting a sequel, go figure.

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.