With Surprise Win at Venice, Venezuelan Cinema Comes of Age

The surprise winner of the Golden Lion award at this year’s Venice film festival was the Venezuelan entry Desde Allá (From Afar). However, more than a fortuitous one-off, it represents the coming of age of a film industry nourished by a decade’s investments and a tolerance for diversity.

Lorenzo Vigas’ debut feature was the first Venezuelan film to be accepted at Venice. Its protagonist is a wealthy middle-aged gay man who picks up young companions on the streets of Caracas and has been described as a film about “intimacy, violence and revenge”.

Though the country’s film history starts as early as 1897, it has never remotely matched Mexico, the continent’s powerhouse of commercial films, or Argentina with its long tradition of quality art films. Till recently, it lacked even a domestic infrastructure for film-making and only sporadically produced its own cinema. Between 1946-70, it averaged just two films a year and not even in its best years did that number rise to more than 15. In 1994, national films filled just 77,000 seats.

The upswing in the Venezuelan film industry’s fortunes came in 2005 with the film Secuestro Express (Express Kidnapping) that the Hugo Chavez government thought was a malicious representation of a very real problem. Chavez decided that his country needed to tell its own stories, rather than expect producers and directors dependent on Hollywood to do it.

The national assembly amended the cinematographic law that year and production facilities were set up a year later on the outskirts of Caracas called Villa del Cine, as also a national film distribution company. The film city now has editing and post-production facilities and Venezuela has signed agreements with India and China to train its film technicians. A few pirated Hindi films are sold on the streets of Caracas and Salman Khan has a big fan base all over Latin America.

The Villa del Cine is the major national funder of the 30-odd feature films that are produced annually. The government also funds directors of all political hues through the pre-existing autonomous cinematographic centre, saying that political divergence is not an issue as long as there is merit in the script. It has renovated a string of local theatres all over the country to create an independent screening circuit and encouraged film clubs and outdoor screening in the communities.

The major cultural component in the pre-Chavez years was the beauty industry that gave Venezuela so many white Miss Universe winners in a country that is overwhelmingly of mixed race and with an obesity level approaching 60%.

The upsurge in national film production has come with a revival in the theatre and music industries. Its famed El Sistema (The System) orchestra has as many as 700,000 members, mostly children, who get free instruments, teaching and international and domestic tours and has been extended to prisons. The state also sponsors a national children’s and youth theatre movement, again involving thousands, and all expenses are paid. Caracas is emerging as a major Latin American destination for film and theatre festivals and book fairs, with its own radical identity.

Some of that optimism was reflected in Lorenzo Vigas’ acceptance speech in English in which he dedicated the award to his “amazing country”, saying, “We’ve been having some problems, but we’re very positive… and we’re going to start talking to each other more”.