Film: “Érase una vez en Venezuela, Congo Mirador” (Review/Interview)

Daniel González Cappa (BBC News) reviews Venezuelan documentary film Érase una vez en Venezuela, Congo Mirador and interviews director Anabel Rodríguez Ríos. González Cappa’s article is entitled “’Érase una vez en Venezuela, Congo Mirador’ pone el dedo en la llaga en el momento necesario” [‘Once upon a time in Venezuela, Congo Mirador’ hits the nail on the head at the right moment].

In Congo Mirador, houses leave. They move away, carried by the water, with their furniture, their utensils and their occupants, and, along with them, their stories. It sounds like a fictional story, but it’s a true story. And this is the main topic of “Once upon a time in Venezuela, Congo Mirador”, an emotional documentary that narrates the daily life of the inhabitants of this “town of water” that is disappearing.

Congo Mirador is located in western Venezuela, in the state of Zulia, in the southern of Lake Maracaibo, where the oil that made the country famous and absurdly rich is extracted and exploited. But that wealth is absent in the town.

The houses are stilt houses [palafitos], constructions standing in the water, supported on pillars just a few meters above the surface. There are no roads or vehicles, only canals and boats.

“It’s like being in one of those stories by (U.S. writer) William Faulkner,” says the documentary’s director, Venezuelan Anabel Rodríguez Ríos, who already made a short film about this same place in 2012, “El barril” [The Barrel] inspired by the children she saw playing with oil barrels in the lake.

At Congo Mirador, water is everything: food, transportation, education. Children row to school and learn to fish. It is also the escape route: when the family leaves, they assemble the house on two boats.

The documentary is witness to that exodus. When filming began in 2013, there were about a thousand people living there. Today there are only five. They escape from a natural enemy “that swallows people,” namely, sedimentation, which is the accumulation of earth at the bottom of the lake until there is hardly any room for water.

If water is what gives life to Congo Mirador, sedimentation is, then, its death.

But that’s not the only reason they’re leaving. There are also the dearth of opportunities, the poverty and the lack of interest by the authorities. And that’s where the documentary begins to connect the history of the people with more complex issues that encompass the Venezuela seen in the news: migration, poverty, corruption, and political division. [. . .]

Daniel González Cappa: It is a documentary that narrates but does not explain. It delves into the families of Congo Mirador, their poverty, the political division, how they leave town, but it does not give figures on the migratory crisis in Venezuela, or the poverty or violence. What then is the basis of the film?

Anabel Rodríguez Ríos: It’s human. It strikes an emotional chord that is difficult to explain, that of love.

The documentary is a process in which there is a lot of rational, but also intuitive, narration, and these are left unexplained for the viewer to think or reflect. Our main concern was to focus on the story, on where it was going and what we were seeing from an emotional point of view.

For me, the story was about looking into relationships. I would have gone even further in that direction. I felt a combination of fear and curiosity. In Congo Mirador, for example, there is a lot of incest. It was disconcerting to see how they fall in love with one another.

Then we inquired into power relations. For example, the relationship between the local leader and a member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV, in power), Tamara Villasmil, who told Natalie Sánchez, the village teacher, that she was going to kick her out (of school) “for not being part of the party.” There was jealousy there because the teacher was younger and more beautiful.

I was not so interested in presenting Tamara and her contradictions. But my ex-husband Sepp (Brudermann, producer of the film), who has worked with Jewish issues and has a very interesting political background, wanted to show that “soft” moment when she met with the governor to ask for help to stop the sedimentation. It was something that I had not paid much attention to and that I had left filed in a folder. But he took it and analyzed it.

In the edition, we saw these relationships, but we couldn’t complete my ambition for a choral story with five intertwined narrative lines. Therefore, we are left with a more political aspect, how some characters who, adopting a partisan role, took away from other people their pensions or work and left them nothing. [. . .]

Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero. For full article (in Spanish), see

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