There can be few more appropriate idols for Hugo Chávez’s socialist revolution than Ezequiel Zamora, Venezuela’s 19th century civil war hero whose hatred for the oligarchy drove his fight to win land and freedom for the poor.
Little wonder that his story is the subject of a film to be released next month by Cinema City, Venezuela’s state-run film studio, among whose principal goals is to promote the ideals of Mr Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution while countering the “dictatorship of Hollywood”.
Cinema City, or La Villa del Cine, is one of the cornerstones of Mr Chávez’s cultural revolution.
It is aimed at kickstarting the stagnant local film industry while at the same time reviving Venezuelan culture and undermining the pervasive and, in Mr Chávez’s view, pernicious influence of US cultural imperialism in Venezuela.
“Zamora lives! We will be victorious!” cried Adán Chávez, the president’s brother and governor of the state where Zamora’s greatest victories took place, after a recent pre-screening of the film – one of Cinema City’s flagship productions.
“It is our duty to rescue these figures,” said the director of the film, Román Chalbaud, who sympathises with Mr Chávez’s revolution and is regarded as one of Venezuela’s most important directors.
“The winners write history: Zamora had been turned into a common bandit because he fought for the poor.”
Mr Chalbaud laments the fact that Venezuelans have become accustomed to a trashy US-influenced culture. Cinemas in Venezuela, he thinks, are “more like restaurants where people spill popcorn everywhere and talk on mobile phones”.
He says: “We have to put an end to this, it is shameful. We must educate the people, get them used to another kind of cinema.”
Mr Chalbaud rejects claims that Cinema City just churns out propagandist films venerating the Bolivarian revolution and stirring up nationalist sentiment. But many independent critics point to a strong ideological element to the studio’s output.
Moreover, say the critics, the diversity of Cinema City’s projects is restricted by the need for approval from politicians who would be unlikely to give the green light to a film exposing the uglier aspects of Venezuelan society.
Certainly, a recent independent film, Kidnap Express, that offered a disturbing depiction of the grim criminal underbelly of Caracas drew fierce criticism from the government, despite being a huge box office success.
Either way, Cinema City’s output has failed to live up to expectations since becoming fully operational in 2006. Only six feature films were released to the public in 2007-08, as well as another six documentaries.
Its first film this year did not reach cinemas until this month. Another 12 films and documentaries are said to be at the post-production phase.
All that contrasts with official declarations in 2007 that 19 feature-length productions would be released that year alone.
“The harvest has been fragile,” says the prominent Venezuelan film critic Alfonso Molina, who expresses disappointment with the quality of many of the films produced so far in Cinema City.
But some have received critical acclaim, such as Miranda Returns, its debut – a big budget, swashbuckling epic about one of Venezuela’s independence heroes.
More worrying, though, is that not enough Venezuelans are actually watching Cinema City’s films. This is despite the government setting up a new state-run distribution arm, Amazonia Films, and a nationwide theatre circuit to “democratise” cinema.
According to industry estimates, about 25m cinema tickets were sold for the 150 or so films screened in Venezuela’s commercial cinemas in 2008, which excludes the relatively limited state-run Cinemateca theatre circuit. Just 800,000 of the tickets were for the 15 films made in Venezuela, and less than 75,000 of those were for the four films from the Villa del Cine. The Cinemateca is reckoned to have sold some 90,000 tickets last year, although only a limited proportion of those are from the Villa del Cine, mostly being foreign films.
“The problem is that these theatres are empty. Spectators simply don’t go. There is no promotion, no marketing . . . because that’s capitalism,” says Mr Molina.
Still, Cinema City has won the praise of a number of leading Hollywood actors, such as Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey and Danny Glover. “Every country should have this,” said Mr Spacey during a visit to the state-of-the-art studios outside Caracas in 2007.
Indeed, Danny Glover secured $18m in 2007 from the Venezuelan government to fund a film about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of Haiti’s slave revolt and a figure close to Mr Chávez’s heart. Many independent Venezuelan film-makers complained that more money was being given to one film – and one made by a foreigner – than the entire national film industry had received in years. That the film has yet to materialise, like many of Cinema City’s projects, has added to their irritation.
Nevertheless, Venezuelan film-makers are grateful that the government is at least making an effort to boost local cinema, after a long period of lean times in the 1990s. The problem is in its methods, says Mr Molina: “The influence of Hollywood, in our country or anywhere else in the world, cannot be tackled with mediocre and restrictive policies.”
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