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Lights! Camera! Chavez!

by NIKOLAS KOZLOFF

I caught up with Lorena Almarza, the director of Villa del Cine, a Venezuelan state sponsored film company located near the town of Guarenas, in the state of Miranda.

NK: What is your professional background?

LA: I studied social and political psychology. I was particularly interested in culture as a means of encouraging development and community organization. I did a lot of readings from Gramsci and Freyre. I´m originally from Barquisimeto, where I used to visit different film clubs. Later I came to Caracas to study psychology in the Central University. When I came to Caracas I started to work as an usher. After that I started to work on organizing film festivals. I helped to put on an international film festival for children and youth. Seven years ago, I started to work with the Bolivarian schools. We developed a project which brought movies into schools, and we provided manuals explaining how children could interpret images and psychological profiles of the different characters.

NK: Can you explain a bit about the structure of Villa del Cine?

LA: The state is doing something very experimental with Villa del Cine, we don´t deny it. How could the state, with such a bureaucratic structure, demonstrate that it was capable of attracting talent and start to produce material? It was a matter of getting people together with a certain amount of expertise, and form there form work teams. The state began to invest in film infrastructure. A large part of Venezuelan film had been produced abroad. Villa del Cine came about so that we could film here.

NK: Is all this development pretty recent, under Chavez?

LA: The Ministry of Culture was just created a year and a half ago. Before that, it was the National Advisory on Culture, this had a very low budget which was unable to stimulate the creation of Venezuelan cinema. The National Advisory on Culture financed some production in Caracas. The films also received funding from Cenac, the National Autonomous Center of Cinematography, also a state run entity. It was a policy based on providing funding, and rather minor funding, rather than a policy of incentives which would spur the creation or productive film development in Venezuela. With the arrival of the minister of Culture, Francisco Cesto, new policies were undertaken. He began to encourage the creation of audio visual cooperatives. The idea was that these groups would bring proposals to the table, and we would find out what aspects might be of interest to the state.

It´s all about the transformation of the state, and how people might become participants in the development of film, through their own art. The state also provided incentives for cooperatives with the idea that they might acquire equipment. In other words, whether or not they got state financing, they could have the means to produce film. The state also put out an open call for documentaries. We realize that Venezuela should change, from a society which funds and takes care of everything, to a new inclusive society where the country can achieve social modes of production. That´s to say, we want a film policy which is not just about providing resources, which is no doubt important. The state should also provide the physical and technical infrastructure for production and distribution. So we started to get to work. Now we have the Film Law. In Venezuela, 98% of what gets shown is Hollywood fare. So, the possibility that our own films, which were very few, could reach the screen, were limited. So, it was established by law that 20% of films that are shown should be Venezuelan. Moreover, theaters should donate a percentage of their ticket revenue to a special fund to promote Venezuelan film. The distributor is also obliged to provide money to this fund. In essence, we´ve developed an entire legal and protectionist framework related to production. With the idea of spurring domestic production, we also created mobile audio visual production units. We were able to involve lots of people who had expertise in TV and film. Specifically, we attracted directors, who had done all the necessary training, but who lacked opportunities to direct, and also young people who had done experimental work.

NK: Just Venezuelans?

LA: We have involved some people from other countries but who are resident in Venezuela.

NK: Cubans?

LA: No, we had one Cuban who did a documentary series, but he´s no longer here. He made close to four productions with us. In general however the majority of the people are Venezuelan.

NK: Do you specialize particularly in historical themes?

LA: Not necessarily, though last year we celebrated the bicentennial anniversary of the arrival of Francisco de Miranda upon his return to Venezuela by producing a film about the this early fighter for Venezuelan independence.

NK: How are decisions made about film production, is it a collective decision?

LA: Yes, as a matter of fact things are organized horizontally in the Ministry of Culture. We work as a cabinet.

NK: Will you produce more movies on historical themes, as these figures are very important for Chavez symbolically?

LA: There was a complete ignorance of history here and it was impossible to relate history to the present day. I believe it´s important to take history as an important reference point for the development and construction of Venezuela. This year, in addition to working on Miranda, we´re also doing a film about Zamora, the campesino leader. Currently, the government is retaking lands, and it´s important to pay attention to what´s going on, but we need to remember this is part of a long process. We think Zamora was an emblematic figure who stood for liberty and land. We´re going to make a TV series on both figures as well as a feature length documentary film. You could see these films in any shopping mall along with Hollywood fare. The idea is to diversify the big screen.

NK: How easy is it to compete with Hollywood in Venezuela?

LA: For us, globalization is homogenization. I think we need to give people the option to choose.

NK: How has the construction of Villa del Cine proceeded?

LA: It cost us 20 million bolivares to construct these installations. We still have a lot of things to do, because everything has to be up to international standards, so that whatever gets produced here can circulate domestically or internationally. So, if there´s a production in Colombia, or Brazil, which requires post-production services, the idea is that film makers don´t look towards Los Angeles, but to Venezuela as a means of handling these services. And, film makers should have the guarantee that they will obtain the same quality and sound mix which they would have obtained in Los Angeles.

NK: So, the idea is to bring other Latin American directors to work here?

LA: Yes, it´s a good possibility, either through provision of services or through post-production interests. We have received a proposal from Miguel Litin, a Chilean documentary film maker. He is one of the most prestigious film makers in Latin America. The proposal has Chilean and Brazilian participation and has to do with concentration and torture camps set up by Pinochet in Chile. This is a story which should be of interest to all Latin Americans.

NK: How do you award funding to film projects?

LA: The National Film Center can only provide 30% of the budget on a given film. When the state gives more than 50%, it´s no longer independent. So, Cenac is trying to create incentives, through public calls and public commissions, to select projects. That state can then guarantee that 70% of the remaining funds could be financed through co-production. Venezuela can present the project to Ibermedia, which is a fund which Venezuela contributes to. This is a fund directed at cinematic production amongst Ibero American countries. So, all projects which get 30% from Cenac can then request funding from Ibermedia.

NK: But, Hollywood is a multi-million dollar industry, how can you compete?

LA: I don´t think it´s about competing economically. I believe we´re attending to the necessity of encouraging other types of films for the big screen. Chavez has spoken about the battle of ideas. Film is a tool, which can be useful when it comes to the combat of ideas.

NK: You really see it that way, as combat?

LA: How does the U.S. view us? Just as it does the blacks in its own country, as prostitutes, as drug smugglers. As long as we can show who we are, as Venezuelans, or people from Latin America, we´re counteracting the influence of Hollywood.

NK: What kinds of film have you shot, and where do you shoot?

LA: We work in all 24 states in Venezuela. In 2005-6 we shot 357 productions. We shot TV series addressing educational developments and changes in local schools. But we also shot series about poets, sculptors, and artisans. We have series about contemporary political activists. We have films about Indians, about music. In 2007 we´ll be producing a lot of material for TV. We got some teams together and we´re working on some fictional films.

NK: How many people do you have working here?

LA: Right now, directly we have close to 200 people. But the Miranda project has extras as well.

NK: Have you ever spoken directly with Chavez?

LA: Chavez was with us on the day of the Villa del Cine inauguration. And before that we had the opportunity to speak with him as there were some conversations between the Ministry of Culture and Chavez.

NK: I see there are political murals in Caracas and Plains music on the radio, does this all form part of a coherent cultural policy?

LA: Yes, there´s a coherent policy. But, it´s not just Plains music on the radio. The Law of Social Responsibility states that Venezuelan music in general should be played.

NK: Some Hollywood actors identify with the Bolivarian process such as Danny Glover. Will you hire them?

LA: We have a very fraternal relationship with Glover. He came here to Villa del Cine in 2006. He´s interested in developing some productions. As a matter of fact Glover helped to finance a film in Africa about African countries and debt. So, in addition to being an important figure in the Afro-American community, he supports Third World cinema.

NK: And no other Hollywood actors?

LA: No, up until now only Danny Glover.

NK: What are the obstacles moving forward, does the opposition attack you for being ideological?

LA: Whatever project Chavez supports, the opposition will attack it.

NK: Could they even launch an economic boycott of your films?

LA: Yes, probably. We don´t think our project on Miranda is very controversial, but many have claimed that our vision of Miranda is ideological. We can´t figure it out.

NK: Do you seek to contribute to the local economy?

LA: We decided to make all our own costumes. We decided not to buy the costumes but to employ costume makers from Guarenas who work in their own workshops. 40% of our staff is from Guarenas, and progressively we want to incorporate even more people from the area. We made 200 pairs of shoes for the Miranda production, we got artisans and leather workers to make them. The workers were organized in cooperatives.

NK: To what extent does Villa del Cine have to do with other forms of cultural nationalism in the Andes?

LA: One of the most vital issues has to do with integration, that is how do we relate to other countries and our common history. The peasant struggle is not unique to Venezuela. There´s also a peasant struggle in Ecuador, in Bolivia. The indigenous struggle across the continent is something which unites us. We´ve been colonized for more than 500 years. I think South American governments are attaching more importance to indigenous cultures now. It´s a pressure cooker that you can´t cover up anymore. Latin America is waking up: all those social movements that were put down over the years are now in the position to advance.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press). He will shortly start work on another book, South America’s New Direction, also to be published by St. Martin’s Press.

Lorena Almarza is the director of Villa del Cine, a state sponsored film company located near the town of Guarenas, in the state of Miranda, Venezuela.

 

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NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.

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