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AP = Associated Press or Asinine Paradox? Venezuela Apparently “Censors” the Subversive Films it “Nurtures”

September 19, 2015

The Associated Press has never been particularly favorable to Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, but its labored attempts to spin the truth achieved a new level of absurdity with today’s publication of an article authored by Hannah Dreier and headlined “Venezuelan film flourishing as society becomes more censored”.

As if the headline wasn’t paradoxical enough, here’s what I believe to be a fair summary of the perplexing article (but please use the link above and let me know if you think I’ve mischaracterized the piece):

Publicity poster for From Afar [Desde Allá].

Publicity poster for From Afar.

A film titled From Afar, the premier effort of a little-known Venezuelan director, won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival last week. From Afar is representative of a “new wave of cinema [that] is emerging from the chaos and violence of modern Venezuela [and] focuses on highly personal tales of gay love affairs”. Most, if not all, of these films are at least partially financed by the state’s National Center for Cinematography, which has also opened a new film school. Although these films focus on transgressive sexual and gender identities (in a country that has traditionally been intolerant of queer identities), as well as poverty and crime (in a country where those two issues have largely shaped political discourse over the last several decades and acutely so over the last few years), “Venezuela’s state-sponsored films avoid overtly political topics”. From Afar’s director, Lorenzo Vigas, “says he never experienced any censorship” and no form of direct censorship (in any medium) is cited, but the films are being produced “despite increasing government control of TV and other media” and are effectively censored because “commercial theaters” prefer to show state-produced historical epics and Hollywood films. According to David William Foster, who teaches Latin American film at Arizona State University, this “invisibility is part of why the government can afford to nurture the relatively subversive films”.

I said that no form of direct censorship is cited, but the article does specify one instance in which a director “angered officialdom”: In 2013, shortly after the death of Hugo Chávez, a film called Bad Hair won the top prize at the esteemed San Sebastian International Film Festival. In a subsequent interview with the conservative Spanish newspaper, El País, the film’s director, Mariana Rondón, discussed her intention for the film to highlight the broad issue of intolerance, including political intolerance of the sort typified by Chávez’s 2007 public pronouncement that “Either you are with the Revolution or you are against the Revolution. Either you are with Chávez or you are against Chávez.” El País quoted Rondón in the headline, “Chávez sentenced us to war”, although political intolerance is only discussed in the final paragraph. This elicited a public statement from the Venezuelan government, which pointed out that Rondón’s career depended to a great extent on public financing, including that provided by the Bolivarian government.

Publicity Poster for Bad Hair.

Publicity Poster for Bad Hair.

The Bolivarian government has an unfortunate tendency to respond harshly and publicly to its critics, including those who are not aligned with the political opposition. Like Rondón, I disagree with black or white thinking, whether it comes from Chávez or George W. Bush, and films are often aesthetically (if not commercially) successful precisely because they dive into the gray, murky waters of complexity. (Somebody might let the AP know that socially beneficial journalism does the same.) It seems clear, however, that Bad Hair stands against intolerance and polarization generally, as opposed to the Bolivarian project specifically, and that Rondón got caught up in the ridiculous media wars that animate a certain portion of the Venezuelan population (on both sides of the political divide) and distract from more substantive and useful discussions. The government’s response here may indicate poor logic and/or strategy, but it is far from censorship.

The AP not only perpetuates the simplistic representation of Bad Hair but engages in outright deception by suggesting that Rondón intended her film as merely “a critique of the revolution’s ‘with us or against us’ attitude”. Having set up a purely political context, the article cites Rondón’s acceptance speech, in which she said: “I made this film to free myself from the pain of living amid so much intolerance…. Thinking differently shouldn’t be seen as a problem.” As should be clear from a number of subsequent interviews (for example, here, here, here, and here) the intolerance to which Rondón referred is primarily a question of racial, gender, and sexual identity. More significantly, Rondón stated in an open letter that she was not referring to Chávez in her acceptance speech. The vast majority of AP’s English language readers, of course, would know none of this.

The AP is also deceptive when it suggests that the Bolivarian government not only counts on, but is somehow responsible for the invisibility of the socially critical films it finances because they are not widely distributed in commercial cinemas and because Venezuelan audiences tend to prefer Hollywood fare. It’s difficult to make sense of this line of thinking. The Bolivarian revolution has frequently and continuously (and, in my opinion, often overly simplistically) denounced Hollywood films as exemplary of cultural imperialism and a threat to its socialist project. For precisely that reason it has sought to establish a thriving Venezuelan national cinema by increasing state funding for training, production, and distribution. According to the AP, however, that is all just posturing and the true goal is for the project to fail.

I don’t doubt that the government puts more resources into cinema that accords most closely with its ideological perspective, especially historical epics that present a politicized version of figures like Simón Bolivar. I don’t doubt that it has misdirected considerable resources into some terrible films. And I wouldn’t be surprised if much of what comes out of the National Center for Cinematography is little more than bad propaganda. There is much to criticize when it comes to the government’s communication policy. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As the AP article points out, “[t]he number of films produced in Venezuela has quadrupled since 2005 to about 20 a year”. Of course it goes on to note that this is “still far short of the average of 50 produced in Argentina”, though it doesn’t mention that Argentina has roughly 14 million more citizens and a long tradition of producing high quality cinema. The article might have also pointed out that Colombia, with a population similar to Argentina, produced 7 features in 2005 and 18 in 2011.

More to the point, the Venezuelan government doesn’t seem to be hiding the more critical films in the least. For example, here’s a 2013 article in the state-owned national newspaper that covers the two major prizes won by Bad Hair in Argentina’s Mar de Plata international film festival, which is one of the most important in Latin America. Meanwhile, earlier this year Bad Hair was one of only 15 features included in an exhibition at the state-owned National Theater that celebrated 118 years of Venezuelan filmmaking. And here’s another article from the same state-owned national newspaper (published just three days prior to the AP piece) which features the president of the National Center for Cinematography celebrating From Afar’s victory in Venice, detailing the major prizes won by Venezuelan films in the last several years (including Bad Hair and others from the critical “new wave”), and promising that From Afar “is going to be seen in Venezuela with all the preparation necessary so that there’s a big promotional campaign … in all the theaters and media, so that the community understands what the film is about.”

You can criticize Bolivarian media policy for a number of things, but blaming the government for the success of Hollywood films in Venezuelan theaters is just absurd, as is the idea that it is financing critical films even as it maintains a regime of censorship to keep them from being seen.

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