Danny Glover, Haiti, and the Politics of Revolutionary Cinema in Venezuela


Since the inception of the oil industry in the early twentieth century, Venezuela has had strong cultural ties to the United States. President Hugo Chávez however has sought to change this by cultivating a sense of cultural nationalism in his country. Perhaps the hallmark of Chávez’s new cultural policy is Villa del Cine, a spanking new film studio. Inaugurated in June 2006 amid much fanfare, the $42 million project under the Ministry of Culture aims to produce 19 feature-length films a year, in addition to documentaries and television series. Through this "Bolivarian Cinecittà," Chávez seeks to spur production of films dealing with social empowerment, South American history, and Venezuelan values.

 

Chávez himself has long favored such movies: two of Chávez’s favorite films include El Caracazo, directed by Roman Chalbaud, which depicts popular protests and riots against the corrupt government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1989. The second, Amaneció de Golpe (The Coup Awakened) by Carlos Azpúrua, deals with Chávez’s attempted military coup against the Pérez regime in 1992.

 

By spurring local film production, Chávez and the staff at Villa del Cine hope to counteract the pervasive influence of Hollywood and to promote Venezuelan history and culture. "They [foreign films] inoculate us with messages that have nothing to do with our traditions," the Venezuelan leader said during Villa del Cine’s inauguration ceremony. Though some foreign films were "enjoyable," Chávez remarked, most Indians and Latin Americans in them were portrayed as people that were "savage and dangerous, who have to be eliminated."

 

"Hollywood sends a message to the world that tries to sustain the so-called American way of life and imperialism," he added. "It is like a dictatorship." Venezuela is hardly the first government to subsidize cinematic production. In many European nations as well as Latin American countries like Brazil and Mexico, it’s common for authorities to provide state funding for movie making. On the other hand, Villa del Cine has not been immune from criticism. Ironically, some charge that the film studio is promoting Hollywood stars like Danny Glover while neglecting the local Venezuelan film industry. The controversy has put Villa del Cine on the defensive and led to accusations that the facility is playing favorites.

 

Villa del Cine Seeks To Counteract Hollywood

 

While researching my latest book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), I traveled to Villa del Cine, located outside of the Venezuelan town of Guarenas. The government had spent lavishly there, and the facility included two film studios, audio and video equipment, warehouses and an administrative building with areas for post-production, animation, costumes, casting, and food service.

 

I sat down to speak with Lorena Almarza, Villa del Cine’s idealistic director. A former student of social and political psychology, Almarza became particularly interested in culture as a means of encouraging community organization. Growing up in the western city of Barquisimeto, she familiarized herself with the writings of such theorists as Antonio Gramsci and Paulo Freyre. Meanwhile, she frequented local film clubs and became interested in cinema. "Later I went to Caracas to study psychology in the Central University," she remarked. "I started to work as an usher. After that I began to organize film festivals."

 

Once Chávez came to power, Almarza worked with the state-run Bolivarian schools, helping to bring movies to children and provide manuals explaining how students might interpret images and psychological profiles of different characters.

 

When I asked Almarza to talk about her work at Villa del Cine, she explained enthusiastically that she was proud to be part of an "experimental" state project. Historically, the Venezuelan authorities had provided minimal resources towards cultural promotion. But the Chávez government established a distributor, Amazonia Films, as an alternative to commercial networks.

 

Since opening in 2006, Amazonia has acquired films from Latin America, Europe and Asia. Amazonia officials have also started to provide support to independent film producers with cost reductions of up to 35 percent. Instead of merely providing minor funding towards incipient film production, the state has now created incentives so as to increase film production and to enable moviemakers to acquire their own equipment.

 

The new Minister of Culture, Francisco Sesto, began to encourage the creation of audio-visual cooperatives. The idea was that filmmakers would bring their proposals to the table and Villa del Cine would decide if the government was interested in promoting the project. "It’s all about the transformation of the state," she says, "and how people might become participants in the development of film through their own art." So far, Villa del Cine has shot on location in all twenty-four Venezuelan states and in 2005-2006 the studio filmed 357 productions.

 

Almarza has overseen the production of TV series documenting educational developments under Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution. But Villa del Cine has also shot films about Indians and music, and in 2007 the studio planned to commence work on some fictional films. The authorities also hope to spur the creation of a network of community movie theaters. In 2006, 80 new theaters were created and authorities seek to build yet more that could show films produced at Villa del Cine.

 

Ultimately, Almarza and her staff hope that films made at Villa del Cine will be shown at most any Venezuelan shopping mall along with the usual Hollywood fare. Venezuela cannot compete economically with Hollywood, but Villa del Cine seeks to provide alternatives to globalized homogeneity. As Almarza explained to me, film serves as useful tool in the "battle of ideas."

 

Enter Danny Glover

 

As I sit with Almarza at Villa del Cine, I turn the discussion towards African-American actor Danny Glover, co-star of the Lethal Weapon and Dreamgirls movies. A long-time civil rights activist and critic of the Bush administration, the actor is chairman of the TransAfrica Forum, an advocacy group for African Americans and other members of Africa’s diaspora.

 

The Hollywood celebrity, who considers Chávez "remarkable," has been a frequent visitor to Venezuela. In January 2004, TransAfrica Forum sent a delegation of influential artists, actors, activists and scholars to Caracas to meet with government officials. Glover, who accompanied the delegation, expressed his excitement at the social changes taking place in Venezuela. The actor remarked that the U.S. media’s portrayal of Venezuela had "nothing to do with reality."

 

Glover added that he was in Venezuela "to listen and learn, not only from government and opposition politicians, but to share with the people, those who are promoting the changes in this country and we want to be in contact with those who benefit from those changes."

 

Glover and others later presided over the inauguration of a new "Martin Luther King, Jr." school in the coastal town of Naiguata. The area is home to large numbers of Afro-Venezuelans. The school inauguration was the first official Venezuelan recognition of the importance of the slain civil rights leader. What’s more, the government launched a photo exposition to honor Dr. King.

 

Speaking at the event, Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States Bernardo Álvarez declared, "The visit by members of the TransAfrica Forum represents a struggle that goes beyond the figure of Martin Luther King; his struggle, his ideas and the African-American social movements inspired by him. This is a struggle aimed at defending people’s rights, not only in the United States, but in the hemisphere and the world."

 

Glover, clearly touched by the occasion, commented, "This isn’t Danny Glover the artist. I’m here as a citizen, not only of the U.S.

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