Backstory: Venezuela's cultural revolution

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Omar Pinto, who works for the popular radio station Radiorama, sits under a framed poster of Madonna as young hipsters walk in and out of the station on a recent day in downtown Caracas. The hit song "Flying between your arms," by Latin pop icon Marc Anthony, comes on the air.

"We play the greatest hits – salsa, rancheros, Cuban music," he says. "See, it's just Latin music. Greatest hits."

A moment later, the station puts out a traditional Venezuelan folk song. It's as if someone flipped a switch on the format. Mr. Pinto can't even name the artist. By airing the song, however, the station helps fulfill its obligation under a federal "social responsibility" law, which mandates that 50 percent of what DJs play be Venezuelan – much of it traditional music.

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"No, we wouldn't play that song before," says Pinto, almost laughing at the question. "It's not very popular."

Welcome to another dimension of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's socialist "revolution" and war against the West. The man who recently announced plans to nationalize key industries and who has become the world's most outspoken scold of President Bush also wants to take on Walt Disney and Snoop Dogg.

He is trying to promote a national identity and more independence from "imperialist" America by forcing radio stations to play indigenous music, granting prominent space to amateur Venezuelan artists in museums, and setting up a state-run movie studio. It may be one of the world's bolder – and most controversial – experiments in trying to engineer a culture.

To supporters, the move may well give artists who otherwise might be swept aside by the forces of capitalism and commercialism an opportunity to develop their craft – and, by extension, enhance the artistic diversity of a nation.

But critics, including many artists themselves, see the move as a political gambit – one that, in trying to promote a national cultural identity, threatens the very integrity of the culture itself.

"They [Chávez administration officials] have no respect for culture in Venezuela," says Beatriz Sogbe, an art historian here. "You can't hang culture within the law."

***

Miguel Miguel, an art curator, thought he made a mistake two years ago when he visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas. He attended what was billed as a "megaexhibit." It turned out to be a government-conceived show in which amateur artists were invited to hang their works next to modern masterpieces. On a recent day, half of the museum's 13 rooms, including one with famous Picasso sketches, were dedicated to a contest for Venezuelan artists.

"In Venezuela, we used to be the envy of Latin America in terms of the quality of our museums," he says. "Today it's grand populism, a grand confusion, and mediocrity.... I thought I was at the wrong place."

For Ms. Sogbe, the concern is not that the country will suddenly develop a taste for amateur or mediocre art. It's that people won't get to experience great art or great music or great film – especially the poor who don't have the means to visit world-class exhibitions and concert halls outside their own cities.

"If you don't know Bach, you don't miss Bach," she says. "Culture is not folklore; folklore is just a part of it."

But the Chávez administration and some others believe that government mandates can encourage more creativity and cultural distinctiveness. Sergio Curiel, a movie editor who has worked on such Venezuelan thrillers as "The Black Sheep" (1987) and "Shoot to Kill" (1990), believes it's time for more of the country's own traditions and talents to appear on the Big Screen.

He likes to quote the French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who once said: "I believe that a nation unable to recognize itself in the 21st century fictions that are fed to it will disappear culturally."

Movies are, in fact, a main focus of Chávez's new engineering initiative. Almost all of what is shown in the country now originates in Hollywood – only about two Venezuelan-produced films are released a year. The industry is so small that it isn't even monitored by major box-office research firms. The Chávez administration wants about 20 percent of all new releases to be Venezuelan-made.

"We forgot as a market that we have wonderful artists," says Mr. Curiel. "How can you fight "Seinfeld?" Syndicates are set up for showing and reshowing and reshowing."

In its attempt to counter what it sees as the hegemony of Hollywood, the Chávez administration has created "Cinema Village." It has put $42 million into the project, through the Ministry of Culture, with the intent of producing 19 feature-length films a year, in addition to documentaries and television series. The project also calls for building 24 screening rooms throughout the country in places without movie theaters. Six have been constructed so far.

The idea is to encourage films that incorporate themes of social empowerment, Latin history, or Venezuelan values. Participants insist it is not a form of political propaganda, but an incubator for budding auteurs and an alternative to American movies and their "stereotypes."

"Hollywood creates movies to sell tickets, and in doing so, we are taught that all Arabs are terrorists, that Africa is poor because it wants to be, that all women in Latin America are prostitutes," says Lorena Almarza, Cinema Village's president, a hip 30-something wearing a red "Chávez" bracelet.

Curiel, who is a technical consultant to Cinema Village but mostly works independently as an editor, is less unequivocal about the project's mission. It is a political tool, he says, but not agitprop. In fact, he believes the program will produce movies that are hardly different from what's already being made.

"We don't make an action film for an action film's sake," he says. "If a movie is about a school, it will be a school in one of the barrios, where most people in Venezuela live. We don't make movies about what happens in the country club here."

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Inside a sleek new studio on a highway outside Caracas, Antonio Alfonzo, the costume director for Cinema Village, dons a stray Russian fur hat as he flips through the pages of "The Complete Costume History." He's trying to guide a group of seamstresses who are re-creating women's clothing from the late 1700s and early 1800s. It's all preparation for a TV series, later to be made into Cinema Village's debut feature-length film, "Miranda Returns."

Scheduled to be shot in February, it will chronicle the exploits of Francisco de Miranda, an obscure person in world history but a precursor to Latin America's independence from Spain. Ms. Almarza says the goal is to teach Venezuelans about their history, not to engage in political indoctrination. But she knows that the film and TV series will make at least one person in the audience happy – President Chávez. Miranda is one of his favorite figures in history.

Next up for Cinema Village is a movie about 19th-century peasant leader Ezequiel Zamora, the man after whom Chávez's controversial land redistribution program is named.

The studio is also looking at making a trilogy about Simón Bolívar, the 19th century Latin American revolutionary know as the "liberator," who is the name behind Chávez's broader social and political movement – the "Bolivarian Revolution."

It seems no coincidence that the Cinema Village brochure reads: "Lights, camera, revolution!"

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