Gabriele Muzio explains what inspired him to make a film among forgotten communities in Venezuela’s oil producing area – This feature report was first published in Platform's carbon web newsletter, issue 4.
Venezuela’s president Chavez is arguably the only Latin American leader who dares challenge the Washington Consensus and US hegemony over the continent. The reason he has dared do so, and been successful is oil: Venezuela is the US’s third largest source of oil. Gabriele Muzio was drawn to the country, but he found fence-line communities forgotten by the Bolivarian revolution…
I was already familiar with South America and I made a few brief visits to Venezuela in the 1990s. I went back in May 2002 shortly after the attempted coup. Few people seemed to be aware of what was happening in this backwater called Venezuela. It became obvious to me that Chavez had irritated Washington less due to his proclamations on social justice, more because as president of the only Western OPEC member, he had engaged in active oil diplomacy. Chavez travelled to the Middle East shortly after his election, brokering informal talks between Iran and Iraq, probably the first since the war between the two countries. Despite the 1975 oil nationalisation, previous Venezuelan presidents had always complied with Washington’s wishes for lower oil prices and OPEC had sanctioned Venezuela on several occasions for exceeding its quotas.
Chavez was instead shuttling between the large oil exporters, contributing to renewed cohesion within OPEC and a determination to stick to agreed production levels which pushed the oil price up. We made our first film in Venezuela in 2002. Our aim was to offer the outside world an honest picture of what was happening in the country. We interviewed ordinary people, about the promise and the reality of positive change under Chavez’s Bolivarian government. The film highlighted the oil origin of the 2002 coup and foresaw continuous destabilisation of the country by national oil company (PDVSA) managers loyal to US interests.
Ordinary Venezuelans outside the oil producing regions know very little about the dark side of crude. Thus our second film focuses on the people living and dying in the oilfields and those workers who were the saviours of the national oil industry in 2002-2003 when a second, so called “oil coup” was staged.
Forgotten communities in the oil producing areas talk of cancer epidemics, of children born with deformities or disabilities, of the unbearable corruption of trade union officials in the oil industry who “sell” temporary positions for large cash sums to destitute workers. The legal system has been incapable of dealing with these systematic abuses and the current government has done little to bring justice to affected communities.
New projects generally lack credible environmental impact assessments. The state environment agencies seem condescending and lack the means to implement even the minimal environmental legislation in existence. The film was premiered in Caracas in 2005. A few days later there was to be a second high-profile presentation at the National Cinema, a prestigious venue run by the Ministry of Culture. After the first showing, the Ministry decided to call off the second. So we contacted international and Venezuelan media, inviting them to a screening in the open-air outside the cinema – of the first film that the revolutionary government of Venezuela was censoring. The day before the screening we received a call from the Ministry of Culture, apologising for the “misunderstanding” and insisting that the screening inside the National Cinema could go ahead after all. The caveat was that the Ministry’s name as funder of the film be removed from the credits. We replied that we would need a request in writing from the minister himself, because we had been required by contract to credit the ministry. No letter arrived, so the film was screened including the credit.
When we made our first documentary in Venezuela in 2002 we were using film as an instrument of counter-information, challenging misinformation presented to the world about Venezuela. With the 2005 oil film our aim was to counter misinformation from the Venezuelan government. The film highlights to ordinary Venezuelan citizens the inexplicable contradictions within their government’s oil policy, despite the anti-imperialist, socially revolutionary and environmentally sound discourse of the President. Oil is the holy cow, which normally no one in Venezuela criticises.