• Andrea Oñate

Congo Mirador: the Drowning Village

Once Upon a Time in Venezuela, directed by Anabel Rodriguez Rios, is about a beautiful water village that is deteriorating in front of its own citizens’ eyes. Due to national political corruption, pollution, economic decline, and a lack of support or aid from the ineffective government, the villagers are losing hope and are unable to continue living in these catastrophic conditions. “Congeros”, the people of Congo Mirador, as well as numerous other Venezuelans have experienced these heartbreaking circumstances that give them no other choice but to leave their towns and country to seek a better life. The documentary showcases more than just the small village of Congo Mirador, but instead becomes a representation of the entire country of Venezuela and its own people’s struggle.

Congo Mirador is a small water village located on the southern edge of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. The floating stilt houses, called “palafitos”, once housed almost a thousand people in this previously thriving town, which relied on their fishing and tourism industries. However, as the country experienced hardships and the effects of its political, economic, and social problems, the village began to deteriorate. The increase of violence and crime is causing tourism in Venezuela to decline, so Congo Mirador is no longer receiving the tourists that brought them profit. Pollution and sedimentation are taking over the banks of Lake Maracaibo, contaminating the village’s main source of water and affecting wildlife, causing their fishing industry to decline. In addition, this toxic sedimentation is causing the water levels to rise and is essentially drowning the entire town or damaging whatever is still standing. Venezuela’s ineffective government is unable to provide aid or resources for Congo Mirador to deal with these worsening issues and the political polarization in this small community makes cooperation almost impossible. All these factors are causing the people of Congo Mirador to migrate out of their beloved village, feeling like they have no other choice. Many place their houses on boats and literally move their homes to another area of Lake Maracaibo, others leave the country all-together and migrate to places like Colombia. As of 2020, only about 9 families still reside in Congo Mirador.

Although the subject matter of the documentary is specifically the floating village of Congo Mirador, the directors did so much more than just tell the story of this small village. Most of the film focuses on how the factors of national corruption, pollution, and economic decline are directly affecting the well-being of this town and are causing the villagers to migrate away. However, as the documentary proceeds, the audience learns about how these same exact problems are affecting all of Venezuela. Congo Mirador became an accurate representation of the entire country; it represents the hardships of living in Venezuela and the causes for Venezuelan migration. The directors were able to capture the general political and socio-economic climate of the whole country, giving the audience clear insight on these problems. It also highlights just how severe the effects of such political, social, and economic problems are. Even the smallest of communities, like Congo Mirador, are still extremely affected.

Throughout the documentary, we are shown the extensive efforts that the members of the community give in order to keep their village alive. But political corruption and ecological disaster continue to take over. One scene that really showcased the reality of this was at the very end of the documentary when the director and crew went back to Congo Mirador a year after filming. The difference that the year made was astounding. Many houses were gone or abandoned, the church was decaying, and buildings that used to float above the water were now buried in toxic, muddy sediment. But the most heartbreaking part was the abandoned school. The film showed the efforts of the community’s teacher, Tamara, to keep the school from falling apart; trying to keep up maintenance and practically begging education officials to bring her the school materials they desperately needed. But now we see they never got the help to keep the village’s school in workable conditions and as villagers continued to migrate out, there were eventually no children to teach. The school building is just a skeleton now that the roof completely collapsed and the wooden floors were falling apart from water damage. This scene showed how even though Congeros made extensive efforts to keep their village alive, it was to no avail. These efforts will not be successful without the help of an effective government. Although most don’t want to leave, the people of Congo Mirador feel as if they have no other choice because of this.

This “no other choice” feeling is something that many migrants experience when making the decision to leave their home. In this documentary, this feeling is shown by the people of Congo Mirador as they try to revive their village, but eventually leave it behind. There are other documentaries, however, that discuss different types of migrants who share this similar experience. An example of this would be the film 19 Days directed by Ashad and Roda Siad, which focuses on refugee families in Canada and the first couple of weeks in their new country. Many of the refugee families expressed how they were mostly there out of necessity, looking for a specific service, job, or opportunity which they could not find or access in their home country. All seemed to face difficulty in leaving their home country behind. Both documentaries, 19 Days and Once Upon a Time in Venezuela, raise similar questions about reasons for migration and the individual struggle that accompanies the decision to leave.

Overall, Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is a very informative and well-directed film that represents the current socio-economic and political issues of Venezuela while raising awareness about the forgotten village of Congo Mirador. It was extremely effective in showcasing the reality of a deteriorating village and a deteriorating country that its people can no longer live in. The successful coverage of these complex issues paired with raw and realistic scenery and emotional interviews with the Congeros made for a beautiful film about the real life experiences of migrants in a corrupted nation. For this, the documentary deserves the highest of ratings.

Learn more about Once Upon a Time in Venezuela here.

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