CARACAS, Venezuela — A new wave of cinema is emerging from the chaos and violence of modern Venezuela that focuses on highly personal tales of gay love affairs and little boys who want to wear party dresses.
Following the tradition of 1990s gay Cuban cinema, Venezuelan directors are finding creative ways to produce films that explore and criticize society despite increasing government control of TV and other media. And they’re doing it with state funding.
The debut feature “From Afar,” by a little-known Venezuelan director, won top honors last week at the Venice Film Festival, one of the industry’s top events. The film is about an affair between a wealthy middle-aged man and a teenage thug set against a background of poverty and violence.
Like the prize-winning film “Bad Hair,” about a poor Venezuelan boy grappling with his sexual identity, and “My Straight Son,” in which a teenager goes to live with his gay father, “From Afar” was made possible by government grants.
Venezuela has never had a strong filmmaking tradition, but the South American country’s 16-year-old socialist revolution has pushed to create a state-sponsored national cinema like the ones that produced Cuban and Soviet classics.
The National Center for Cinematography sends filmmakers abroad to learn about filmmaking and provides seed money for projects. It also supports a new film school run by President Nicolas Maduro’s 24-year-old son. The number of films produced in Venezuela has quadrupled since 2005 to about 20 a year, still far short of the average of 50 produced in Argentina.
Venezuela’s state-sponsored films avoid overtly political topics, but issues shaping daily life peek through, including rising poverty and some of the world’s highest crime rates.
The young thug in “From Afar” lives in a grim government apartment complex presumably built under the administration of the late President Hugo Chavez. The older man is pulled into his life after being robbed, an increasingly common experience in the city.
Director Lorenzo Vigas finished filming in Caracas’ streets in 2014, one week before simmering pressures exploded in violent protests nationwide. “That tension colors the feel of the film,” he said in an interview before his win at Venice.
The gay themes in Venezuela’s cinema renaissance may seem odd given that Maduro is criticized for lobbing anti-gay slurs at opponents. But Vigas says he never experienced any censorship.
Venezuelan filmmakers are following a tradition of using sexual drama to highlight political issues.
Perhaps the best-known example is the 1993 state-sponsored Cuban movie “Strawberry and Chocolate,” an international hit featuring a gay character. An explosion of gay cinema followed the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, led by director Pedro Almodovar.
While Venezuelan officials seem to welcome the movies’ international acclaim, they tolerate filmmakers’ independence only up to a point.
“Bad Hair” director Mariana Rondon angered officialdom when she said her 2013 film about a young boy who wants to tame his curly hair was a critique of the revolution’s “with us or against us” attitude.
“I made this film to free myself from the pain of living amid so much intolerance,” she said while accepting the highest award at the San Sebastian film festival. “Thinking differently shouldn’t be seen as a problem.”
Officials said Rondon’s career was made possible by the revolution she disavowed.
It’s unclear how many Venezuelans will see “From Afar” when it’s released here.
As “My Straight Son” triumphed last year at the Goya Awards, Spain’s version of the Oscars, Venezuelans were flocking to see “The Liberator,” a biopic about 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar that broke box office records for a locally produced film.
While “The Liberator” was shown in commercial theaters, the easiest place to see Venezuela’s festival darlings has been to buy them at a pirated-DVD kiosk.
Their invisibility is part of why the government can afford to nurture the relatively subversive films, said David William Foster, who teaches Latin American film at Arizona State University.
“If people go to the movies, they go to see Hollywood films. These gay productions are just minor pests,” he said.