Is Venezuelan Film ‘The Liberator’ a Historical Biopic or Propaganda Blockbuster?


Equestrian statue of Bolívar. Flickr image by wallyg (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The long-awaited film about the life of Simón Bolívar premiered in Venezuela on July 24, the anniversary of the famous freedom fighter's birth. Called “The Liberator,” as Bolívar was nicknamed, the film chronicles the struggle of Venezuela's native son to secure the independence of Spain's South American colonies.

“The Liberator” was an instant box-office success, and moviegoers quickly registered their reactions across social media. At a time when Venezuela is divided about its past, its current vision of itself and the path forward, however, the unveiling of a historical drama has only served to further polarize debate. So it comes as no surprise that while some audience members delighted in a patriotic blockbuster, others were surprised by the liberties taken with regard to historical facts.

One article in particular by historian Tomás Straka published on the webzine Prodavinci was widely read and disseminated. In “Bolívar: two movies, one epic?,” Straka compared the biopic with more traditional biographies, pointing out that the power of cinema resides in its ability to conjure up images, and that it easier to be swept up by the narrative on the silver screen than by the stories told in the official documents of the period:

Por supuesto, una biopic no es un documental ni un libro de historia, pero puede tener ese efecto e incluso otros mucho mayores. Los hechos demuestran que el cine ha jugado un papel fundamental en la construcción de los imaginarios. En ocasiones lo hace de forma no deliberada, y en otras apelando a todo un aparato ideológico, escenifica personajes y episodios que las mayorías terminan aceptando por verídicas, cumpliendo para la historia oficial –o para la contrahistoria de una parcialidad- el rol que tuvieron los autos sacramentales para la historia sagrada.

Of course a biopic is neither a documentary nor a history book, but it can have that effect and more on viewers. The fact is that cinema plays a key role in the construction of our communal imagination. Sometimes it happens by accident, but at other times there is an underlying ideological apparatus at work that depicts characters and events such that many people end up accepting them as gospel—in the same way that medieval pageants reinforced religious texts, these films contribute to either the official or the revisionist versions of our cultural history.

Straka also said it is important to pay attention to the changes made in the film, in light of the image of Bolívar that different governments and political factions have wanted to project:

…mucha gente puede tomar por ciertas las invenciones de Libertador. Invenciones que, de paso, respaldan las que ciertas –que no todas– versiones de la izquierda y del gobierno han hecho de la historia.

Un autor de ficción tiene derecho a poner lo que quiera (por ejemplo, que [Simón] Rodríguez tuviera el don de volar, de ver a través de las paredes o de pelear kung fu), pero el riesgo en una biopic es, de nuevo, que la gente se lo tome en serio.

…many people might take the fictions in “The Liberator” for granted, fictions that by the way reinforce certain—but not all—historical versions promoted by the government and the left in general.

An author of fiction can take whatever liberties they like (for example, that [Venezuelan educator and Bolívar's mentor Simón] Rodríguez had the gift of flight, could see through walls and practised kung fu), but the risk is, once again, that in a biopic people will take it seriously.

In response, historian Andrés Pérez Sepúlveda shared some of his thoughts about the film's reception on his blog Islandia no es tan lejos (Iceland is not that far) as a response to Tomás Straka. There, the blogger mentioned the political divide that has existed in Venezuela for the past 15 years, marked by the movement started by the late President Hugo Chávez (known as ‘chavismo’) and his opponents:

Tomás, el público (tú y yo incluidos) no es tonto, y no podemos desprendernos de la piel contemporánea porque eso sí sería una negación del tiempo (…). De vez en cuando vale la pena sentarse a disfrutar de una historia que por lo menos intenta reconstruir el tejido del país, con el objetivo de explorar el beneficioso placer de formar parte de una comunidad.

…Al emocionarnos con una película sobre Bolivar, Tomás, estamos correspondiendo a un imperativo que es más importante que ser de oposición o chavista: ser ciudadano, formar parte de una nación que ayudaron a crear otros hombres. Estar conscientes del pasado ya es un triunfo que se le suma al espectador, aunque no haya leído las biografías más rigurosas y confiables de la acción histórica de Bolívar.

Tomás, the audience (you and I included) are not fools and we cannot disconnect ourselves from contemporary currents and negate the passage of time (…) Sometimes it is worth sitting down and enjoying a story that at least attempts to reconstruct the cultural fabric of the country, with the goal of exploring the useful pleasure of being part of a community.

…To be moved by a film about Bolívar, Tomás, means we are responding to an emotional imperative that is more important than being pro-Chavez or part of the opposition: to be a citizen, to be part of a country that helped to create other men. To make the audience conscious of the past is enough of a victory, even if they have not read the most rigorous and faithful historical biographies of Bolívar.

In his blog Venezuela y su Historia (Venezuela and its History), Profeballa enumerated the flaws of the film, which he considered a propaganda tool of the government:

…Otra vez la tontería y gran manipulación histórica de generar dudas sobre la muerte de Bolívar cuando se ha demostrado que no hubo ninguna conspiración para asesinarlo y que su muerte fue por tuberculosis.
(…) En general la manipulación esta vez fue peor, porque se nos quiso hacer ver que era una producción independiente del gobierno chavista. (…) Esta versión se puede definir como la más cercana a la visión de Bolívar que se ha creado desde el poder en estos últimos 15 años en Venezuela…
…Lo bueno es que se ha demostrado que se puede hacer una superproducción con una maravillosa fotografía y con batallas al mejor estilo Hollywood (…). Algún día espero que se haga un Bolívar con los mejores, en especial con historiadores honestos.

More nonsense and historical manipulation to raise doubts about Bolívar's death when it has been clearly demonstrated that there was no conspiracy to assassinate him, and that in fact he died of tuberculosis. (…)

But this time the manipulation was especially bad because they wanted us to think it was an independent production, not a government one (…). This version of Bolívar is the closest to the one the powers that be have been trying to create for the last 15 years in Venezuela.

The good news is that we are capable of producing a blockbuster with wonderful cinematography and Hollywood-style battle scenes (…). One day I hope we can collaborate on a really good Bolívar film, especially with honest historians.

It did not take long for social media to exploit the film's images, creating memes to denounce the country's economic woes, like this one that alludes to the suspension of flights to Venezuela by several airlines, which has made getting out of the country increasingly difficult for many Venezuelans:

Meme Bolívar 1

“I told them to buy their tickets in January.”

Memes also took pot shots at the widespread shortage of basic necessities. This meme refers to government-subsidized supermarkets that cater to low-income families in working class regions of the country. These supermarkets, retailing under the Mercal banner, were no better at delivering much-needed consumer staples:

Meme Bolívar 2

“What do you mean only two per person?”

On Twitter, users have shared many more reactions to the film and the liberties taken with the facts. Discussions and debates will only intensify in the coming days as moviegoers lining up to see the biopic and other commenters continue to share their opinions. Despite the controversy, films like “The Liberator” contribute to cultural exchange by forcing us to confront our historical past, the gap between legend and reality and, most important, what our heroes mean to us.

In short, the film ‘Libertator’ might be seen as a call to reflect on the use of the historic past, the difference between legend and reality, and, even more important, the vision the country has of its myths and heroes.

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