Early years (1890s-1930s)
Teatro Baralt, where the first Venezuelan films were screened
A frame from Un célebre especialista sacando muelas en el gran Hotel Europa
, thought be lost for many decades
A photograph of Maracaibo's "gran" Hotel Europa, in about 1897, the year of its eponymous film
It is said by film writers that during this time, filmmaking was limited to "a few pioneering filmmakers [...] who survived by selling propaganda-style documentaries and newsreels to the [Juan Vicente Gómez dictatorship]". It is also suggested that Venezuelans as a society were more film consumers than producers in this time, and that artistic films were only produced in the wider context of photography or physical art.
The first films shown in Venezuela were released on July 11, 1896 at the Baralt Theater in Maracaibo. This was, however, not fully known until almost a century later in 1983; cinema scholarship in Venezuela was only developed during its "Golden Age" in the late 1970s, until which point the "official history [...] was limited to amusing stories told by those who were present during the early years."
The early exhibition was facilitated by entrepreneur
Luis Manuel Méndez, who had travelled to New York City in June 1896 and acquired a Vitascope, as well as licenses to use it for profit in both Venezuela and Colombia. This made Venezuela the second country in Latin America (after Brazil) to receive film screening technology, and the first to use Vitascope. The films shown included The Monroe Doctrine and Umbrella Dance. Six months later in January 1897 the first films to be produced in Venezuela were shown at the same cinema; these were Un célebre especialista sacando muelas en el gran Hotel Europa and Muchachos bañandose en la laguna de Maracaibo. The reception to the introduction of cinema was seemingly "cold" and "indifferent".
Both these first Venezuelan films, and the credit for bringing Vitascope to Venezuela, have historically been attributed to Manuel Trujillo Durán. Parts of Venezuelan film scholarship have had the tendency to paint Trujillo as the most important film pioneer of the nation; others show that he was simply a photographer who had the ability to operate the Vitascope.
On July 15, 1897 the Cinemagraph was first exhibited in Venezuela, by an employee sent by the Lumière Company, in Caracas. After two months, the Frenchman was run out of the country, but may have helped film this year's Venezuelan film productions, Una paliza en el estado Sarría and Carlos Ruiz peleando con un cochero, shown on November 26. After these, there is little evidence of film production for the next 10 years, though multiple different brands of film cameras and projectors were in the country. In total, there appears to have been 51 films, 37 short films and 14 features, made in Venezuela between 1897 and 1936. All were silent films. The first feature, La dama de las Cayenas, was released in 1913 with a runtime of 60 minutes.
Narrative films, rather than cinema as novelty, began to be produced in Venezuela in the 1910s, with its pioneers
Enrique Zimmerman, director of La Dama de las Cayenas, and
Lucas Manzano, who co-created what is considered Venezuela's first narrative film, Don Confusio. It wasn't long after their respective debuts that they began collaboration, with Manzano coming to produce La Dama de las Cayenas. As Manzano's short films had been light comedies, La Dama... was instead a parody film, targeting the Alexandre Dumas story The Lady of the Camellias, that told a torrid love story. Manzano recounted that it was so successful that it persuaded Zimmerman and himself to choose to become filmmakers, "peliculeros".
This was not the only film inspired by literature:
Jacobo Capriles and
Edgar J. Anzola made La Trepadora, based off a Rómulo Gallegos book as many Latin American films of the century would be, as part of their new production company Triunfo Films, which they had founded in 1923. Soon, film education started in the country, and photographer
Amábilis Cordero took correspondence classes to make his first film, Los milagros de la Divina Pastora in 1928; though he could have been the first notable director to have been trained, he still openly thought of himself as a "rookie". The second production company, Cinematograficos Lara, was founded by Cordero from his profits.
Despite these companies existing, Arturo Serrano states that Venezuela "did not have a single professional filmmaker" and was lagging behind the rest of the world "in terms of quality and the use of cinematographic language". Serrano compares Venezuela's output to Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925) and Intolerance (Griffith, 1916). Whilst the US and Soviet developed technology and identity, and so seem obvious to be leaders in film, Serrano does say that even compared with "some of the other countries in Latin America" Venezuela was behind, despite receiving film before almost the rest of its continent. From the late 1920s, though, even these amateur artistic films almost ceased in production, the industry falling to the government ministries of Gómez and pseudo-documentary films.
Though almost exclusively making informational films, political powers weren't entirely repressive; in 1932 Gómez' nephew Efrain Gómez returned from a trip to the US with technology that would allow sound to be added to film." With the government film agency LCN (Laboratorio Cinematográfico Nacional) having been merged with Maracay Films, Efrain Gómez worked through this company to make La venus de Nácar: Fantasía Aborigen, the first Venezuelan sound film, using only background music. When Gómez died in 1935, the government agencies of production became more chaotic (briefly becoming SCN — the 'S' for 'Servicio') before being shut down in 1938.
The Ministry of Public Works would lease the film equipment to private companies at the urging of
Tomás Pacanins, though the two companies that received the most support had Pacanins as shareholder. One of these companies used the resources to create Venezuela's first synchronous sound film — one that records the sounds belonging to the recorded actions — in 1938; the accolade belongs to either Taboga or El Rompimiento. Taboga features both speech and live music, and scholars also claim it as the first Venezuelan film with a "director to understand the artistic possibilities of cinema as a medium of visual expression".
Birth of Venezuelan films (1940s to 1960s)
Film poster of La Balandra Isabel llegó esta tarde
From the beginning of the 1940s, there was an attitude of commercialism. Producers in Venezuela "copied [...] Mexico's mode of film production [and] its narrative and formal patterns", to guarantee at least some cinema audience. The film scholar Darlene J. Sadlier comments that "profit was the main objective" in these decades, but that film producers also aimed to make Venezuelan films relatable for Venezuelan people. Even after the death of President Gómez, into the 1950s, most film profits were made from commercial advertisements and propaganda. These films showcased Venezuelan nationalism, through techniques like landscape shots, folklore-based stories, and film stereotypes to make them publicly palatable. There was also competition with the Mexican film industry in these years, with Venezuelan people enjoying and celebrating the Mexican film output; the Mexican film Allá en el Rancho Grande was screened in Venezuela in 1936, and "beat every picture", with the Mexican stories and production system being supported in the following decades. It took only two years for Mexican and Argentinian film to overtake Hollywood films in Venezuelan screening numbers. As Venezuela's film industry was being born in the 1940s, there were co-production agreements established, which let Venezuelan actors appear in Mexican films, in a way to create more Latin American stars and help the Venezuelan films blossom with famous actors from both nations. Having Spanish and other Latin American actors in Venezuelan productions also contributed to a "'feel' of foreignness" that made films more successful in Venezuela.
Landmarks of Venezuelan cinema include two Cannes winners from this period: Carlos Hugo Christensen's 1949 film La Balandra Isabel llego esta tarde, the first South American winner at Cannes, taking the Best Cinematography Award at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival, was the culmination of
Bolívar Films' efforts to create a real film industry in Venezuela, though it failed; Margot Benacerraf's 1959 documentary Araya, which "was hailed as a masterpiece of poetic cinema", was entered into the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, where it shared the Cannes International Critics Prize with Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour.
The Golden Age: Development of film identity (1970s and 1980s)
In the World Cinema: Critical Approaches anthology, it is said that whilst "Venezuelan cinema began sporadically in the 1950s[, it] only emerged as a national-cultural movement in the mid-1970s" when it gained state support and auteurs could produce work. International co-productions with Latin America and Spain continued into this era and beyond, and Venezuelan films of this time were counted among the works of New Latin American Cinema. This period is known as Venezuela's Golden Age of cinema, having massive popularity even though it was a time of much social and political upheaval.
One of the most famous Venezuelan films, even to date, is the 1976 film Soy un delincuente by Clemente de la Cerda, which won the Special Jury Prize at the 1977 Locarno International Film Festival. Soy un delincuente was one of nine films for which the state gave substantial funding to produce, made in the year after the Venezuelan state began giving financial support to cinema in 1975. The support likely came from increased oil wealth in the early 1970s, and the subsequent 1973 credit incentive policy. At the time of its production the film was the most popular film in the country, and took a decade to be usurped from this position, even though it was only one in a string of films designed to tell social realist stories of struggle in the 1950s and '60s.
Equally famous is the 1977 film El Pez que Fuma (Román Chalbaud).
In 1981 FONCINE (the Venezuelan Film Fund) was founded, and this year it provided even more funding to produce seventeen feature films. Though a few years later, in 1983, oil prices depreciated and Venezuela entered a depression which prevented such extravagant funding, film production continued; more transnational productions occurred, many more with Spain due to Latin America experiencing poor economic fortune in general, and there was some success in new cinema, as well: Fina Torres' 1985 Oriana won the Caméra d'Or Prize at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival as the best first feature.
Venezuelan capital Caracas hosted the Ibero-American Forum on Cinematography Integration in 1989, from which the pan-continental IBERMEDIA was formed; a union which provides regional funding.
Falling production (1990s)
In 1993 Venezuelan cinema saw another boom, enabled by FONCINE more than quintupling their funding, but which was most significantly marked by a greater world presence and more festival wins in the mid-1990s, like Joseph Novoa's Sicario (1994), which won the Best Feature Film Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Venezuela also ratified its first
National Cinematography Law in the 1990s.
Modern cinema (2000-present)
Actor Édgar Ramírez in 2017
Director Jonathan Jakubowicz in 2016
A few decades after most Western cinemas found their legs, Venezuela found theirs. The 21st Century saw an increase in production aligned with other developments introduced to the country. There were more films made, and to a higher standard. Elia Schneider's Punto y Raya (2004), actor Édgar Ramírez' first film, won four international awards, including the Special Jury Prize at the Havana Film Festival.
Even so, the Routledge Companion to Latin American Cinema, published in 2017, still makes a distinction between big Latin American film markets in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, and the cinema regimes of nations like Cuba and Venezuela. It explains that Venezuela is a particularly obvious case of "how state investments, [and] both direct and indirect support, can influence domestic productions carried out ostensibly by private companies", suggesting that even in the 2010s Venezuelan film productions have some element of state control and propaganda.
One highly criticised film of the time is Jonathan Jakubowicz's Secuestro Express (2005), distributed internationally by Miramax and then-highest-grossing Venezuelan film, which may criticise organised crime. The social narrative is highly discussed, critics generally agreed that social issues are made apparent but not commented on, with no "well-examined social theory": according to critic Ed Gonzalez, the film overall gives a "juvenile inspection of [the] country's moral oblivion", and shows a "pat reduction of [the] country's machismo". Another, Elizabeth Weitzman, offers that "the sadism is so gleefully nasty that it overshadows any rational argument", and Luke Y. Thompson says that "the apparent thesis that poverty justifies such acts doesn't quite wash"; the New York Times reviewer opines that "the villains become more human, even sympathetic", in this film with "constant threat of violence and rape" that she does say is "difficult to endure". However, it still "enraged" Hugo Chávez enough to publicly threaten Jakubowicz, a filmmaker who became more prominent and celebrated in the years after this.
Comparatively, many of the films of 2000–2010 have historical settings, and tackle social issues there, from Román Chalbaud's El Caracazo (2005), which was the most costly Venezuelan film at the time, to Mariana Rondón's 2007 film Postales de Leningrado, which was awarded the Golden Sun Award at the Biarritz International Festival of Latin American Cinema, to 2009's Venezzia, produced by Haik Gazarian, which won about fifteen awards around the world in film festivals and is one of Venezuela's most expensive films overall.
In the late 2000s other genres, those seen as neither propaganda nor productive in social criticism, began to make appearances. In 2010, Fina Torres' romance-drama Habana Eva was awarded Best International Feature at the New York International Latino Film Festival. The 2013 horror film La Casa del Fin de los Tiempos became such a success that its director was hired in 2016 to shoot an American remake.
Overall, however, the 2010s films of Venezuela are much more socially critical of the present than previous mainstream Venezuelan films were, including some which deal with homosexuality and homophobia, and dubbed by El País as "hearty revival in Venezuela's movie-making industry". Rondón's Pelo malo (2013) is ostensibly a coming-of-age story, but which even explicitly runs deeper into inherent problems with Venezuelan society. Pelo malo won the Golden Shell at the 2013 San Sebastián International Film Festival, whilst Miguel Ferrari's Azul y no tan rosa (2012), which did receive public funding from a government program, became the first Venezuelan film to win the Goya Award for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film in its 2014 edition; the two films have been described as "wakeup calls against intolerance and homophobia in today’s society". In 2015, Claudia Pinto's film Desde Allá became the first Venezuelan, and first Latin American, film to win the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival.
Other films from later in the decade take a stance directly against the government, La familia and La Soledad (both 2017) focus on surviving amid the economic crisis, whilst 2018's Chavismo: The Plague of the 21st Century is, as titled, a distasteful look on the government's Chavist ideology.
Carlos Oteyza 's El pueblo soy yo analyzes the populism of Hugo Chávez. Jorge Thielen Armand's La Soledad is described by The Economist as "the latest in a glut of Venezuelan films telling unflinching, complex stories of life in the troubled Andean nation", which also acknowledges that it, and many other films like it, have received state funding; it proposes that the reason is a continuation of Chávez' isolationist policies in an attempt to maintain state control over pictures shown in cinemas. The article then discusses how Venezuela was, in 2017, at a critical tipping point, facing the simultaneous increase in independent Venezuelan filmmaking and mass emigration of directors and cinematographers.
In February 2017, Nicolás Maduro announced that there was a dire need to create a biopic of Chávez, to tell a hero's story and to counter the presentation of the dictator by international film and television; Román Chalbaud had begun production on a Chávez trilogy by mid-2018. In July 2017, the Centro Nacional Autónomo de Cinematografía, previously autonomous if supported by the government, was appointed a new chair in the Deputy Culture Minister Aracelis García.