Jason Cohen’s Impressions from Venezuela

Don’t leave your hotel. Don’t wear any fancy watches. Don’t use your cell phone in public. These were just some of the warnings we were given in the run up to our AFS trip to Venezuela. Not usually the first things you want to hear, but surely this must have been an exaggeration… not so much!

When we (filmmaker Hugo Perez and I) arrived in Caracas, the armored SUV that picked us up immediately told us we were not in the States anymore. The current political climate in Venezuela has wreaked havoc on the basic needs of the country and that was all amplified in the capital, Caracas, a city where random kidnappings, carjackings and murder have become the norm. Throw in an unstable market for currency exchange and you have the makings of what should have been a challenging trip.

All that being said, with the coordination and help of the U.S. Embassy, we had a truly wonderful experience and met some really inspiring people and students along the way who were so appreciative of our visit.

We did multiple screenings of my film Facing Fear throughout the trip and it was obvious that the themes of hate, tolerance and forgiveness in the film have no boundaries. This was something we always knew from the inception of the film, but you never really know how it will translate until you can get it in front of audiences. These were our first screenings in a third-world country, and if it was any indication for future screenings around the globe, then we know we have a tool that can impact people everywhere.

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The film provoked lengthy discussions, and the relevance to the current situation in Venezuela was not lost on me. It was extremely gratifying to know we could spark a discussion that seemed to be waiting to surface amongst the students and audiences we met with. For our screening in Merida, the students had prepped for two weeks in a class about bullying and tolerance, and they came to the table with an impressive array of astute observations and questions. Our Caracas screening yielded strong reactions from the LGBT community and an overall desire to use the film for educational purposes in the future. The general theme of reconciliation resonated across all lines as the country struggles with two opposing political parties who have often taken to violence as a means to “resolve” their differences.

Hugo and I also conducted documentary workshops for students at two schools. We weren’t sure what to expect going in, regarding the students’ experience level and the resources available to them, given the tough economic and political environment. Merida is a progressive town and center of the opposition party in the country, trying to change what Hugo Chavez (and now Nicolás Maduro) have instituted there. As a consequence, we encountered students with film projects that had a real social issue and political slant to them.

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It was immediately clear that the students had a definite voice in their work. We watched and heard of projects that addressed a range of issues: the loss of indigenous tribal customs, the controversy over the ethics of bullfighting, smugglers on the Colombian border bringing in gas and other goods for the black market, and the “Big Brother” nature of the Chavez regime. Not only did the topics impress us, but the production value and instinctive approach was beyond what I had expected and certainly on par with film students here at home.

We had a workshop on documentary storytelling, and they were asking all the right questions and making all the right references. It was obvious they had soaked up documentary films across all genres and time periods in their pursuit to tell their own moving stories.

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Our pitch workshops also were a success. In Maracaibo, students seized the opportunity to have their ideas heard and get feedback from us and their peers. We heard pitches that covered local characters, feminist perspectives and a topic close to me and Facing Fear—forgiveness.

We did a few TV interviews where my somewhat broken Spanish was forced into action, and surprisingly, I may not have lost every viewer who tuned in. I was a little surprised about how in-tune to the Oscars everyone was and politely fielded questions about my experience with that while stressing that we are filmmakers first who don’t have that in mind when we embark on a project.

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While we were always on the move to classes, screenings or receptions, we did find some time for sightseeing, with the highlight being our traverse through the Andes up to an altitude of 15,000 feet that rewarded us with some amazing vistas, photo ops and stops in rapidly-changing indigenous villages. Our hosts made the entire trip as smooth and welcoming as possible, even going so far as to hold a reception for us at that included homemade American food (deep-dish pizza and apple pie) and a performance by a well-known Venezuelan jazz singer doing covers of American jazz and blues standards!

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Overall, I was probably most struck by how the Venezuelan people manage to maintain a sense of normalcy while living in a climate of danger and instability with no sign that things will change anytime soon. Moreover, it was obvious these very conditions foster an immense creativity and the recognition that film could be a force to alter mindsets and make a statement in ways they haven’t been able to previously. I am so glad AFS gave us the opportunity to continue to encourage some of these ideas and do our part in laying the seeds for the future generation of Venezuelan filmmakers. My hope is to return or at least continue to follow the work of the students we met, as they push their work out for the world to see and express themselves to their fullest potential.

View our Venezuela 2014 photo album.

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