Along a dusty highway, 18 miles or so outside of Caracas, Venezuela, you’ll see the gates of La Villa del Cine. It’s not a prison. It’s not a strip mall. It’s a movie studio that looks, well, like a prison or a strip mall. But La Villa isn’t just any movie studio, it’s the movie studio in Venezuela; created, funded and run by President Hugo Chavez’s government. The official slogan of the state-run studio: Lights! Cameras! Revolution! Look out Hollywood — this is Hugowood!
In a country where nearly everything is controlled by the government, including the media, Hugowood appears to be Chavez’s last endeavor to control the minds of the masses, this time, through the magic of movies. The government controls all aspects of La Villa, from script approval to the movie’s promotion and premiere.
And while the studio doesn’t look like much from the outside — two large, boxy buildings sit low on the horizon blending in with the gray, sparse landscape — Hugowood is a source of pride for Chavez’s government and they were more than happy to show it off.
My tour guide was a perky little woman, from the P.R. department, who didn’t speak any English. Still she knew the names of a few Hollywood A-listers and quickly rattled off Danny Glover and Kevin Spacey — apparently name dropping is just as important at Hugowood as it is in Hollywood.
First stop on the tour was one of the two sound stages. My name-dropping tour guide tells me, through my producer (who is expertly also playing role of interpreter), that almost all of the movies from La Villa have been filmed here. But nothing was happening — both sound stages were empty, the back-lot was deserted and the only cameras rolling were ours. Same story in the carpenter’s shop, the upholstery shop and the costume department.
In fact, I saw more mangy dogs roaming around than movie directors. Not to worry, my tour guide tells me, nothing is being filmed right now, so you’re not missing anything. But it sure feels like I am. Where are all of the Lights? Cameras? Revolution?
Oil money and booming economy helped bankroll Hugowood in 2006, but times are very different now, and the studio isn’t immune. Last year, Hugowood only released two films compared to 14 in 2006.
Chavez has said Hugowood is his answer to what he calls the dictatorship of Hollywood.
But Venezuelan filmmaker, Jonathan Jakubowicz, likens Hugowood to a major box office bomb.
“They created all this infrastructure for propaganda movies that has been a complete disaster,” he told me during an interview at his loft in Los Angeles, where he now lives full-time. ” I mean, first of all, you see movies that cost $4 million, which for us is a fortune and are being watched by 7,000 people. Nobody wants to be told the government is great when you go to a movie theater.”
In 2005, Jakubowicz directed and produced the independent thriller Secuestro Express. The movie tells the story of an express kidnapping in Caracas, shining an unflattering spotlight on crimes and corruption on the streets of the capitol. It was distributed nationwide in Venezuela by Miramax and, in a matter of weeks, the film generated a record 2.4 million dollars at the box office — making it the country’s highest grossing movie of all time, beating the Venezuelan releases of Passion of the Christ and Titanic. The film not only struck a nerve with audiences, it got the attention of Chavez’s government — and not in a good way.
“The vice president of Venezuela started talking about the movie, saying it’s a miserable film with no artistic value. Everybody started attacking the movie, attacking me,” Jakubowicz told me. “Then a lawyer sued me and was asking for 6 to 10 years of jail for portraying the authorities under a negative light and promoting the use of drugs. And then Chavez, in his state of the union address, said that he didn’t understand why I was still roaming the streets in freedom. That was at 9 a.m. And at 12 a.m. I was flying out of the country.”
Jakubowicz tells me that Hugowood was created in response to the runaway success of his film.
“When we released our movie, there were no government movies. They started making movies because of my movie. It was sort of a response because they were like ‘wow, so a movie can be this successful, maybe we should get into movies,’ he said. “So they never realized that movies could be part of their propaganda machine. Here goes this little guy, makes a small little Venezuelan movie and it beats Titanic? You know their dream is to beat Hollywood.”
Is Hugowood a legitimate endeavor to further the arts in Venezuela and put the country on the movie-making map, or is it the ultimate propaganda machine?
Jennifer London is an award-winning broadcast journalist who is currently working as a correspondent for World Report on HDNet. Her report on Venezuela’s ‘Hugowood’ will air on World Report, Tuesday, June 15.