In the balding foothills just east of Caracas, a sprawling glass-and-concrete structure bakes in the equatorial sun. The bleached façade and tinted windows have the look of a strip mall or generic suburban office block. But La Villa del Cine—"Cinemaville"—is the headquarters for Hugo Chávez's latest campaign in the struggle for Latin America's hearts and minds: a state-owned film studio that's the Venezuelan strongman's answer to what he denounces as the "tyranny" of Hollywood. His loyalists hail it as a "platform" to "revolutionize consciousness." Many Venezuelans just call it Hugowood.
It's only 18 miles from downtown, but the drive there turns out to be a two-and-a-half-hour ordeal. With state-subsidized gasoline at a petropopulist 17 cents a gallon, the entire nation of 27 million seems to be on the road this morning. President Chávez, known to his devotees as Comandante Hugo, has called upon people across Latin America to rise up in the name of the 19th-century independence hero Simón Bolivar, break the shackles of neoliberalism, and join the fight for "21st-century socialism." To that end he courts Hizbullah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is stockpiling Russian-made fighter jets and tanks, and has given aid and comfort to Colombian narcoguerrillas. But stuck in traffic outside the capital, you have to wonder why anyone believes his rhetoric. No one in Venezuela will ever make it to the Bolivarian revolution on time.
Cinemaville is a similarly hollow threat. Just inside the studio gates, a man-made canal leads to an artificial stream and lakebed—but there was no water in them when I visited recently. Indoors, the corridors and edit bays are vacant except for one or two stray techies in jeans and tennis shoes. Rows of sewing machines lie idle under dust covers in the costume atelier. An electrical fire earlier this year knocked out most of the studio's work-stations, forcing producers, editors, seamstresses, carpenters, and engineers to relocate. "Here is Studio 1. Six to eight different film sets can fit in here," a perky Cinemaville PR aide chirps, opening the door to an empty warehouse.
Like most everything else in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Cinemaville was built to be noticed but not scrutinized. Chávez has a habit of inaugurating partly completed projects for the cameras and then losing interest in them. His leadership style is the stuff of cinema, replete with red berets, -camouflage-clad citizen militias, and gale-force stump speeches. But few Venezuelans would be surprised if this project turns out like so many others—impulsive, exorbitant, overstated, and ultimately cast aside. Reputable filmmakers keep their distance if they can afford to. Others grit their teeth. "Because they need the money, and because Chávez has plenty of it, filmmakers are a highly blackmailable class," says Fernando Rodríguez, an art critic for the Caracas paper Tal Cual. "I wouldn't have anything to do with the Villa if I could," a noted Venezuelan director told me, and then asked not to be named.
Like the 20th-century autocrats he emulates, Chávez is fascinated by the power of cinema. Ever since Hitler turned to Leni Riefenstahl, dictators have dreamed of harnessing the epic force of the big screen for their political script. With Cinemaville, Chávez has positioned himself, consciously or not, as heir to the leading men of 20th-century totalitarianism. (Even the studio name, La Villa del Cine, is a steal from Mussolini's Cinecittà film studio.) Having intimidated or shut down most of the independent press, rewritten the Constitution, and nationalized hundreds of companies, Chávez has come to dominate millions of Venezuelans' daily lives. Hugowood is his bid to control their imaginations as well. Its official slogan is "Lights, camera, revolution!"
Oil money has kept the cameras rolling since Hugowood first opened in 2006. At present the studio complex has 13 original feature films in the can, with 12 more in the works and a reported budget of $16 million for 2009 alone (though only two features have been released so far this year). The output includes everything from historical epics to romantic comedies to documentaries. Narratives vary, but the one hard rule is to divide the world into two categories: those who are for Chávez and those who are against him. And since a revolution's work is never done, every Monday a committee of state-appointed experts examines a fresh batch of screenplays, weighing them for appropriately Bolivarian content. Thought control? "This is about defending Venezuela," says Hector Sóto, Venezuela's culture minister. "I worry about our kids spending their weekends watching Mel Gibson killing people for an hour and a half."
The studio's producers, directors, and actors cut their teeth in telenovelas, a genre in which Venezuela excels. But at run times of two hours or more and freighted with revolutionary gravitas, Cinemaville's features sometimes feel like soaps on steroids. "Our job here is not about politics but to seduce the viewer by making the best picture we can," says Armando Silva, the studio postproduction manager. But the not-so-hidden messages are hard to miss in romantic comedies like the newly released Libertador Morales, the Justice Maker, about a motorcycle-taxi driver, a Robin Hood on two wheels who battles Caracas traffic by day and crime by night. (Cinemaville's top draw this year, it has grossed roughly $200,000, against Venezuelan box-office receipts of more than $11 million for Ice Age 3.) For those who prefer documentaries, The Venezuela Petroleum Company draws on newsreels, eyewitness interviews, and even cartoons to tell how Venezuelans rescued their fabulous oil wealth from rapacious Texans.
But despite all the talk of purging the "imperialist" aesthetic, Cinemaville goes gaga over Yanqui screen-idol visitors like Tim Robbins, Kevin Spacey, and Danny Glover. Last year Sean Penn spent six days in Venezuela and was squired around the country by Comandante Hugo himself. The crowning glory was an announcement in 2007 that Chávez would give $9 million to Glover's project to make a film about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture (though nothing has come of the project to date). The adulation appears to be mutual. Chávez was a guest of honor at the Venice Film Festival in September, where Oliver Stone premiered his newest title, South of the Border, a flattering documentary about El Comandante.
The fact is that Hollywood isn't so much the enemy as it is the benchmark for Hugowood. The studio's directors, actors, and studio technicians have to please audiences that are accustomed to blockbuster standards. Zamora, Free Land and Men, released in July, employed 62 actors and 5,000 extras to tell the story of a 19th-century landowner turned freedom fighter. The studio's biggest hit to date, Miranda Returns, retells the life of Francisco Miranda, a forerunner of Bolivar himself. With Glover in a cameo role as a Haitian pirate, the title character sprints across four continents and four decades in his quest to free Venezuela from Spanish rule. Played by TV idol Jorge Reyes (perhaps better known for his role in an erotic video that leaked onto the Web a few years back), Miranda seduces Catherine the Great, fights in the French Revolution, calls on Thomas Jefferson, and defies the Inquisition before dying a martyr in a Spanish prison. There's plenty of swashbuckling and paeans to liberty and independence, but after two hours and 20 minutes, viewers may find themselves rooting for Spain.
You were expecting a Venezuelan Triumph of the Will? The totalitarian cineastes of the 20th century relied on like-minded artists and intellectuals to remake society. Eisenstein spoke of building a new "Soviet Man," while Mussolini founded a magazine and the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, a professional film school that still exists. But Chávez has little use for thinkers and artists, and Venezuela's students are his sworn enemies. Accomplished painters and sculptors have abandoned or been expelled from public museums and exhibition halls (Chávez closed down the Caracas Atheneum in May) and taken refuge in private galleries. The president recently banned independent -theater troupes from the public stage, and he even scrapped the logos that famous artists had created for each of Venezuela's 35 official museums and theaters, replacing them with a primitivist stencil drawing of a dog and a frog.
Chávez supporters argue that he's knocking down walls that kept the arts cloistered in the hands of a small, wealthy cabal. But the results have been less than encouraging. Caracas once boasted some of the richest fine-arts collections in Latin America. Now the Chavista-run museums have stopped acquiring "elite" works, and attendance has withered. Illiteracy is on the rise. The one uncontested triumph of bringing culture to the masses, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which has taught music throughout the shantytowns, was started a quarter century before Chávez came to power. "This may be the one revolution in history without intellectuals, students, or poets," says Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations. "People don't realize it, but this is not a socialist government. It's a military government."
He'll get no argument from Jonathan Jakubowicz. In 2005 the young Caracas director produced Kidnap Express, a harsh but highly acclaimed depiction of Venezuelan street crime and corruption. The film was distributed by Miramax, grossed $2.4 million, and was touted as a candidate for a foreign-film Oscar. But Chávez saw things differently. His government sued Jakubowicz for "undermining our revolution." Jakubowicz took the cue and headed to Los Angeles, where he is directing a new film, Queen of the South, with Ben Kingsley and Eva Mendes. "Chávez's only goal is to stay in power for life," Jakubowicz says, "And his entire propaganda cultural machine, including filmmaking, works toward that goal." Chávez's critics speak openly of a country heading toward a "Cuban model" of absolute control.
At least Venezuela still hasn't been ostracized like Castro's Cuba. The day I called on Cinemaville, the buzz was all about the pending accreditation by Dolby Surround Sound 5.1, Hollywood's tool of choice to amplify explosions and disaster audio to skull-rattling proportions. "We are nearly certified," says Villa techie Armando Silva. "This will allow us to show our films in the Cine-plex." The revolution will be digitized.
But hold that Oscar. A taxi driver hired to take Cinemaville staffers back to work in Guarenas recently marveled at the studio's portentous façade. "When are you going to start showing movies?" he asked. "This isn't a movie theater. We make movies here," replied Silva, who went on to list some of the studio's titles. The taxi driver hadn't heard of a single one. For now, at least, Tinseltown is safe.