Mario Crespo Just Wanted to Make a Film on the Warao People, Then It Became Venezuela’s Oscar Entry

'Dauna. Lo que lleva el río'

Venezuelan director Mario Crespo’s Dauna. lo que lleva el río (Gone with the River) evokes the escapism that represents the primal essence of cinema. Set in his home country’s Orinoco Delta, a sprawling wetland of mangroves and forests, the film centers on the Warao people who inhabit the region. Dauna is a young woman whose strong sense of curiosity and wanderlust is at odds with local tradition. Her independence arouses her own escapist desires, looking beyond the Orinoco horizon, as the counterbalancing perspectives of audience and protagonist emphasize liberty as far more of an emotional concept than a physical one.

Gone with the River has been forwarded as Venezuela’s nomination for the foreign film gong at next year’s Oscars, yet it faces some seriously strong competition within Latin America. With mainstream culture having long neglected Latin America’s indigenous population, Crespo joins a growing band of filmmakers offering a more representative portrayal of the region and all those who live there, rather than a select group. Among the other Latin American Oscar contenders are Guatemala’s Ixcanul and Colombia’s El abrazo de la serpiente, both of which situate indigenous protagonists at their center. There is still a long way to go before genuine representation is achieved in film – not least among those behind the camera, rather than just in front of it – but things are at least moving gradually in a more inclusive direction.

With Gone with the River confirmed as the Venezuelan entry for the Oscars, Mario Crespo sat down with us to discuss his film, as well as the challenges faced by non-commercial filmmakers and the state of Venezuelan cinema today.

On getting to know the Warao people

“The most exciting aspect was in the happiness of my Warao friends, who saw the script and put it in their own words.”

Since 2000, I’ve been traveling with the Asociación Civil Yakarí to the Orinoco Delta, which has been the settlement of this ethnicity for more than 9,000 years. I got to know the people and immerse myself in the culture and customs. When we wanted to tell the life story of a woman of great resilience and independent spirit, I thought about my Warao friends, who are an example of perseverance in multiculturalism without losing their most intimate customs or traditions.

On filming in the Orinoco Delta

As city people who live on solid ground, the biggest logistical challenge was getting used to being on water. They live in palafitos (houses built on stilts) and are surrounded by water. The most exciting aspect was in the happiness of my old friends, who saw the script and told it in their own words. They improved my texts written in Spanish and put them into their language. They incorporated their way of saying things and their metaphorical language.

On cinema’s lack of indigenous representation

Recently, cinema has dedicated itself much more to visiting unknown regions and different cultures. Cinema always looks to uncover new things and, with the technology today, we are able to go to separate regions. It’s more about distributors and exhibiters. It’s necessary to create public taste – create a perception for this kind of cinema, increase the number of spectators. Indigenous film festivals exist, but what doesn’t exist is appreciation for the product. There needs to be an open and unprejudiced perception between distributors, exhibitors, and the public all over the world to build the demand for this cinema.

On the reaction Warao audiences and general audiences had to the film

“The national premiere was in the lands inhabited by the Warao, in the city of Tucupita and the community where we shot the scenes.”

At film festivals in different countries, there has been good reception from the cinephile public that dares to take risks. In Venezuela, it went well, as the public here appreciates [the fact that] we are showing their compatriots. There’s a lot of curiosity about this subject. We’ve won prizes as well.

The national premiere was in the lands inhabited by the Warao, in the city of Tucupita and the community where we shot the scenes. The actors and crew attended both screenings. We passed the main test, as people felt well-represented. In the end, they asked us to return to shoot more films in which they could see themselves.

On influential directors

I really like anthropological cinema, documentary cinema, and fiction that addresses human themes in all their variants. I don’t have a favorite maestro. Of all the cinema greats – from Flaherty to Visconti and Polanski, through Carlos Reygadas and his experiments with non-professional actors – from all of them I’ve taken experiences, ways of approaching reality or reinventing it. Ways of working with actors.

On being an Oscar contender

I’ve seen all the Latin American films forwarded for the Oscars, and they seem like excellent nominations. The competition is tough, which means a greater incentive to get close to the nominations or be nominated. The difference in production resources between the nominations sets the tone this year. I hope the academy members look closely at a film with as small a production, as well-told and as risk-taking as ours.

On contemporary Venezuelan cinema

Things are going well for many directors in new Venezuelan cinematography. The variety of themes and aesthetics in our cinema today has caught the attention of juries and audiences around the world. I think Venezuelan film will be spoken about a lot.

On the future

I’m now preparing a fiction [project] based on a narration by [Cuban writer] Abilio Estévez. This project looks at authority and the abuse of power, told through the intimate life of a family. This time, it’s with professional actors which will bring together Spain, Venezuela, and Cuba.

While this takes shape, I’m returning to the Orinoco Delta to film a documentary about one of the great virtues of Warao culture, which comes from a world perception much more advanced than ours: the acceptance of two spirits and the importance and social relevance of the kanobo (the great grandfather), to which people offer thanks and blessings.

For both projects, I hope producers and distributors will get in touch. Here I am.