Venezuela may be known on the world stage for reenergizing the Latin American left, and lately for spiraling political and economic instability, but far from the chaotic bustle of Caracas or the laid-back Caribbean flow of Isla Margarita lies the virtually untouched Orinico River Delta, home to the indigenous Warao people. While the Warao may be traditionally overlooked in the predominantly urban, mestizo South American nation, Cuban-Venezuelan filmmaker Mario Crespo has brought their way of life to the big screen in his latest feature Dauna: Lo que lleva el río (Gone With the River).
As the first Venezuelan film shot almost entirely in the Warao language, Gone With the River represents a historical moment for Venezuelan cinema, and it was selected as part of the Berlin Film Festival’s groundbreaking NATIVe showcase earlier this year before being announced as Venezuela’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar consideration just last week.
The story follows an indigenous woman named Dauna who is marked by difference within her community. Torn between her love for Tarsicio or her desire to pursue studies outside of her village, Dauna’s decision to challenge the expectations of her traditional culture lead to suffering and, ultimately, reconciliation. According to Crespo, themes of intercultural understanding are important but not fundamental to his film. More central to the director’s thematic concerns is the role of women in both modern and traditional societies, and their right to develop themselves however they see fit.
Apart from the brief synopsis, the film’s atmospheric trailer doesn’t reveal much in the way of story development, but Dauna’s central conflict is evident throughout. What we can appreciate, however, is the elegant cinematography that captures the beauty of the region’s virgin landscapes and the film’s sensitive attention to local customs. The new-agey soundtrack mixes traditional wind instruments with chattering, electronic percussion, and sets a steady, medium pace that appropriately pushes along the drama.
While Gone With the River may have not been one of the critical darlings at this year’s Berlinale, it has proven to be an audience hit both on the festival circuit and throughout Venezuela since it premiered in local theaters this March. Testament to the film’s appeal, seats were entirely sold out within the first day tickets were available for its Berlin premiere. Now we just have to wait and see if the Academy is equally enthusiastic.