Venezuela’s economy may be in turmoil but its film community is rejoicing. “The Liberator,” a sweeping biopic about South American independence icon Simon Bolivar, is the first Venezuelan pic ever shortlisted for a foreign-language film Oscar.
“Just making it to this list is a great honor,” said the pic’s helmer-producer Alberto Arvelo. This is not the first time he’s had a crack at the prize. His earlier pics “One Life and Two Trails” and “A House With a View of the Sea” repped Venezuela at the Academy Awards in 1998 and 2002, respectively.
“The Liberator” features another great source of national pride for Venezuela: L.A. Philharmonic music director and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel composed the score — his first — and like Arvelo, is a graduate of Venezuela’s lauded music education program, El Sistema. They have been friends ever since Arvelo interviewed him for “To Play and to Fight,” his 2006 docu about the System, and collaborated in 2010 on the multimedia opera “Cantata Criolla” for the L.A. Philharmonic, with Arvelo stage directing while Dudamel conducted. Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and National Youth Choir recorded the film’s score.
Venezuela’s best-known actor, Edgar Ramirez (“Carlos”), plays the aristocrat-turned-revolutionary in “The Liberator,” which he exec produced. In the epic penned by “Children of Men” scribe Timothy J. Sexton, Bolivar speaks Spanish, English and French, all of which the polyglot thesp speaks fluently himself.
Arvelo played the cello from when he was 10 to 17, but a Super 8 camera his father gave him proved to be the catalyst that set him on a filmmaking path. “I started making horror film shorts when I was around 10, 11 years old; composing the music, too,” he recalled. “I still love the horror genre, but not to direct.”
It took Arvelo eight years to bring his dream project to the bigscreen. Venezuelan film institute CNAC provided him with development funds before producers from Germany (WMG Films), Spain (San Mateo Films), the U.S. and Latin America stepped in to complete the $50 million budget.
“This was quite a challenging road, and it took us a good five years before we could actually commence shooting,” said producer Ana M. Loehnert of Silver Screen. “CNAC was at all times a very valuable ally in a general advisory role, helping us to understand logistical challenges, permitting issues, etc.,” said Loehnert, who is Spanish-German.
Now that he’s caught the world’s attention with his sixth feature, Arvelo is looking to make two English-language pics: “The Ordinary Seaman,” based on the bestselling novel by Francisco Goldman, with Canada’s Chris Zimmer (who produced “A House With a View of the Sea”) producing; and “Guernica,” penned by Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, with former Disney exec Jason Reed serving as producer. The latter revolves around the making of Pablo Picasso’s iconic black and white painting and the brutal event that inspired it.
Arvelo teaches screenwriting and filmmaking at the National School for Audiovisuals and lives with his family in Merida, Venezuela. He’s planning to launch a screenwriting program in Merida with an aim of cultivating a creative environment that will foster good storytelling. “Screenwriting is quite possibly the weakest element in Latin American filmmaking.”