53 mins, b&w, silent – extra-diegetic music, voice-over commentary in French
Source : CINEMATEK, Royal Film Archives of Belgium – DVD Collection, Marquis de Wavrin (2017)
Background – This film is much less accomplished, in terms of both shooting and editing, than the Marquis de Wavrin‘s previous South American expedition films. As he does not appear in shot in these films, one is tempted to speculate that he shot this film himself, whereas in his other films, in which he does appear, he had someone with some expertise in shooting working for him. Certainly in this film, the camerawork is very amateurish, with many waving pans, unstable and lop-sided shots etc. The editing is similarly poor, with a high degree of redundancy in the material presented.
Nevertheless, when the film was premièred in Brussels in 1937 in the presence of King Leopold III, it was given many highly positive reviews in the local press. But there were also some dissenting voices, who compared de Wavrin’s film unfavourably with works by certain of his contemporaries, such as Charles Dekeukeleire’s Terres brûlées (1934) and L’Ile de Pâques (1935) by John Fernhout and Henri Storck.
Film content – De Wavrin travelled to Venezuela in 1934, intent on discovering the source of the Orinoco, the only major river in the world whose source was unknown at that time. Unfortunately for him, unseasonally bad weather on the upper reaches of the river forced him to turn back before he had reached his destination.
This setback occurs about midway through the film. The material that he had presented up until that point had been decidedly limited, certainly from the point of view of the ethnography of the indigenous peoples of Venezuela. In order to make something of his journey, it would appear, he then travelled to Western Venezuela and made contact with the ‘Motilones’ of the Sierra de Perijá (known today as the Yuko in Colombia, but as the Yukpa in Venezuela).
This was the same group with whom he had spent some time on the Colombian side of the border during his previous trip to South America in 1932-1933. It was with them that he had shot some of the strongest ethnographic material that he had produced, notably the sequence of the secondary burial ceremony that he would later be obliged to cut from the Belgian edition of Chez les Indiens Sorciers.
Sadly, he was unable to produce any material of similar quality with the Yukpa, the Venezuelan ‘Motilones’. The second half of Vénézuéla is not much better than the first, consisting mostly of some footage of largely indifferent quality of day-to-day life in a Yukpa community.
This material culminates in a collective dance that in terms of costumes, face paint designs, musical instruments and dance steps is suggestive of outside influence, be it of the Yukpa’s neighbours, the Guajiro, the local criollo (non-indigenous) population or some combination of the two. It is even possible that it could have been organised by de Wavrin himself who might well have been very concerned by this point to film something more dramatic than the Yukpa’s normally more muted dancing performances.
The concluding five minutes of the film offer a series of shots of the houses on stilts in the water of the Laguna de Sinamaica, north of Maracaibo. These houses are supposedly the origin of the name ‘Venezuela’, a term meaning literally ‘Little Venice’. According to legend, on seeing these houses on stilts, this was the name given to the country by none other than Amerigo Vespucci himself. It is this legend that also accounts for the title of de Wavrin’s film.
The indigenous inhabitants of these houses are today known as the Añú (formerly as the Paraujano). But although de Wavrin offers us some interesting shots of the village from afar, and also of the Añú gathering reeds nearby, he never gets close to them and does not even name them. Instead, he merely questions whether these “prehistoric” structures can possibly resist modernity, as represented by the oil derricks elsewhere on Lake Maracaibo.
Text : Winter 2017