Editor’s note: Ana Henriquez is a Venezuelan filmmaker who has worked on fiction and non-fiction films. In this interview, she discusses her career that started when her brother brought home a black and white photo printing setup when she was a teenager and takes us through her remarkable journey that shaped her even as she was trying to have an impact on the world.
This interview for mediaforchange.org was conducted by Sanjeev Chatterjee.
MfC: I would like to start with getting some background. Where were you born? What were some early influences?
A.H.: In was born in Venezuela, in Caracas. I had a very normal upbringing. I went to a bilingual school in Caracas. My parents had a good standard of life and so I went to one of the best schools in Venezuela. I went to a school in New Jersey in the United States my junior and senior year.
My start in the media was when one time, I think I was twelve or fourteen years old, my brother brought home a photo lab – a black and while setup to develop photographs at home. For me it was like a dream…a new world that started there. Later, I attended the School of Communication, Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. Ultimately, I became a professional still photographer and travelled a lot. In 1975, Fr. Ernesto Cardenal who was giving a speech at our University and I was the photographer and this work was published in a Venezuelan magazine. Following the publication Cardenal called me and asked if I would be interested in making a reportage on his work with the people in the Solentiname Islands, Nicaragua.
My mother almost had a heart attack when I told her I was going to Nicaragua. She said “Well, I’ll have to talk to your father to see if he will give you permission.” I told that I was 18 and I can go as they are paying for my trip and will take care of me – I am going.
I took a plane to Costa Rica and stayed with some friends of Cardenal. Then I went to the Costa Rican border and from there. I took a bus to this border town – a town of ganaderos (cattle breeders). Being from a middle-class family, I asked a taxi driver to take me to the best hotel in town. I did not immediately understand why the driver was grinning until at the check-in desk I realized this was a place where men and women go to spend the night. There was no other place to stay and it was a very difficult night for me. I was up all night and raced out of there at dawn to find another taxi to take me to the border to take the plane. When the taxi driver saw me, imagine – I was 18 with 2 cameras, boots and a backpack, he asked “Are you alone?” I said I was and why he wanted to know. He said I could get kidnapped and that it was very dangerous for me to be alone there. So he decided to wait for me to get into the plane and acted as a father for me. He did not even charge me a fare. I should mention that I was traveling without a passport and I flew in a small plane over the border to Nicaragua. Remember, that was Somoza’s time – it was very dangerous and I was a very young girl.
I was met in Nicaragua by un peón (a farm worker) on a horse and he had another horse for me. We were horseback riding for an hour until we got to the home of Ernesto Cardenal’s uncle José Coronel Urtecho, who was a well known poet. He was very delicate and elegant man sitting in a mecedor (rocking chair) smoking a pipe and dressed in white. He wanted me to meet his wife, a German woman who was very strong. When we met her, she was driving a cattle picker. He read his poems and I learned about other Nicaraguan poets. He was already old at that time and I was supposed to stay there a few days before I took a chalana a big open boat that goes very slowly through Lake Nicaragua towards Solentiname. We first stopped at a old town that looked like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story. Later we reached the Solentiname Archpelago.
MfC: What was Ernesto Cardenal doing at the time?
A.H.: He was working against Somoza’s dictatorship. He had 1000 peasants in the Solentiname archipelago. It was the first time he had invited a woman to see his work. He was a Trappist monk – we got up at 4am every morning to see him read the Bible to people with a Marxist interpretation (of the Book). It was a time when Christianity and Marxism was being bridged and Cardenal was one of the promoters of this (liberation) theology. On Sundays he gave a mass and the sermon he trained the peasants to look at the words of Christ as socialist (doctrine). He published a book El Evangelio en Solentiname where he gathered all his speeches. So, I stayed there for over a month. I have pictures with him that were never published. Because, when I came back something weird happened which I didn’t like. Some revolutionary friends called me up and said I had to give out the pictures for the revolution. I said, you know, I had taken those pictures and I wanted credit for them. They refused and said I had been invited for a revolutionary cause and I had to give out the pictures for the cause. I told them it was not my way of thinking and I was not giving the pictures to the revolution. Then I went to meet these people (who were writers from Nicaragua living in Venezuela) and when I came out of the meeting, I found my car had been damaged. I never saw them again and I still keep the pictures.
Now that I am older, and have a daughter of my own, I can only imagine how worried my mother must have been. Anyway, two years later I did another trip through Latin America as a photographer. I went by plane to Bogota and then by bus through Colombia, Peru, Ecuador all by myself taking pictures for publications like Bohemia that I used to work for. It was the time of the hippies and people were backpacking everywhere. I was never a hippie, I was a journalist. I wanted to be like Oriana Fallaci. I wanted to be a war journalist.
MfC: When did you decide to go to film school?
A.H.: Well, I was working as a still photographer and attending the School of Communication in the four-year program. During my fourth year there I had a teacher who was working on a film. I brought him all my pictures and asked him if I could be a still photographer for the movie. So, he promised to take my portfolio to the director to see if he wanted to hire me. The director liked what he saw and I started in film by being a still photographer on set. I worked with the director Emilio Martinez Lazaro as a still photographer and went to Spain with him. In general, most of the crew consisted of men, except the actresses of course, and the script girl. Besides that, I was the only woman on these crews. After I did a lot of still photography work for movies, I decided to make two short films. The first one was Las Turas (1978) about the Native American descent of peasants and features an ancient harvest dance that is no longer practiced. When I filmed it the ritual was half in the mountains and half in town because many of these rituals, in order to survive, had to be syncretized with the Catholic Church. That was the start of my filmmaking. Two years later, I think … I had already done a photography project about inmates in mental asylums all over Venezuela with help from a friend who was a psychiatrist. These photographs were chosen to be part of an exhibition in the museum of modern art in Mexico City. So I decided to make a film on the subject. The film was meant to draw attention to the fact that many experts around the world were casting doubt on the old theory that mental illnesses were inherited biologically. They were saying that mental illness could be caused by upbringing and other social factors. I read a lot about this, and made a new film Pandora’s House (1981) which was done with inmates of a mental asylum in coastal Venezuela, in Anare. Looking back, I think I was crazy myself to have gone into that. Because, I worked with these schizophrenic inmates as actors to produce Aeschylus’ Pandora. Scenes from the play were intercut with daily lives of the inmates including electroshock therapy.
The aim was to show the institutional violence and show that it was impossible for these people to get well under the circumstances. We were persecuted and the psychiatric hospital did not like us running around showing the film. It was very combative – when we wanted to show this film in psychiatric hospitals, they would not let us. They would tell the press that the film was based on lies and psychiatric institutions really took care of the inmates. But it was all filmed.
Unfortunately, the negatives for these two films were in a lab in New York called August films which closed and never took the time to notify filmmakers who had their work there. So the negatives disappeared. And now, the problem is that the remaining copies of the film are blurred. They are kept in the National Cinematheque in Venezuela.
MfC: When did you go to film school?
A.H.: In the meantime I got married had my only child, she is now an architect, but my husband did not like the idea that I kept filming and traveling so he asked for a divorce. So we got divorced. I said to myself that because of film I got divorced so it is time now to go and get formally educated in film. It was also a way to get our daughter to get a good education in the United States. The father had to give permission for the child to travel with the mother. So with his permission, we went to Los Angeles. Based on my work on Las Turas and Pandora’s House, I got two scholarships from Venezuela. The way I got the scholarships was interesting. One of the director’s of the cultural council (CONAC) saw Pandora’s House and gave me his card and asked me to come to his office because there is a job he wanted me to do. When I went there he asked me to create a program for all mental asylums in Venezuela to use theatre as a therapy. I told him that the problem was that I was not a psychiatrist, I was a filmmaker and would like to go study film in the United States. I had already applied for the scholarship from the organization this man directed and he told me I had the scholarship.
Just before I was to leave for the United States, I had a horseback riding accident and was not able to get to USC on time. But I was so eager that I was back on my feet and left for Los Angeles where I stayed with some family friends. I was enrolled in the University of Southern California and when I got there the dean informed me I was no longer enrolled (for not having arrived on time). All the 36 seats were taken and I could no longer enroll. I told her I had already rented my apartment in Caracas and I had to be enrolled. So, after a week USC took me in. I remember that as the most exciting time of my life (January 1983).
MfC: What did you work on while at USC?
A.H.: I did a lot of scriptwriting and I did a lot of photography. I thought I was going to be a D.P. I also worked on many films while at USC but nothing of note. It was just school work.
When I came back to Venezuela (1986), I started to work as a director more than as a D.P. I worked on documentaries all over the country. I worked on some established theatrical shorts (Viajando con Polar) and national broadcasts ( Expediciones) like I went to the jungle, to the Orinoco, to the mountains…I got to know Venezuela well. From a traditional conservative upbringing, I now had a life as I liked it. I remember not being frustrated at all, I liked it a lot.
Later, I worked for RCTV as a script supervisor involved with greenlighting projects for air and also supervise post-production. RCTV began shrinking and closed its doors in 2007 when Chavez came to power in Venezuela.
During that time I became an independent producer and that is when I produced Freshwater Lands (2006). The original idea was to produce a series of 12 episodes on environmental topics. I ended up shooting 2. Life in Venezuela has been complicated with this socialist government. Venezuela is not an easy country anymore.
MfC: How did you fund the two episodes you completed?
A.H.: The first one, I won a contest organized by CONAC – the same institution that gave me scholarship to go study filmmaking in the United States. When the present government came into power many of these funding institutions vanished. CONAC closed right after I won the contest. A lot of the support came from the ranches where we were shooting. The lodging, food, aerials etc were provided by some ranch owners. Freshwater Lands was just meant to be. It was bendecido – blessed. It was not an easy film but I had a lot of support and people wanted me to do it.
We were working as a three person crew and because it was about the wetlands we shot right before the end of our winter when places were still flooded. I still remember the scenes – for example a dawn when the llaneros (herders) with their ruanas (woolen ponchos) on their horses. It was just amazing the things I saw.
I want to continue what I’m doing till I am not fit enough to carry a camera and shoot in difficult conditions. In the future, I will perhaps write a handbook/manual for development filmmakers and development communications people so they can benefit, I hope, from what I’ve learned.
Changing Tools for Visual Storytelling
MfC: Over your career how have the changing technologies affected your work?
A.H.: (When I was a photographer) I used to work with a Hasselblad. Later I moved to a Nikon SLR camera and there were two lenses that I loved – 35mm and a 105mm. Those were the lenses that allowed me to photograph people and landscapes. I had a lot of difficulties jumping into the digital age. I liked it a lot when it was celluloid. I preferred celluloid because…it was more like a craftsmanship. We had to think about film, paper, lab costs. We had to be very careful. Now you can just take a hundred images and you can just afford to pick one without consequence. In the past, it was more like a love affair – you loved your camera, you polished them and took care of them. I had these cameras for over 15 years.
MfC: Do you still have the Hasselblad?
A.H.: No, I gave the Hasselblad to a friend who gave me money for my film Full Moon. It was a coproduction with France. When I came back to Venezuela from USC, it was the first film I did. (Traveling with Polar then Full Moon then Expedition). Full Moon was a dramatic feature that was released theatrically and the story was based on my previous experience with inmates in mental asylumsIt’s a love story in a mental hospital. . It won awards in Italy and at home in Venezuela. It was a one-of-a-kind film in Venezuela and we had 400, 000 people here who watched it – which is a lot for a small country.
Full Moon was shot with a Aaton super 16. It was developed in France and that became a real problem as the authorities would not allow the developed film to come back into Venezuela and I never got to see any dailies while we were in production. Imagine. The curiosity with this film was that the camera came with one zoom lens and that’s all we used. A 35-200 zoom.
The Question of Impact
MfC: Can you talk about the impact your work has on people who see your work?
A.H.: Yes, as I see it, it has had a lot of impact right from the beginning when I did Pandora’s House. We had press coverage and people discussed, about the violence in mental hospitals. There was a lot of pressure on the government (because the hospitals were owned by the state) to give better treatment to the inmates of a mental hospital. It was a huge impact. My pictures of the mental asylum also had an impact when they were in the modern art show in Mexico people would be approaching me and asking me about the situation with mental illness. It was what allowed me to later write the script for Full Moon. Full Moon also had an impact, because it was the first time in the country that a feature film treated this subject. Never again, never before. And on television, I know Freshwater Lands has had a huge impact because people still ask for the film and most of the schools and universities as well as other libraries have a DVD of the film. When people started asking for the film in different parts of the world, I have it available through Amazon… It took me three months to make it happen. It may seem easy if you live in the U.S., but in Venezuela, it is not easy to do things, to do them in a professional way.… but now, people have learned that the plains in Venezuela are much more than their beauty (which they are) – they are beautiful because of their flora and fauna but now people have learned the importance of the wetlands, and are water reserves of the world.
MfC: There are several ways in which audiences could learn about these things. Do you feel your film has played a significant roll in this regard?
A.H.: People who work in the environmental NGOs, have taken this film as part of their teaching materials. The people who work in the environmental organizations of the country did not manage the concept of wetlands (before this film)…I have a potrtfolio of all the reportage on this film. The film took me to the United Nations climate change secretariat in Bonn in August 2012. The story of how I got there is beautiful. I went to a ranch, a kind of a spa, and I took my DVDs along and one night since the spa is ecologically oriented, the owner invited me to show one of the films at the ranch. About 20 people came to the film and one of the people in that audience who was a friend of the ranch owner asked me where he could buy a copy of the film because he loved it. I had some DVD copies with me and he bought all the copies I had as he wanted to send them to friends as New Year gifts. And one of the DVDs went to a friend who worked at the climate change secretariat and he write to me saying he loved the film and I would like to show it here at the United Nations to water and climate change specialists… I agreed and I went to Bonn for the screening and there were 40 specialists. We had a forum after the film was shown… It was quite an experience for me.
MfC: Did your film about mental health have more impact than Freshwater Lands ?
A.H.: I think Freshwater Lands, because the film came at a time when the UN Millennium Development Goals and the ideas of sustainable development and the future of water had become part of a global conversation and the film was able to ride that wave. The timing was good and the film Pandora’s House – about mental illness was a breakthrough and somewhat contrarian and went against the establishment.
MfC: When you make films like Pandora’s House and Freshwater Lands – what kind of impact does the process have on the maker of these projects?
A.H.: A lot. As for the mental health stories, I made 2 films. Pandora’s House which was a documentary and then based on my experience a dramatic feature Full Moon. I lived in the doctor’s quarters in front of the mental hospital to do the documentary – I was going crazy too. It was very, very, very difficult. It had a huge impact on my life. I had never seen electric shocks before. I knew about the violence in the asylums but to see it day after day for six months was…wow… Interacting with psychotic people for such an extended length of time also gave people the impression that I was a psychiatrist – at least a psychologist. Based on this experience I wrote Full Moon. Once I remember asking a psychiatrist why the inmates were so talkative and active and he told be it was because it was full moon and that the moon has an impact on our psyche– this is what motivated the title for my dramatic film on the subject. I wrote the script as an cathartic exercise. After I finished Full Moon, I decided once and for all never again to work on a psychiatric story. It was making me very serious and when I met people they would always ask me about psychiatry and I did not want to be in that position. So, I decided to continue with my environmental theme. I find it very nutritious (sic) and I like the people I meet while making these environmental films. You meet scientists, you meet biologists… I love that. I love to be in the countryside and see the mountains or going to a watering hole, or swim in a river… I have learned so much through environmental filmmaking. I knew nothing about wetlands when I started. Now I know so much about them… (the experiences) have made me who I am. My work has made me who I am – definitely. In the beginning when I went to Nicaragua to Solentiname up until now, I have been shaped by the media – no doubt. I have been to places where I would never go if I was not a media maker.