‘Simón,’ the film that surprisingly escaped censorship by the Venezuelan government

The movie exposing the country’s raw wounds of repression has sold out screenings in Latin America, Spain and the United States

Scene from the Venezuelan movie, 'Simón.'
Scene from the Venezuelan movie, 'Simón.'
Florantonia Singer

Simón has been in theaters for less than a month and has already become the highest-grossing Venezuelan film of 2023. It tells the story of Simón, a student leader seeking political asylum in the United States who grapples with the trauma of torture in a Venezuelan prison after his arrest during the 2017 anti-government protests. Surprisingly, the film was not censored before its release. “In Venezuela, it’s news when a film isn’t censored,” said director Diego Vicentini from Panama, the tenth stop on a regional promotional tour for a movie that has become cathartic for many.

The film continues to draw audiences while Venezuelan student John Álvarez was finally evaluated by medical examiners, 22 days after his defense team claimed he was tortured in prison. Alvarez has lost vision in his left eye and sustained liver injuries from the beatings. “Every single day that goes by without any change, more and more people suffer,” said Vicentini. This is why the filmmaker, who is not yet 30, felt the urgent need to probe a wound that is still raw for many Venezuelans. During those days of repression and chaos in 2017, over 150 people were killed and thousands more were arrested by security forces.

“It’s tough to see the wounds in every place I go on this tour, hearing everyone’s stories and how they connect with Simón. It’s painful to realize how universal this pain is. But it’s also been a kind of therapeutic. Being in a movie theater with hundreds of people who feel more or less the same… it helps us heal, you know?” said Vicentini. The film has reached and moved all Venezuelans — those who have escaped and those who remain. This week in Caracas, in a room ventilated by fans because power fluctuations damaged the air conditioners, many in the audience silently shed tears and applauded as the closing credits rolled. A few days earlier, at the screening in Medellín (Colombia), a Venezuelan told about a friend who had been killed during the protests. His parents later took their own lives when they found no justice for his death. “Wherever I go, I come across people who have been detained, tortured, or who know someone who has gone through that.”

In 2009, Vicentini and his family immigrated to the United States. He was just 15 years old at the time. Eight years later, while studying film in Los Angeles, he experienced the 2017 protests through social media reports. “I would wake up and check my phone to see that another kid had been murdered. I had to go to class after that.” His thesis was a short film that preceded Simón. “The film’s emotional core stems from a sense of guilt for not being present and a desire to make a contribution. It strikes a delicate balance between guilt and forgiveness, to forgive ourselves for the things we wanted to do but couldn’t.”

The film’s protagonist — Simón — also experiences this internal struggle. Inspired by global social movements that have brought about political change, he forms a student protest group in Venezuela. The film is based on Vicentini’s interviews with student leaders who had been detained and tortured, including one whose story arrived via an Instagram direct message from a mother who said her son — also named Simón — had endured the same ordeal. Vicentini later met them in Miami, and supported them throughout the asylum application process. “Simón was one of those leaders who was ready to give it his all. When he left Venezuela, the only option he saw was to forget about his home country. It was really painful for him, but that feeling of guilt haunted him because he had left his people behind.”

The young director firmly believes that cinema has the ability to create empathy. This is exactly what he aims to achieve with Simón. The film has already been screened in 10 cities across Latin America, the United States and Spain. It has also been chosen by the Venezuelan Film Academy to compete in the Goya Awards, Spain’s main national annual film awards. “Movies have this incredible power to completely change the way we see things. I mean, it’s happened to all of us at some point. There was this one time in Ecuador, when a man stood up and said, ‘On behalf of all of Ecuador, I just want to apologize to every Venezuelan if we’ve ever mistreated or judged them, or lacked empathy.’ That sums up what we’re trying to do with this film. But even though we may have this sense of urgency, the truth is that Venezuelans are still leaving home, still enduring all that torture. It needs to stop now.”

Fear in the theater

Simón premiered in July during the Venezuelan Film Festival in Mérida. Thirteen years after he left, Vicentini returned to the country for the first time. He entered Venezuela by land at the Cúcuta (Colombia) border crossing, hoping no one would notice. As he watched his film unfold in the Mérida theater, a wave of fear washed over him, leaving him in a cold sweat.

Vicentini successfully obtained a Venezuelan “nationality certificate” for Simón from the local film authorities, but it came with a not-so-subtle threat. The accompanying document warned that the film could be in violation of Venezuela’s peaceful coexistence law banning hate speech, which could result in a 10- to 20-year prison sentence. The Venezuelan law, deemed unconstitutional by human rights organizations, was enacted because of the ongoing anti-government protests and is used by the Maduro regime to suppress criticism. “We just treated it as an observation and moved on,” said Vicentini. “But we totally understood it as a warning.”

The film won most of the Venezuelan Film Festival awards, including best film, best script and best director. Vicentini left the country early on wise advice from a friend. “I saw a downtrodden country that seems stuck in time, despite its people’s best efforts. They’ve buried the past, perhaps to deflect the overwhelming weight of all the injustice. But this film exposes again everything Venezuelans have chosen not to confront. What I find most beautiful is that there’s gratitude in all that pain. Everyone longs to be seen and acknowledged, despite the hurt.”

The government’s decision to allow the screening of a confrontational film like Simón, while censoring others like Infection (a zombie story set in Venezuela) and blocking media coverage, has sparked debate. “In Venezuela, it’s news when a film isn’t censored,” said Vicentini. “There’s a lot of fear there. Their objective is to create uncertainty, the fear of the unknown. I can create a film, voice my complaint loudly, yet nothing happens. But a simple tweet by a kid could lead to arrest and torture. When I do radio interviews, I’m cautioned about what to say so the station isn’t closed down. This fear they instill results in self-censorship, with people choosing to do nothing because the future is so unpredictable.”

Some people speculate that the government didn’t censor Simón because it reveals the failure of the Venezuelan protest movement to bring about change. But Vicentini thinks the government doesn’t really care about its image within Venezuela. It’s more concerned with its international image, which is why Vicentini posted on social media about irregularities in the selection of the Venezuelan candidate for the foreign film category at the Oscars. Vicentini says The Shadow of the Sun by Miguel Ángel Ferrer was selected over Simón by a committee that included someone who participated in Ferrer’s film.

The leaders of Venezuela’s long-running political dissent don’t make appearances in Simón. It was a deliberate choice — Vicentini aimed to make a movie that deals directly with events in Venezuela since 2017, while keeping a timeless quality. “There are so many young people from different generations who feel isolated and abandoned by both the left and the right. They’re equally disappointed in the opposition and the ruling party. They have been fighting to liberate our country, but it’s a huge risk for their future. Simón is the face of those kids who just wish they didn’t have to fight.”

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