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'A La Calle' Co-Director: Stories Of Venezuela's Humanitarian Crisis Are Universal

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Venezuela has largely fallen out of the headlines in the United States, but the crisis there continues. The country is facing what Human Rights Watch has called a severe humanitarian emergency, with millions unable to access basic nutrition and health care - a humiliating development in a country that was once one of the region's most prosperous.

In an effort to ease the political crisis that is in large part responsible for the state of affairs, representatives of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and the country's political opposition began a new round of talks this month. Now a new film out on HBO Max this week vividly describes how things got to this point - the roots of the crisis, the rise of Nicolas Maduro and efforts by the opposition to remove him from power. "A La Calle" - to the streets in English - was filmed over the course of three years and gives an intimate look at how chronic food shortages, inflation and political repression affects Venezuelans every day.

I'm joined now by Nelson G. Navarrete, one of the film's co-directors, Mr. Navarrete. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

NELSON G NAVARRETE: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: And I'm also joined by Leopoldo Lopez, who is one of the opposition leaders featured in the film. He will be familiar to anybody who has been following the situation in Venezuela over the years. Mr. Lopez, welcome to you as well.

LEOPOLDO LOPEZ: Thank you very much. It's an honor to be on this program. I'm a frequent listener.

MARTIN: Oh, well, thank you for that. But, you know, as the film shows, you've paid a heavy price for being a leader of the Venezuelan opposition, starting in 2008, when former President Hugo Chavez tried to ban you from running for public office. You were accused by his successor, the current president, Nicolas Maduro, of inciting violence. You were forced to spend some years in prison and then under house arrest because of that charge. Now you and your family are living in exile in Spain. But again, as we see in the film, you keep at it. So I just wanted to ask, like, why are you so determined to keep at this?

LOPEZ: Well, like millions of Venezuelans, we have been taken to the limits - to the limits where you have to decide whether you put your own liberty for the liberty of the country. And we have been faced to that challenge, and there has been many political prisoners who have also given their freedom in order to fight for a free Venezuela.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that the film does is show how Venezuelans who are trying to express themselves politically have been treated. I mean, it's some of the more, you know, disturbing footage in the film. So, Nelson, I'm going to turn to you on that. First, let's just talk about where the film starts, at a massive protest march in 2017. There's a man holding a Venezuelan flag. He's giving an interview about how peaceful protests are met with violence. And then literally, while he's talking, the crowd comes under attack. I'm just going to play a short clip here.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A LA CALLE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

MARTIN: Nelson, I'm just wondering, how did you pull this off? I mean, I'm not trying to take away from the substance of what you've accomplished and this - the message. But how did you pull this off, given the fact that there seemed to be great determination on the part of the government to break up these kinds of gatherings? I mean, were your cameras visible? Or how did you do it?

NAVARRETE: Well, we assembled three units to be in different locations. So if there was an election, we were there with three units. If there was a protest, we were there with three units. So, you know, all the footage that we have, we can make another documentary because we decided to cover everything, you know?

MARTIN: Well, yeah. You had - the people, you focus on, the sanitation worker, and you show how hard it is for him to just get food for his family. There's a doctor who can't find medicine she needs. But then we also hear from some of the most deprived Venezuelans who say that they continue to support Maduro because of the social programs associated with him and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. So, Mr. Lopez, how do you explain the fact that people who are suffering so much continue to support the current regime?

LOPEZ: Well, that's common in authoritarian regimes that have a very strict social control. And there is a percentage of the population that depends on the favors and the crumbs that the regime gives them. So that is why there is still a very minimum - it's no more than 15% of the population that still says that they support the regime. Eighty-five percent of the population is against the regime, and they want change.

Freedom is about having your most basic possibilities - to have food, to have shelter, to have the possibility to speak out, to have the possibility to go to university, to find a job, the possibility of thinking the way you want to think, assembling with other people that think like you think, expressing yourself politically. And all those freedoms have been deprived. And I believe that today, most Venezuelans really understand what freedom is about because we have been deprived of freedom.

MARTIN: Nelson, I'm going to go to you on this. Not to give away too much of the film, but in the film, the sanitation worker, Randall (ph), whom you profile, who's - you know, we see him, how difficult it is for him to feed his family - he ends up leaving. I mean, he walks across the Colombian border like so many others have done. The young medical student featured in the film who talks about how difficult it is just to get basic medicines for a patient, she wants to leave. What do you think that means?

NAVARRETE: We have one of the highest numbers - I believe it's the highest number of immigration outside of a war zone in the world. And I think it's one of the highest in the last 100 years in Latin America. So the numbers don't lie, you know? So I feel like when we started the film, there was still hope for Venezuelans that the regime would change or the government would change. But along the way, things started deteriorating. And actually, almost all our subjects are outside of the country. It's a simple reflection of what's happening, you know? My generation, almost everybody is out that to school with me, everybody went to college with me, almost all my cousins. So there is definitely a lack of opportunity.

MARTIN: Hmm. Mr. Lopez, a final thought from you. What are you hoping people will take away from this film, particularly people where I am, in the United States?

LOPEZ: One of the important messages is that this is something that, yes, is happening in Venezuela, but it's also happening elsewhere. And I believe that the fight for freedom should be understood not as the isolated fight in Venezuela or Cuba or Philippines or Myanmar or Belarus, but it's the same fight everywhere that is being fought. The fight for freedom is universal.

And I would like the people in the United States that see this movie to understand the responsibility of the United States in the global fight for freedom. I think that the U.S. today is facing a process of insecurity about its own system. A lot of people are questioning the democracy in the United States, the commitment to democracy as a model that should be implemented elsewhere. And if the United States particularly does not take the stand to fight for freedom and to promote freedom all over the world, the entire world will suffer.

MARTIN: That was Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. He is among those featured in a new documentary called "A La Calle." We also heard from the film co-director, Nelson G. Navarrete. Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

NAVARRETE: Thank you so much.

LOPEZ: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.