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Chavez creates his own Hollywood

Lights! Camera! Revolution!

Unhappy with what he considers Hollywood's monopoly on the silver screen, President Hugo Chavez is bankrolling Venezuelan movies through a state-run film studio. Now rolling: a biopic about Luis Posada Carriles, the former CIA operative who lives freely in the United States despite allegedly masterminding a jetliner bombing and trying to kill Fidel Castro.

Scenes are being shot in and around Caracas this month for the movie about Posada, considered by Chavez to be a Latin American version of Osama bin Laden. Due for international release next year, it is one of a growing number of films the socialist government is funding in a fusion of politics and art.

The trend is a boost to homegrown cinema in Venezuela, but critics say it reeks of Soviet-style propaganda efforts.

Chavez has long demanded that the United States extradite Posada to stand trial in the 1976 Cuban jetliner bombing, which killed 73 people. Posada allegedly masterminded the attack while living in Venezuela, where he was a member of a secret police force dedicated to rooting out Marxist rebels.

"The film argues he should be condemned and returned here to Venezuela or to Cuba to be tried for his actions," director Eduardo Barberena told The Associated Press during one recent filming session.

Cameras rolled last week among the wooden shacks of a modern-day shantytown in Guarenas, near the film studio east of Caracas. An actor playing a communist rebel in 1970s Venezuela rode a bicycle down a dirt road, destined for a shootout with Posada, as lights illuminated a row of shacks where barefooted children stood watching.

The US$900,000 (EUR640,000) movie is one of several being produced by the Cinema Villa studio, which Chavez founded last year with US$13 million (Ђ9.2 million) in government funding as an alternative to the "dictatorship of Hollywood."

The studio's first feature film will be released next month - a movie about Venezuelan independence hero Francisco de Miranda that includes American actor Danny Glover in a supporting role.

A third production in the works is about Ezequiel Zamora, who led a 19th century land revolt in Venezuela and is a key ideological figure for Chavez.

"Venezuelan cinema for the world," Chavez exclaimed, praising what he called a "cultural revolution" as he excitedly described the films during his radio and TV program Sunday and criticized the global influence of U.S. films. "They make us admire Superman, Spider-Man," Chavez said.

"Spider-Man 3" was a hit in Caracas, both in theaters and through pirated DVDs sold in the streets, and most Venezuelans, like people all over the world, continue to be big Hollywood fans. But left-leaning documentaries are already altering Venezuelan television, appearing on government-supported channels alongside the traditional soap operas of commercial channels.

And Barberena, who has mostly made TV commercials, sees Cinema Villa as a chance for Venezuela to expand a tiny movie industry - which has made only a few internationally known movies, such as "El Pez que Fuma" (The Smoking Fish) in 1977 and "Secuestro Express" (Express Kidnapping) in 2005.

Three dozen feature films, documentaries and television programs are now in production at the center, according to Culture Minister Francisco Sesto. They include "Imagining Revolution," about the development of Chavez's socialist movement, and "Venezuela Petroleum Company," about corporate exploitation.

The new film center is both financed and controlled by the government, similar to how Cuba runs its Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry. Scripts are selected by a committee that includes Venezuela's culture minister, who reports directly to Chavez.

Cinema Villa director Lorena Almarza said the goal of the state film center is nothing less than the "transformation of the cultural hegemony" that has long bombarded Venezuelans through their televisions and movie screens.

Some critics see a heavy government hand that will result in lousy art.

Communications professor Antonio Pascuali of Venezuela's Central University accuses the Cinema Villa of "putting political slogans above the quality of their productions," just as the Soviet Union did in the Stalinist years.

But Barbarena denies getting any pressure to make his movie conform to Chavez's political views. Although the thriller takes a clear stance on Posada, the script "allows a bit of freedom for him to defend himself," the director said.

Posada, 79, denies involvement in the 1976 jetliner bombing off Barbados. He escaped from a Venezuelan prison in 1985 and was detained in Florida in 2005 for entering the U.S. illegally, but was freed in May when a judge dismissed his immigration fraud case. The Cuban and Venezuelan governments want him tried for murder and treason in Venezuela, where he holds dual citizenship.

But a U.S. immigration judge ruled in 2005 that he could not be deported to Venezuela, saying he faces a possibility of torture.

Posada, who trained with the CIA for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, also allegedly plotted to assassinate Castro, and allegedly planned the 1997 bombings at tourists sites in Havana.

Barbarena says filming will move to Havana later this year to recreate the 1997 bombing of the Hotel Copacabana, which killed an Italian tourist. The movie's title, "Bambi C-4," combines the explosive allegedly used by Posada and the nickname he used years ago in Venezuela.

Despite a dislike for some Hollywood movies, Chavez has enjoyed visits by sympathetic American stars including Glover and Sean Penn. Kevin Spacey met Chavez on Monday night after touring the film studio. He didn't speak to reporters but according to state media was impressed by the Cinema Villa.

After Chavez's government recently offered US$18 million (EUR12.7 million) to finance "Toussaint," a film directed by Glover about Haitian independence leader Toussaint Louverture, Venezuela's two independent film organizations said the money could be better spent making more Venezuelan movies.

Chavez insists Venezuela will be doing plenty of that - "making movies about our reality, which reflect who we are, what we've been."

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