Images from La Clase

Film opening with images of slaughterhouse.

Film closing with images of slaughtered animals.

Film closing with images of “slaughtered” people carrying their loot.

El barrio

The barrio is beautiful.

Ethnic diversity in the slums.

Secuestro: the slums versus the middle class neighborhoods.

Secuestro: the city represented.

Villa del Cine, Venezuela’s state producer created in 2006.

“Abajo el paquete”, down with Carlos Andrés Pérez' reform package!

Writing graffiti against IMF (FMI).

Violent demonstrations.

In La clase, murals are “vehicles in post-neoliberal imaginings of urban space and cultural identity.”

Majestic image of Bolívar in La Clase.

La clase: a popular fiesta in the streets of Caracas.


La Clase in its social and political context

La clase was directed by José Antonio Varela and produced by Villa del Cine Foundation, which is the Venezuelan state’s film production unit created in June 2006 and currently integrated in the Audiovisual and Cinema Platform of the Ministry of Popular Power for Culture. Since becoming President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez has put forward cultural policies in accordance with his 21st century revolutionary and socialist program. La clase is thus an outcome of the efforts of the Bolivarian Government to integrate cinema and community interests.[16] [open endnotes in new window] In 2007, the year this film was released, Villa del Cine also produced two documentary features: Venezuela Petroleum Company analyzes the various roles played by the omnipresent national petroleum company (PDVSA) in Venezuela’s economy and society from neocolonial to revolutionary settings; and Víctimas de la democracia deals with the hidden political persecution of opponents during democratic periods due to the Cold War. 2007 also witnessed the release of a historical fiction about the life of a hero of the independence movement, Miranda regresa (Miranda Returns). Such historical fictions characterize an entertainment genre found to be relevant in contemporary Venezuelan filmmaking in connection with the current socio-political situation.[17] As Steve Ellner rightly points out,

“President Chávez’s condemnation of traditional political historiography as ‘bourgeois history’ based on an ‘imported’ model … and his refusal to vilify Pérez Jiménez have encouraged his followers and even many outside of his movement to rethink the nation’s past.” (20)

The story of La clase is set at an important time, not only in Venezuelan history but also in the history of the Venezuelan class struggle. The violent clashes seen at the end of the movie correspond to the Caracazo,[18] the popular movement mentioned above that started in Caracas on February 27, 1989, spread quickly throughout the whole country, and ended a week later leaving between 277 and more than 2,000 dead (depending on the sources) and many wounded. The mass demonstrations and looting erupted as a protest against the drastic implementation of neoliberal measures recommended by the IMF[19] to the recently re-elected President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had promised a very different program in the elections that had given him the victory only a few months earlier. His reform package[20] included privatization of major state companies and decentralization, measures which led to a sharp increase in prices, including hikes of more than 30% in public transportation fares. As Steve Ellner indicates,

“the events of February 27 came to constitute a powerful historical memory in the barrios of major cities and would be given prominence by the Chávez government” (95).

This fight against poverty waged in the cultural front runs parallel to other efforts of the Chávez administration to fight inequality. According to the 2009 CEPR report on the Chávez administration,

“During the current economic expansion,[21] the poverty rate has been cut by more than half, from 54 percent of households in the first half of 2003 to 26 percent at the end of 2008. Extreme poverty has fallen even more, by 72 percent. … Inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has also fallen substantially. The index has fallen to 41 in 2008, from 48.1 in 2003 and 47 in 1999. This represents a large reduction in inequality.” (Weisbrot 3)

It is significant then that Villa del Cine begins its work with productions that deal with historical figures—Bolívar eterno, ciudadano de la libertad, 2006; Miranda regresa, 2007and events (La clase, 2007). In addition, by 2007, Villa del Cine had created numerous shorts, newsreels and short documentaries for television, some of which are equally concerned with revising history and reconstructing Latin American national identities.

Although these early productions are explicitly part of the Bolivarian Government cultural policies, in more recent years I have also perceived a tendency to diversify film production. Thus Villa del Cine offers support to veteran filmmakers like Román Chalbaud and Luis Alberto Lamata while it enables young filmmakers like Efterpi Charalambidis or Hernán Jabes to make their first projects. The sharp increase in the number of features produced by Villa del Cine over the last years is unquestionable proof that this form of Government support has stimulated media production in the country in terms of the number and variety of films, and it has proven a valuable alternative to the Hollywood and neoliberal models of production.

Secuestro in its social and political context

Secuestro’s DVD menu is set against a background of bills — money — produced by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The image of Bolívar is present even before the beginning of the film, and it reappears shortly afterwards in a significant position. As I noted, the film starts with a brief shot of the Creole roulette scene and a fast montage of images including a bird-eye view of the high-rises of Caracas and the slums that surround them, graffiti “I love you Caracas,” the Virgin, rich golfers, smart shopping malls, riots in the streets, police attacking Caucasian demonstrators, the demonstrators in turn calling for army intervention, an image of Bolívar, the much publicized image of Cabrices firing his gun from Puente Llaguno, “dangerous” youngsters consuming drugs, tattooing themselves, and fighting at night in the slums.

The use of the figure of Bolívar between these images requires interpretation. Bolívar has become the emblem of Venezuela’s Government to the extent that, despite it being a 21st century socialist state,

“it doesn’t assume Marxism as the guiding ideology of the process, but rather Bolívarianism.”[22]

In fact, President Hugo Chávez’s interest in Bolívar emerged while he was a student at the military academy, where he formed Bolivarian societies that culminated in the creation of the MBR 200 (Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement 200) in 1982. In 1997, the MBR 200’s national assembly decided to create a political party that brought Chávez to the presidency in 1998 (Chávez & Harnecker). In 1999, the name of the country was officially changed to “República Bolivariana de Venezuela,” In this light, Bolívar eterno, ciudadano de la libertad was the first feature film produced by La Villa del Cine. When Secuestro Express associates the image of Bolívar with chaotic images of Caracas, such a link is highly significant. Jakubowicz may wish to imply that Chávez has failed to bring order and stability to the country since he became President. This image of Bolívar contrasts sharply with a majestic image of the same historical figure depicted in La Clase. In the same line, the director makes a mockery of the denomination República Bolivariana de Venezuela by having a radio host refer to the country as “República Bolivariana de la Marihuana” or “Bolivarian Republic of Marijuana,” with the clear intention to criticize the reforms led by Chávez.

Such indexes of partiality contradict the claims the director makes about his impartiality:

“You need the gang members and you need the opposite gang and you need a little bit of everyone. And we shot this also in the center of the political guerrilla and we shot at the center of the opposition like movement, and you know, everybody was thinking and suspecting that we were from the other side but we were always clear that we had a social message and we were not into politics.” [23]

Here Jakubowicz seems to be referring to Chávez’s party when he mentions “the political guerrilla,”[24] even though Chávez has been the elected President of the Venezuelan Government since 1998 and he does not officially support guerrillas. Furthermore, the producers’ comments reinforce my interpretation:

“This film addresses the roots of the problem of kidnapping. You know you get to know both sides and I don’t think this had been ever done before. Latin America IS the United States backyard. The more those problems grow and the more those governments turn over to governments that are very much against what the American dream is, the more is going to become our problem.”[25]

The director adds, “I think this film is a very good window for American audience to understand a lot of what is going on right here, in their backyards.” In the same chapter, we are also reminded that Miami is only two-and-a-half hours away from Caracas.

These efforts to help the U.S. audience understand the political reality of Venezuela stand in contrast to the efforts made by Hugo Chávez to spread his version of what Latin America is or should be. From the beginning of his mandate, Chávez has been fighting U.S. hegemony in the region and he often speaks out against the terrible effects of U.S. imperialism in Latin America.  In a gesture that attracted international media attention Chávez presented to President Barack Obama in a summit of the Americas that took place in 2009[26] an history of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. It is not coincidental that José Antonio Varela uses another text by Galeano to conclude La clase:

“Above all, the world is divided in unworthy and outraged people.
And it is up to each one of us to decide what side we want to or we can take.”[27]

That is, at the end of the film, a clear stance is taken when spectators are invited to join the riots of the poor to protest against the status quo. This is the kind of realism with a message found in both Venezuelan and many other Latin American films today.

Venezuelan filmmaking in its Latin American context

In recent years, a significant number of fiction films produced in Latin America deal explicitly with inequality. Some of La Villa del Cine productions such as La clase  display an explicit social message and a realist mode which contrast, on the one hand with the sophisticated aesthetics and sometimes metaphorical style of some of the most well-known third cinema fiction of the 1960s and 1970s; on the other, with classic realist films like Rodrigo D No Future (Víctor Gaviria, Colombia, 1990) or City of God (Fernando Meirelles, Brazil, 2002). The “realist mode with a message” also characterizes other films produced in countries across Latin America like Redentor (Claudio Torres, Brazil, 2004), La zona[28] (Rodrigo Plá, Mexico, 2007) and Era uma vez[29] (Breno Silveira, Brazil, 2008), to name just a few. In Redentor, a favela comedy with fantastic and musical elements, God commands the journalist Celio Rocha to convince his corrupt friend and property developer Otavio to repent and share all his money with the poor while the slum dwellers invade the middle-class apartment buildings situated next to the favela.  La zona narrates how a gang of youngsters break into a rich gated community. We see the home owners and police hunt for them without respect for their rights or the law, which the rich, in collusion with the police, break with impunity.

Similarly, Silveira explores such an issue in the favela drama Era uma vez set in Rio de Janeiro. The poor boy and the rich girl fall in love but they need to overcome the opposition of their families and their social environment, divided between the favela and the elegant city center. The film, which focuses in the personal relationships, ends with a voiceover appealing to more communication between the poor and the rich to overcome the problem of existing inequalities. Stylistically, this Brazilian movie stages its appeal to fight against huge socio-economic disparities like that of the Venezuelan film Secuestro Express, i.e. both films end with a narrator explicitly advocating a solution to inequality.

In addition to these films that address the problem of class inequality directly, there is a growing number of films such as Dioses (Josué Méndez, Perú, 2008), El baño del Papa (C. Charlone and E. Fernández, Uruguay, 2007) and Huacho (Alejandro F. Almendras, Chile, 2009) in which concern for class differences or poverty is equally prominent but not articulated as class struggle. Dioses mostly takes place in the house of a rich Peruvian family whose younger members behave like gods. The son runs away to live in the slums for a short while, after realizing that he and his sister cannot have an incestuous relationship. The rich boy then pays attention to the slum that surrounds Lima for the first time in his life. He sees a cityscape of shacks and high-rises, and this milieu is depicted in a way that resembles the cityscapes of Caracas in Secuestro Express and of Rio de Janeiro in Era uma vez. With a different theme from the films discussed up to now, El Baño del Papa does not deal with class confrontation, but it depicts poverty and indicts the failure of Catholic institutions to deal with poverty. The poor characters in this film are a group of petty smugglers whose lives change with the Pope visiting their city, but contrary to their expectations, the Pope’s visit does not make their lives better. Finally, in Huacho we see four members of a family living in poverty in the Chilean countryside and struggling to make ends meet and be able to send the young boy to school where he is teased by his classmates for being a poor peasant.

All the films in this latter group fit in the tendency towards the representation of intimacy and quotidian events, and the mixture of the personal with the social and political that professor Germán Rey[30] exemplifies with films like Historias mínimas (Carlos Sorín, Argentina, 2002), Y tu mamá también (Alfonso Cuarón, México, 2001), and Bolívar soy yo (Jorge Alí Triana, Colombia, 2002).  Rey perceives in these three films and many others a clear tendency in contemporary Latin American cinema to combine “the political delirium with intimate circumstances, the more individual options with the revelation of a social and natural scenery.”[31] Furthermore, he also characterizes contemporary Latin American filmmaking by an absence of “el cine ideologizado de otras épocas” or “the ideological cinema of other epochs”. However, it is clear that some productions described above and other films produced by La Villa del Cine[32] in Venezuela point to the persistence of an explicit ideological trend in contemporary Latin American cinema that clearly differs from the trend characterized by the privileging of local differences and intimate stories pointed out by film scholars like Zuzana Pick, Ruby Rich, Diana Robin and Ira Jaffe among others.   

To conclude, the comparison between Secuestro and La clase and their integration in a  contemporary Latin American film context has indicated that there are still clear signs of the persistence of filmmaking practices tackling major problems that have affected Latin American societies for centuries. Similarly, there is a concern for national and Latin American identity in them, not just local and diverse, and these films are not simply the product of individual choices made by filmmakers, but there seem to be organizations, institutions and film festivals which may provide a “continental project”[33] character to these productions. The film developments in this direction may be due to the current support for left-wing political parties in the region. (Politically, some major South American countries with the exception of Peru and Colombia formed leftist governments by the end of the decade 1999-2009; Chile changed in 2010). Therefore, study of these practices has to take into account organizations like ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) and continental media projects like TeleSur.

After all these considerations, some questions still remain. How do these 21st century efforts to use film as a tool for social improvement differ from the ones in the 1960s-1980s? And, can filmmaking practices characterized by the emphasis on transmitting a clear social message at the expense of artistic innovation and sophistication be really revolutionary or, on the contrary, artistic innovation is required for revolutionary socially committed cinema? This is a question which leads to the consideration of the target audience (international film festivals versus marginal national masses at the extremes of the continuum) and the question of the success or failure of previous socially committed filmmaking initiatives.

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