Secuestro Express: Introduction.

Tita in La Clase.

Carla in Secuestro Express.   

La clase: Yuri between two of his co-workers.

La clase: The poor worker is ready to help when needed.

La clase: Tita starts a relationship with the rich boy.

La clase: Edwin holds the children hostage inside the church.

La clase: The police informing Tita of Edwin’s “accidental” death.

La clase: The priest comforting Edwin’s mother (1).

La clase: The priest comforting Edwin’s mother (2).

La clase. Tita talking to the father: “they wouldn’t be rich if we were not poor.”

La clase: Tita with her mother and her grandmother.

La clase: A sense of belonging to a community.

La clase: A perfect future mother-in-law.

La clase: Abstract painintgs inside Anselmo's home.

La clase: Margarita helps Tita.

La clase: Margarita’s home is perfect.

La Clase: The orchestra is the threshold space which allows Tita to move between the barrio and the urbanización.

Secuestro Express and La clase: politics of realism in contemporary Venezuelan filmmaking

by Mercedes Vázquez

The first film projections in Venezuela took place in 1896, as in most Latin American countries, only a few months after the first collective exhibitions in the United States and Europe of films made with the vitascope and the cinematograph. From the beginning many but not all Latin American intellectuals and public leaders expressed an interest in the use of cinema for social improvement, an attitude toward media which persists into the 21st century. At the time in the 19th century, the sometimes ambiguous social attitude of the Venezuelans towards these new technologies also included attention to films’ potential for moral education.[1][open endnotes in new window] In our own time, we have in Latin America seen the social use of cinema fully exploited by the Third Cinema filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, and today it is of utmost concern in film production in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Showing such an interest in the social use of cinema, a number of Venezuelan films produced in the last decade have dealt with class struggle and daily life in marginal urban “barrios” or slums. In fact, life in the barrios has been a characteristic theme of Venezuelan filmmaking for decades. In this essay, I present a close analysis of two such contemporary Venezuelan films, Secuestro Express (2005) and La clase (2007), as case studies representing two modes of contemporary filmmaking (including production, direction and distribution) that have scripts that foreground problems created by the huge social inequalities in present-day Venezuela. By describing the films in detail and comparing them, I hope to provide a background for contrasting two different realist aesthetics. The films represent in different ways both cityscapes and characters from different social classes. I will then locate these two films in their socio-political conjuncture and, lastly, will try to correlate their two realist filmmaking modes with trends in the wider context of contemporary Latin American cinema.

Secuestro Express versus La clase

Secuestro Express (2005),directed by Venezuelan filmmaker Jonathan Jakubowicz, is the top grossing movie in Venezuela's box office history[2] and was the first Venezuelan film to be internationally distributed by Hollywood’s Miramax, a subsidiary of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group. It was nominated for Best Foreign Film in the British Independent Film Awards 2005 and the Golden Trailer Awards in 2006, and the then Vice President of Venezuela and journalist José Vicente Rangel denounced it as a "miserable film, a falsification of the truth with no artistic value."[3] The film is a thriller about the express kidnapping of a rich couple by a gang. The term “secuestro express” refers to a type of kidnapping that is common in Venezuela and usually lasts a few hours, during which time the kidnappers try to obtain as much money from the victims as they can. In this film, things go wrong and the abducted man is killed, but the woman is finally released once her father pays a ransom. The film follows a general action-film formula, except for the fact that it indirectly introduces class politics into the script, and it displays a strong commitment to realism from the start. A kind of journalistic or documentary impulse is revealed in the intertitle that opens the film:

“An incalculable number of kidnappings happen daily in Latin America. This is the story of just one of them.”

This kind of introduction, that it’s a true story, has a long life in fiction, in which it induces a special kind of audience involvement with the narrative. However, a related statement, in voiceover, finishes Secuestro in a complementary way:

“Half the world is starving, whilst the other half is dying of obesity. There are only two choices left: either we confront the beast, or we invite it to dinner.”

In addition to this kind of claim to social realism within the film, the director has made numerous statements, both in the DVD extras and in the press, about his efforts to represent a real problem objectively. In that light, and as I will analyze at greater length below, I find the opening text more than a simple device to intensify spectator enjoyment.

Made in a contrasting style, La clase, (meaning, the social class), made by José Antonio Varela in 2007, is a romantic drama. It won awards at the Film Festivals of Mérida 2008 and Málaga 2009, and an honorific mention at the Iberian American Film and Video Festival Cinesul 2008. As its title indicates directly, the script relies on a broad presentation of class differences. The plot concerns a woman who must decide between two men: Yuri, the poor, dependable boyfriend from the slums where she “belongs,”and Anselmo, the rich boyfriend who can take her away from “hell”—as she calls the barrio where she lives. After a long internal debate, she chooses to stay where she belongs in order to support directly the causes of the poor and the marginal. Currently Venezuela’s society is highly polarized along political lines. The fact that this film was produced by the state production company, Villa del Cine, is no coincidence. This producer emerged as a result of gaining support via the cultural policies of Hugo Chávez’s 21st century socialist government . The filmmaker himself became the President of Villa del Cine Foundation in March 2010, three years after the release of his film and the script is an adaptation of a novel with the same title written by the Venezuelan Minister of Popular Power for Culture Francisco Sesto. The film La clase is an example of mainstream entertainment that conforms to current state principles.

Both Secuestro and La clase have scripts that delineate a causal link between inequality and violence, and both filmmakers use a realist aesthetics to portray class struggle, but the films differ in the methods proposed to solve these problems and their political affiliations. As a result of Venezuela’s polarization, radically opposite political opinions appear everyday in the media, in public institutions and everywhere else, and people readily recognize the ideologies being expressed in public discourse. This is a country of sharp contrasts, and in that way it conforms to an image of Latin America as a continent where dictatorships often coexist with revolutions. In this context, pretending that the film Secuestro offers a nonpartisan look at inequality issues in Venezuela, as the intertitle proclaiming a true story and the writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s public statements do, awakened my suspicions, suspicions which were confirmed analyzing the film. The script is written from a bourgeois point of view that proposes a charity approach to solve problems of inequality.Such an overall perspective differs from the way the lower classes predominate in La Clase’s narrative, and also from that film’s invitation to a Fanonian perspective on violence applied to situations of extreme social inequality.[3b]

The films exhibit some striking similarities as well. Both combine an action narrative with an explicit social commentary and the main characters are young women who have very similar physical appearances. The image of the female lead in both films conforms to an idea of female (Latin) beauty who is Caucasian and has a fair skin, long hair and a slim body, despite the fact that only approximately  21% of the Venezuelan population are unmixed Caucasian. The majority are mestizos (68%), black (10%) and Indian (1%).[4] Moreover, whereas Tita in La Clase seems to be the active agent of her destiny and Carla, in Secuestro, assumes the passive role of a kidnapped victim, the two film narratives depend on the development of romantic relationships, a fact which represents women as indissolubly tied to romance.][4b] In La clase, Tita’s choice of future political/social action is strongly linked to her choice of boyfriend. Choosing Yuri, the slum dweller, means choosing to fight alongside the poor masses, whereas choosing Anselmo entails immediate access to the middle class. In Secuestro, for Carla, the developing romantic relationship with one of her kidnappers, Trece, will save her from being kidnapped or killed by the other kidnappers. Once her father (a male figure) pays the ransom, her life depends on one of her (male) kidnappers.

In addition to this, both women display a typical trait that has been traditionally used to characterize women as potential mothers: they are compassionate and generous with children. Carla wants to bring home a poor sick child and Tita teaches music to a group of children who live in her slum, one of whom gets hurt and is brought to the hospital by her and Yuri. Finally, we are not certain about the means of living of both women. Tita plays at the orchestra, but it is never mentioned whether she is paid for it or not. When she decides to move to her friend’s home, there is no discussion about who is going to cover her expenses or whether she is going to continue contributing to her family’s finances. In Secuestro, we are similarly ignorant about Carla’s livelihood. She works as a volunteer at a public clinic, but usually volunteers do not perceive a salary. In the end, despite the apparent differences between these two characters, this analysis brings them closer.   

As regards production and distribution, Secuestro is an independent film produced by the producer Tres Malandros, with Elisabeth Avellán as executive producer and Sandra Condito as producer. Both women are professionally linked to Robert Rodríguez, the U.S. director of Sin City and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, films where Elisabeth Avellán worked as a producer and Sandra Condito as a publicist. The film has enjoyed worldwide distribution thanks to Miramax. Secuestro has been publicized by leading and local media around the world and copies of it have even reached local markets in Asia.

La clase was entirely produced by state producer Villa del Cine, and is practically unknown outside of Venezuela. La Clase’s distributor, Amazonia Films, which distributes the Venezuelan Villa del Cine Foundation’s productions, can never compete with a giant corporation like Miramax. In addition, Secuestro’s success may also come from the way it promotes an image of Latin America in line with the worldwide stereotype of violent-poor-unstable continent, conforms to the aesthetic conventions of the contemporary Hollywood thriller, and was partially post-produced in the United States.

La clase — narrative

La clase opens with images of a slaughterhouse, followed by the appearance of the lead character, Tita. She is a young violinist who plays at an orchestra, probably one of the Sistema Nacional de Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, the prestigious system of national youth symphonic orchestras, within which orchestras are organized as intruments for social improvement and are a source of Venezuelan national pride.[5] Tita lives in a barrio (slum) of Caracas whereas some of her middle class colleagues and friends, including Margarita and Anselmo, live in elegant flats in “urbanizaciones” (apartment buildings for the middle and upper classes). Her boyfriend Yuri, a construction worker from her barrio, is portrayed as a friendly colleague and a good friend to his colleagues and friends; he’s a steady boyfriend, always there to help when needed and respectful to his future mother-in-law.

Tita has another suitor, Anselmo, who plays in her orchestra and has made a lot of effort to attract her attention. He is as dependable as Yuri and his family does not oppose Anselmo and Tita’s relationship. As her relation with Anselmo intensifies, Tita gradually leaves Yuri behind. Such a theme, in which a suitor offers the promise of upward mobility, is a common theme in film and literature, especially romantic comedy .

Apart from her work at the orchestra, Tita teaches music to small children at a local church. One day, while she is teaching, two policemen surround some youth outside who are apparently doing nothing wrong. One of them, Edwin, while chased by the police, enters the church and holds Tita and the children hostage. Edwin shoots fearfully and hits a young girl in the arm. When Edwin’s mother enters the church, the young man drops the gun and turns himself in to the police. Later on, the police inform Tita that Edwin was shot trying to escape, but Tita believes the police executed him like an animal.[6]

Another character, a priest, known for helping people in the barrio, comforts Edwin’s mother, defends the rights of the dead boy against the authorities’ abuse of power, and politically discusses the source of inequalities with Tita when she feels confused. The priest is a character type that brings resonances of many populist priests, like Father Hidalgo in Mexico who during the process of independence in Mexico created communes. In such places, as early as the beginning of the 19th century, revolutionary laws abolished slavery, returned land to Indians and promoted equal rights to peoples of European, African an Indian descent. And in contemporary times, such a character represents a figure easily recognizable in Latin America, where Liberation Theology has deep roots.[7]

The strong sense of community associated with the barrio contributes to its positive image: we can see friends gathered in the streets, workers eating together, a funeral, a wedding, an offer of food to a neighbor, etc. However, although angry at the injustice of his death, Tita avoids attending Edwin’s funeral because she is tired of seeing the extreme poverty in which her neighbors and relatives dwell. She finds it difficult to play the violin because there are kids nearby who snatch her scores and are noisy. Although she persistently complains about the rough and dirty environment of the barrios where she lives with her brother, mother and grandmother, in the film she is not subject to much violence herself. While she has to share a bed in her modest home, her family members are good natured and do not show signs of having serious problems. Tita communicates very well with her grandmother, who plays a rather passive role, and her brother, who displays a high level of class awareness in a brief conversation with his sister. The barrio is presented as a lively and complex environment but common problems such as gang fights or drug dealing are minimized or unrepresented here.

In contrast to the depiction of the barrio, in the affluent area of the “urbanizaciones,” we only see the insides of elegantly designed houses with few people living in them, all middle class (if they have maids, these do not appear in the film). None of Anselmo’s friends or neighbors are shown, only his parents. His mother, an artist, is always impeccably dressed in light-colored clothes, even when working on her paintings at home, and the walls of her living room are decorated with abstract paintings. Interestingly in this film, even such a detail may be part of a class critique, since “art for art’s sake” is a principle against which generally Third Cinema filmmakers and socialist realist artists react with skepticism.

Tita has another rich friend from the orchestra, Margarita, whose mother apparently regards Tita as her “lost daughter,” but we never see that mother, even when Anselmo and Tita visit Margarita’s home. Margarita is aware of Tita’s humble origins and has invited Tita to move in with her, whereas Anselmo appears to have no idea of Tita’s home environment. At the beginning of their relationship, Anselmo listens to Tita talking about a violent incident in the church, where she was held hostage, but he cannot believe that such an event took place. She doesn’t hide her poor background from him or his parents and, in fact, tells them that she lives in Catia, a very poor barrio. But she doesn’t speak much about her family and is reluctant to invite Anselmo to her home. When Tita informs her mother and grandmother that she plans to move to Margarita’s, they become very upset and try to discourage her, but she has already made up her mind to leave and packs her bags.

As Tita moves closer to realizing her dream of leaving the barrio, her relationship with the middle-class boyfriend develops. Yuri sees this. Both men are presented as agreeable and sincere; even though Yuri and the mother warn Tita that such men are “dangerous animals,” Anselmo doesn’t fit that stereotype. Finally, just as Tita is about to move into her rich friend’s home, the nationwide phenomenon known as the Caracazo breaks out. This mobilization that took the form of mass looting during the week of February 27, 1989, as a protest against the measures imposed by the IMF and the recently re-elected government of Carlos Andrés Pérez left hundreds, perhaps thousands dead by the military troops and exerted a decisive influence in the political awareness of many members of the current Venezuelan government [8]. She is left no option but to take sides and she decides to join with Yuri in the fighting. She leaves her violin in Anselmo’s car, a decision that jeopardizes any future possibility of climbing up the social ladder by means of relationships. The film ends with images of Yuri and Tita carrying slaughtered animals, an image that ties this moment to the film’s beginning which had images of a slaughterhouse that seemed then unrelated to the plot. The story circles back to the same theme.

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