copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
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.[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 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 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." 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%). 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.
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.
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.
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 . 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.
Secuestro Express — synopsis
The film starts with the intertitle “an incalculable number…just one of them” reproduced above. After this, we see extreme close-ups of a man talking about a Creole roulette (Russian roulette) game and a gun aimed at the camera and fired. The audience thus views this episode from the loser’s POV. A rapidly edited series of images of Caracas follows and provides a socio-political introduction to the protagonists: a wealthy young couple, Martín and Carla. Some of the images of this sequence include scenes of immense barrios (slums), highrises in downtown Caracas, rich people playing golf, and young marginal boys fighting and dealing drugs. Intertwined with these, there are images of violent demonstrations in the streets of Caracas, an image of Simón Bolívar and a very controversial extract of archive footage that shows Chávez supporters shooting from a bridge in April 11, 2002, when the brief coup against President Chávez is about to take place. Documentaries like The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Kim Bartley, Ireland 2003) or Puente Llaguno, Claves de Una Masacre/ Llaguno Bridge, Keys to a Massacre (Ángel Palacios, Venezuela, 2004) were produced to interpret this incident, that has generated much controversy. Basically, the opposition claims that Chávez supporters were firing at members of the opposition, and the private media presented it like this, whereas the President's supporters argue that the people in this bridge were protecting themselves from sniper fire. The man that is seen firing from the bridge, Rafael Cabrices, died of a heart attack while the legal proceedings to have his image removed from the film were in progress. Situating this image in the middle of a series of images that denote violence could be interpreted as a sign of support for the former interpretation, and this is in fact how the Chávez’s government interpreted this inclusion.
While Martín and Carla are at a disco, a criminal gang specialized in “express” kidnapping is preparing for a job. In this way, the first seven minutes of the film show the city, the main characters (Martín and Carla, on the one hand, and the four kidnappers—Budú, Dolor, Trece and Niga—on the other) and preparations for the crime. Speeded-up scenes alternate with stills and we see visually key words describing features of the main characters, as if introducing characters in a video game. This combination of stills and moving images edited at different paces produces an effect of fits and starts, of sudden changes of rhythm, and contributes to creating expectation at the same time that it gives an impression of art-house filmmaking or an MTV video.
The couple on the street have managed to attract the attention of the kidnappers who follow them into a pharmacy; we hear Martín express his disagreement with Carla’s intention to bring a poor sick child to live at her home. When they leave the pharmacy, Budú, Trece and Niga enter Martín’s car and Dolor leaves in another car. Inside Martín’s car, the kidnappers immediately call Carla’s father to demand a ransom. Inside the car, the assailants continue to beat up Martín and one phones Martín’s father, who is seen gambling at the casino when he receives the call.
Then several kidnappers make or receive calls from their families at the same time, and the screen splits to depict victims’ and kidnappers’ family members at the same level, visually rendering all of them as somehow equal. In addition, including the family life of the kidnappers arguably reveals their human side and softens the extremely negative perception that most viewers may have of them up to this point.
The radio announces that it is 6 a.m. when they arrive at an ATM to withdraw money. While Niga is watching out for passers-by, a thief attacks Martín as he is withdrawing money. Niga and the thief fight for the “prey,” which results in Niga shooting the other man dead.
When the bandits get the money, they head for a drug dealer, Marcelo. Marcelo is a homosexual drug dealer who also happens to be Martín’s supplier, but the kidnappers are not aware of this. Marcelo strikes a deal with the kidnappers so that he can “stay” with Martín for half an hour. Everybody in the room thinks that Marcelo wants to rape Martín, including Carla, who reacts strongly and has to be carried away and whose reaction encourages one of the group, Trece, to try to protect her.
The kidnappers leave with Carla and Marcelo helps Martín, but when the kidnappers realize that Martín’s car has been stolen, they have to return to Marcelo’s place earlier than expected. Once they return to Marcelo’s, they see Martín having sex with the drug dealer with obvious enjoyment. He clearly was not coerced. The observers react in disgust and the incident serves to unite Carla with the kidnappers. The kidnappers take a car from Marcelo and put Martín in the trunk. Carla has more confidence in her captors and jokes and shares drugs with them. At one point they are stopped at a roadblock by a National Guard officer who interrogates them. The officer is unaware of the captive in the trunk, but suspects that the kidnappers have drugs and doesn’t let them continue their journey until the kidnappers manage to bribe him with a bag of cocaine.
A new incident that changes Martín’s fate occurs when he is taken out of the car and made to buy some expensive watches, presenting him with an opportunity to escape. This attempt is thwarted when he enters the taxi driven by Dolor and is brought back to the kidnappers. They decide to kill him inside the taxi’s trunk by playing Russian roulette. Before this happens and while Dolor is looking for Marcelo, Carla is taken to an old dingy high-rise. There, she develops a relationship with Trece as they talk and do drugs. Budú, however, has sinister motives in mind. He orders Trece to leave with the intention of raping the captive. Fortunately for Carla, when Budú is about to rape her, Niga comes with the news that Martín has been found and both kidnappers leave to play the Russian roulette to kill Martín.
Clearly both filmmakers are greatly concerned with the consequences of existing inequalities, particularly with the causes of class violence. But the films show different types of violence. Secuestro is concerned with a particular form of violence that undermines the quality of life of relatively wealthy people, not the underprivileged. The motives for express kidnapping are usually just financial; once the kidnappers receive the ransom, they run away. In other words, it is mostly the middle-class and the rich who live in fear of being kidnapped. Still, kidnapping is not a minor crime and does affect all sectors of the population. In contrast, the violence that preoccupies the director of La clase, José Antonio Varela, is a more collective violence and does not imply criminalization of the lower classes. Instead, the riots are a political response to a situation, not exclusively related to financial motives.
In her essay, “La ciudad de Caracas amor a muerte y Secuestro Express,” Belkis Suárez rightly indicates that Secuestro Express does depict class struggle. In this film, there are three major groups of people: the upper-middle class of Martín and Carla (perhaps also Trece), the corrupt policemen, and the subproletariat (Budú, Niga, Marcelo, Dolor). Similarly La clase has upper-middle class characters (Anselmo, Margarita), proletarians (Yuri, the other construction workers), corrupt policemen, and subproletarians to a much lesser extent (perhaps Edwin and other characters who populate the barrios without a “voice” here).
Both Secuestro and La clase try to avoid representing characters as just good or bad, but they only succeed to a certain extent. In Secuestro, the spectators are clearly guided to adopt the rich kid’s point of view. Viewers may feel aimed at and shot with a gun held by the kidnappers at the same time as Martín—the rich kid—is shot; the bullet seems aimed at the screen. Director Jonathan Jakubowicz, in one of the DVD extras, confirms this identification with the kidnapped, not the kidnappers:
“And in a way I felt that the audience should be a part of the victim’s point of view.”
Furthermore, the lower-class characters are introduced in a denigrating way. Presenting a character like Niga by having him shoot at the audience, labeling him with the words, “Ex Con, Religious, Killer,” and making him support the idea of raping and killing Carla is undoubtedly indicating the scripting of the character as a source of violence, not as a victim of inequalities. Some brief dialogue between Niga and Budú’s terminally ill daughter does not suffice to him seem like a human being with good and bad sides. Rather, viewers are encouraged to fear him and come to the conclusion that he is a monster. And the same applies to Budú and Dolor. The only character, Trece, whose good and bad sides are more balanced is curiously characterized as “middle class.”
La clase starts with images of a slaughterhouse and ends with images of Yuri and Tita looting a truck and carrying off a slaughtered animal after seeing how their friend Roger has been killed (slaughtered like an animal if we accept the association of images). This common metaphor was prominently used in the well-known story El Matadero (The Slaughterhouse) by Argentinean writer Esteban Echeverría as well as in Eisenstein’s Strike. Echeverría’s short story was written in 1839 but could not be published until 1871 due to political censorship. In his novel, Echeverría contrasts the brutal and ignorant masses of the “federales” with the educated middle class of “unitarios.” The masses of workers and supporters of the Rosas’ federal regime slaughter a “unitario” as they had just done with a bull. That novel is marked by the “narrator’s superior disgust for the “proletariat,” the barbarians.” However, for our present study, I would note that Jason Wilson also interprets Echeverría’s work as a “parable of on-going Argentine violence” which could be generalized to characterize Latin American violence. Furthermore, Wilson adds that The Slaughtherhouse and the story “La fiesta del monstruo,” written by Borges and Bioy Casares,
“are linked through realism and history to suggest why violent confrontations erupt in history and fiction over many years."
In terms of comparing novel and film, I would also have to note that Echeverría’s disgust for the proletariat stand in stark contrast with José Antonio Varela’s perceptions of the barrio dwellers: Roger, the man of African descent who is slaughtered like an animal at the end of La clase is a construction worker living in the slums and not a middle-class “unitario.” Despite these differences in characterizing the proletariat, I would note that this metaphor of the slaughter of dumb animals continues to provide effective imagery for representing irrational violence and class struggle in both The Slaughterhouse and La clase.
Between the two films, in La clase, the barrio residents are represented in much more depth than the upper classes with their two-dimensional idyllic figures, a contrast which will be reflected in the visual representations of the city too. Probably due to the fact that the two films belong to different genres (thriller and romantic drama) and to the creation of a claustrophobic atmosphere in Secuestro, this film seems to lack the social perspective of La clase. We do not see much beyond the kidnapping in Secuestro, whereas in La clase the characters’ milieu is well defined. We see a number of different environments as we observe the orchestra, the police taking action against youngsters, the sad state of public hospitals, the construction workers, and the riots in the street.
Drawing from Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas’ distinction between first, second and third cinema, I might classify Secuestro as first cinema practice since its aesthetic design and its conception as an entertainment product clearly follow Hollywood’s model. La clase, on the other hand, with its class struggle and identity-building themes, could be included in the group of third cinema. However, since both films emphasize class struggle with the intention of changing the society they intend to represent—one through a bourgeois approach and the other through a socialist approach—this previous classification of three types of cinema proves insufficient to understand the complexities of filmmaking as practiced in the polarized society of contemporary Venezuela. Such difficulty in applying Third Cinema as a concept here coincides with Zuzana Pick’s and Ruby Rich’s conviction:
“Third Cinema as an ideology no longer provides a viable description for, nor adequately describes, the current cinemas of resistance in Latin America.”
Filmmakers concerned with questions of class often explore their concerns as much through cityscapes as characterization. Architecture and urban geography speak much about social relations and money. For example, because La clase deals with Tita’s dilemma choosing between a rich and poor life, the film’s locations show a city divided between the barrio (slum) and the urbanización (middle-class district/buildings). While most of the locations clearly identified with the middle-class are interiors, both interior and exterior shooting takes place in the barrio, which the film portrays in more depth. In addition, other shots of the barrio appear when Tita is thinking, externalizing Tita’s thought. The director tried to integrate images of the barrio and urbanizaciones organically into the story of La Clase, and the intersecting space is the theater where the musicians rehearse. At the theatre, Tita meets her friends Anselmo and Margarita. The theatre functions in this film as what Stavros Stavrides calls the threshold space. This author points out that
“instead of thinking of social identities as bounded regions, one can consider them interdependent and communicating areas. In an effort to describe urban space as a process rather than a series of physical entities, we can discover practices that oppose a dominant will to fix spatial meanings and uses. These practices mold space and create new spatial articulations since they tend to produce threshold spaces, those in-between areas that relate rather than separate. […] a city of thresholds could thus concretize the spatiality of a public culture of mutually aware, interdependent and involved identities.” [14b]
Graffiti and murals in the barrios of La Clase are also part of the cityscape. They are in fact, manifestations of its inhabitants’ political awareness. Sujatha Fernandes, in her recent study of the urban social movements of the barrios of Caracas, contends that
“popular fiestas and murals have been important vehicles in post-neoliberal imaginings of urban space and cultural identity, particularly given new geographies of exclusion.”[14c]
In contrast to this rich imagery, the cityscape that Secuestro Express uses to situate the story in a particular moment is presented in an isolated montage. The film’s presentation of a cityscape is not directly related to what happens to Carla and Martín. Secuestro takes place mostly inside interior spaces, especially the car and an abandoned building. While this effectively produces a claustrophobic atmosphere, it does not help the viewer understand the main characters’ social positions or political attitudes, such as their opinion on the growth of the barrios. In addition to this, the initial montage of the city seems intended to surprise and scare us by revealing the immensity of the slums. In addition, I interpreted the initial camera movement advancing from the slums to the high-rises of the city center as being like the movement of a predatory bird hunting its prey. In this sense, Secuestro portrays the barrio as a vast entity—aggressive and menacing.
A “realist” film does not portray the real world as if there were some unique “real world.” Previously, I have been trying to deconstruct Jakubowicz’s realist claims for Secuestro Express. And in an interesting contrast, La clase has no explicit reference to realism but its “story with a moral” provides an unquestionable impression of reality. Transposed to visual expression, this “moral” is seen in a wall full of graffiti: “the rich are counted,” “down with IMF mandates,” and “Christ is coming.” In La Clase this wall appears first in the background of the mise en scène and reappears later occupying the whole screen. And the social moral also appears in the dialogue, especially in the conversation between Tita and the priest, who is the director’s alter ego. Contemporary critics as well as audiences in the “first world” tend to disapprove of films with a focus on class, especially “films with a moral” such as La clase, and sometimes such films are labeled as propaganda. It is a liberal commonplace that class concerns do not promote artistic filmmaking. However, as seen in a comparison between La clase and Secuestro, the high level of class awareness of La clase lets it trace out social reality in more depth than Secuestro, with its fragmentation and isolation of different parts.
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. 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. 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 El Caracazo, 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 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 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, 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, 2007—and 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.”
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.” 
Here Jakubowicz seems to be referring to Chávez’s party when he mentions “the political guerrilla,” 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.”
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 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.”
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 (Rodrigo Plá, Mexico, 2007) and Era uma vez (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 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.” 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 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” 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.
1. See Sueiro Villanueva, Yolanda. Inicios de la exhibición cinematográfica en Caracas (1896-1905), p. 66. [return to text]
2. IMDB database.
3. Forero, Juan: “Venezuelan Filmmaker Finds His Kidnapping Tale Resonates With the Masses”, October 6, 2005; accessed April 5, 2010.
3b. In an entry published in his blog on February 21, 2010, the Minister Farruco Sesto sustains that “posing a dichotomy between politics and culture may represent an act of intellectual dishonesty. There is no such dichotomy. There is no such contradiction. We have the responsibility to do politics and contribute to raising awareness and developing the power of the people to create, precisely from the cultural front.”
Original text: “puede representar un acto de deshonestidad intelectual plantear la dicotomía entre política y cultura. No hay tal dicotomía. No hay contradicción. Nos toca hacer política y contribuir a desarrollar la conciencia y los poderes creadores del pueblo, justamente desde el trabajo cultural.”
Available at http://confarruco.blogspot.com/2010/
02/conversaciones-210210.html, accessed june 28, 2010.)
accessed March 5, 2010.
4b. Despite these observations on the role of the lead characters in these two films, I don’t underestimate the potential of romantic relationships to attract audience attention and promote emotional involvement.
5. The remarkable development of this net of orchestras throughout Venezuela is well documented in the film Tocar y Luchar (To Play and to Fight), dir. Luis Alberto Arvelo Mendoza, Venezuela, 2006. The orchestra’s web page is www.fesnojiv.gob.ve.
6. This scene poses some problems. Why would the policemen inform Tita so politely of Edwin’s death? She is not a close relative of the deceased, and it is suggested that they killed Edwin on purpose.
7. Sujatha Fernandes refers to the remarkable work of some worker priests in Venezuela such as Francisco Wuytack and José Antonio Angós. Another prominent examples of this figure is the President of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, elected in 2008 after six decades of one-party rule and an ex-bishop “of the poor.” In film, the diverse types of priests found in Latin America are portrayed in the 2002 Mexican feature The Crime of Father Amaro.
8. Many political analysts and scholars including Steve Ellner, Arturo Escobar, Margarita López Maya, Luis Lánder, Antonio González and Miguel Tinker Salas among others have noted the significance of these riots and the ensuing repression in the formation of the political awareness of Venezuelans.
9. Spivak’s voice in the often quoted essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”
10. The chapter “La película y la realidad” of the DVD extras.
11. Wilson, Jason. "Writing for the Future: Echeverría’s “El Matadero” and Its Secret Rewriting by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares as “La Fiesta del Monstruo." Forum for Modern Language Studies, January 23, 2007, p. 5.
12. Ibid. p. 1.
13. Ibid. p. 1.
14. Quoted in Diana Robin and Ira Jaffe’s Redirecting the Gaze. Gender, Theory, and Cinema in the Third World, p. 2.
14b. Heterotopias and the Experience of Porous Urban Space, Stavros Stavrides, p. 174.
14c. Fernandes, Sujatha. Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010).
15. For further discussion, see Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero. USA: Hill and Wang, 1977  and Yau, Esther C. M. “Compromised Liberation: The Politics of Class in Chinese Cinema of the Early 1950s”, in James, David E. and Rick Berg (Eds.). The Hidden Foundation : Cinema and the Question of Class. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 139-171.
16. As Lorena Almarza, one of the Presidents of Villa del Cine, points out, 80% of La Clase was shot in the barrio of Zumba de Guarenas and some extras and assistant producers are from this slum; (accessed on 19 November 2007:
17. I would like to highlight the obvious interest of the Bolivarian Government in reassessing historical events and figures in order to better understand and modify the present. Films like Bolívar eterno and Zamora are also proof of this aim.
18. See, Ellner, Steve, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics, pp. 89-99.
19. At one point in La clase the poor boyfriend and his friends are intimidated by the police for writing a graffiti about IMF (FMI in Spanish).
20. It was known as “el paquete.” There are scenes in La clase where we can see a graffiti reading “Abajo el paquete,” down with the reform package.
21. Referring to the Venezuelan economic expansion that “began when the government got control over the national oil company in the first quarter of 2003.” (Mark Weisbrot, Rebecca Ray and Luis Sandoval, The Chávez Administration at 10 Years: The Economy and Social Indicators (CEPR Centre for Economic and Policy Research 2009).
22. Chávez & Harnecker, 9.
23. Chapter “La película y la realidad”.
24. Note that guerrillas in Latin America are often illegal and irregular, therefore this term may carry a negative connotation.
25. Emphasis mine.
26. For more information, see Gott, Richard. "Chávez's Perfect Gift to Obama." April 20, 2009
and Clark, Andrew. "Chávez Creates Overnight Bestseller with Book Gift to Obama." April 19, 2009.
27. Original text: “El mundo se divide sobre todo entre los indignos y los indignados. Y ya sabrá cada quién de qué lado quiere o puede estar.” My translation is based on the following definition of the key terms:
María Moliner, "Diccionario De Uso Del Español," (Madrid: Gredos, 1992), vol. 1 & 2.
28. English title: The Zone.
29. English title: Once Upon a Time in Rio.
30. Rey, Germán: “Evocar la vida. Contextos y variaciones en el cine latinoamericano reciente". Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, September 2003; accessed April 5, 2010.
31. My translation. Original text: (“los delirios políticos con las circunstancias íntimas, las opciones más individuales con la revelación de un paisaje que es natural y social”).
32. On June 30, 2010, Villa del Cine celebrated its fourth birthday. It has released 26 films and supported many other projects, including the co-production of films and the organization of activities for community development.
33. I am referring here to Zuzana Pick’s The New Latin American Cinema. A Continental Project.
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