[28 February 2007]
Secuestro Express introduces its subject—Caracas, Venezuela—from a nervous distance. The film opens with ominous music and sweeping, aerial shots of the city’s expansive slums. Tin-roofed shanties crammed onto the hills ringing the prosperous center city tumble over one another chaotically, but also seem massed, as if waiting for a signal to swallow up the high-rises and condos below. They are an explosion, a violence, waiting to happen.
At least that’s how Jonathan Jakubowicz, Secuestro Express‘s director, sees them. And it’s partly this dark, fearful vision of Caracas that has made the director and his film—which was released in 2005 and has since become the most successful Venezuelan movie of all time—a subject of intense controversy within the politically volatile, class-divided country. Venezuela’s vice president condemned the film as “miserable… a falsification of the truth.” Jakubowicz has responded by criticizing the country’s left-wing government and has advocated a “middle-class revolution” to displace it. That a run-of-the-mill kidnapping flick like Secuestro Express can generate this amount of political heat might seem surprising. But Venezuela is embroiled in a class war whose fury and nakedness are shocking from a US perspective, and it has incinerated any artificial lines between culture and politics.
To understand Secuestro Express as a cultural-political phenomenon, it helps to go back to 1998, the year a charismatic leftist named Hugo Chávez ran for president of Venezuela. Chávez, with his mestizo features, working-class background, and populist rhetoric, galvanized the disaffected poor of Venezuela. After his landslide victory, Chávez began to institute his “Bolivarian Revolution”, a package of reforms and programs meant to empower the impoverished majority of the country. Chávez’s revolution has redirected oil profits toward social programs, created thousands of free medical clinics for the poor, increased literacy, supported worker-managed economic cooperatives, and promoted community self-governance.
While support for Chávez amongst the poor has only grown, he is deeply unpopular with the upper class and a majority of the middle class. His opponents have accused him of fostering social instability, governing in a dictatorial style, and moving the country towards Cuban-style communism. In April 2002, political tensions in Caracas exploded into deadly street battles involving government supporters, opponents, Chávez’s national guard, and the Metropolitan Police loyal to the anti-Chávez mayor. Using this unrest as an excuse, a group of military officials and business leaders launched a coup and managed to briefly depose Chávez before a popular uprising and loyal presidential guards returned him to power.
Following the failed coup, the anti-Chávez management of Venezuela’s state oil company sought to destabilize the government by ceasing the production and exportation of oil, the lifeblood of Venezuela’s economy. When this, too, failed, the anti-Chavistas organized a recall vote, which was defeated by a 20-point margin. Chávez is now accelerating Venezuela’s move to the left after being reelected with 60 percent of the vote in December 2006. In a swearing-in speech citing everyone from Antonio Negri to Jesus Christ, Chávez announced plans to nationalize key US-owned telecommunications and energy companies.
Although Chávez’s opponents, frightened by the economic consequences of the oil strike and chastened by repeated electoral defeat, seem temporarily resigned to his rule, Caracas remains a political and ideological flashpoint of international significance. To many leftists, it is a source of hope and serves as evidence that socialism has a future; to many liberals and rightists, it is the source of a cancerous left-wing movement threatening private property and free trade across Latin America.
Secuestro Express is a product of the ideological battleground Caracas has become, portraying the city as chaotic, crime-ridden, and on the verge of complete social disintegration. This, along with its politically loaded footage of the street battles preceding the attempted coup, has made the film into a cultural-political football, both within Venezuela and internationally. Critics of the film say that it plays on class and racial prejudices while providing a distorted picture of Chávez’s Caracas; supporters have praised it as documenting the alleged growth of class hatred, violence, and corruption under the current government.
Filmed in the hyper, fast-paced style popularized by Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) and Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener), Secuestro Express follows an upper-class couple as they are kidnapped, beaten, and threatened with rape by three young men from the Caracas slums. The couple is the victim of an “express kidnapping” (hence the title); they are to be held for a short period of time—hours—before either being ransomed to their wealthy parents or killed. The kidnappers and the victims spend most of the movie jammed together in the couple’s now claustrophobic SUV, guns constantly pressed against temples, forced into mouths, or stuck between legs.
Despite its leering, Tarantinoesque fascination with violence and sexual brutality, Secuestro Express is in many ways an old-fashioned, liberal message picture. The film ends with a solemn voice declaring, “Half the world is starving, while the other half is dying of obesity. There are only two choices left: We confront the monster, or we invite it to dinner.” At another point in the movie, one of the kidnappers asks his victim, “When half the city is knee-deep in shit and you’re rolling in an expensive car, you expect them not to hate you? Why shouldn’t they hate you?”
The creators of Secuestro Express have indeed claimed that their film was intended to call attention to the wealth gap in Venezuela and the need to “build the middle class.” However, the movie itself, particularly in the way it depicts characters from different class backgrounds, reveals disturbing assumptions and prejudices behind this seemingly benign, even progressive, mission. Hidden in the filmmakers’ glorification of the middle class lurks feelings of fear and disgust toward the poor, the wish for them to disappear and to be replaced by a new animal with new mores: the middle class.
After the movie sets its fearful tone with the aerial slum footage, the camera zooms in on downtown Caracas with a montage of homeless people, mansions, street vendors, and country clubs. It is also here, very early in the movie, where its most politically loaded footage is found. Amid rapid-fire cutting between newsreel footage of the political rallies and violent clashes preceding the 2002 coup, Secuestro Express slows down and settles on a Chávez supporter hunkered behind the guardrail of an overpass. As a news camera watches, the man, still in a defensive crouch, fires his handgun at an unseen target. This footage, as Michael King of the Austin Chronicle has pointed out, has an iconic resonance in Venezuela akin to that of the Kennedy assassination in the United States.
Chávez’s opponents claim that the man on the tape, grassroots activist Rafael Cabrices, fired on an opposition march passing by on the street below, and the country’s private media—all of which are virulently anti-Chávez—repeated a clip of the incident ad nauseam in the days and hours preceding the coup. The clip aired on TV, and in Secuestro Express, does not show anything below the overpass. However, footage included in the documentary Chavez: Inside the Coup: aka The Revolution Will Not Be Televised seems to reveal the street below to be completely empty of marchers, lending credence to Cabrices’s claim that he was returning fire from anti-Chávez Metropolitan Police snipers. (Cabrices filed a defamation lawsuit against the creators of Secuestro Express for including the footage but died of a heart attack before it went to court—it was at his funeral that the vice president made his disparaging remarks about the movie.)
After establishing the setting as chaotic and dangerous, the film introduces its characters with freeze-frames and descriptive tags. The male kidnap victim, Martin, is “High Maintenance. Old Money.” Carla, his sympathetic girlfriend, is a “Volunteer at a Public Clinic.” The three kidnapers are also conveniently identified. Niga, a tense mestizo with a facial tic is an “Ex-Con. Religious. Killer.” Budú, a large, physically imposing black man, is labeled “Painter. Rapist. Sentimental Father.” Trece, the lightest skinned of the three, is “Middle Class. Romantic.” These tags are the only time the characters of Niga and Budú are allowed complexity. Once the movie gets rolling, they are just, respectively, a killer and a rapist.
Trece, the “middle-class romantic”, is really the hero of the movie. He seems to spend most of his energy trying to keep Carla from being harmed as the kidnappers shuttle her and Martin from ATM machines to a coke dealer, from their hideout in an abandoned children’s nursery to the drop-off spot in the hills overlooking Caracas. In the DVD commentary, Jakubowicz contrasts Trece from his fellow kidnappers. Jakubowicz calls Trece “a guy… who is a human being; who believes in the middle-class revolution.” Trece saves Carla from being raped not just once but three times—twice from Budú, once from a pair of policemen. At the end of the movie, after Carla’s father has paid the ransom, Trece gives up his cut of the money to the bloodthirsty, lusty duo of Niga and Budú so that they will not kill and rape her.
Many critics describe Secuestro Express as sympathizing with the film’s villains. Reviewers frequently claim that the bad guys are depicted as victims of Venezuela’s class divide. But with the exception of Trece, the kidnappers are portrayed as monsters, spit up by the teeming slums looming over Caracas. They are not the subjects of sympathy, but fear.
This fact is fundamental to understanding the political underpinnings of the movie and the motivations of its creators. Much of the opposition to Chávez within Venezuela comes from a fear of the empowered, emboldened slums towering over downtown Caracas. Many well-to-do Caraqueños focus their fear on the Bolivarian Circles, government-supported neighborhood associations that are meant to encourage economic self-sufficiency and participatory democracy but which are often portrayed as left-wing militias. (The media image of these groups within Venezuela is commonly that of gun-toting thugs given free rein to terrorize the rich.)
Anti-Chávez liberals have had to balance their unhappiness with the country’s wealth gap with their fear of an empowered poor. In the English-language documentary Secuestro Express: the Film and the Facts, executive producer Elizabeth Avellan says, “We have to build the middle class in Latin America, otherwise, things will continue to spiral out of control…. The reality is that the solution needs to come from society. No government can fix it.” In a separate interview she defined her idea of social consciousness—which she was careful to distinguish from political consciousness—thusly: “You extend a hand to everyone around you and whoever works for you…. You don’t let go of the poor and just let them die and starve.”
In an interview with the Austin Chronicle, Jakubowicz also expressed his distaste for Chávez and argued that the solution to Venezuela’s catastrophic class divide is not political action but a vague process of social dialogue and “coming together” between the rich and poor. He has said of the pro-Chávez camp, “Their revolution is based on social hatred. If the society actually gets together and starts working to develop the minorities and the rich start renouncing some of their privileges to develop the poor, then the revolution is over—because all their popularity is based on revenge, and this movie might be the step that society leaves after Chávez has been [in power].”
Entreaties to “build the middle-class” and “extend a hand to whoever works for you” are of course meaningless, feel-good platitudes offered as alternatives to empowering the impoverished. It’s a politics based, like Secuestro Express is, on a fear of the poor. You almost have to feel sorry for Jakubowicz and company. They realize both the immorality and the danger of Venezuela’s class divide, but they are too timid to support those working to remedy it. They’re left, then, with their impossible dream: that through the extended hands of the rich, Niga, Budú, and the slums of Caracas will disappear—poof!—and Trece will be declared chairman of the Revolutionary Republic of Middle-Class Venezuela.