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Democracy for Ransom: Secuestro Express

By Alex Beech

16.09.05 | Picking stories about injustice in Venezuela is like picking a mango from a tree during mango season. Often, there are too many ripe ones to consume, and the task of picking a few good ones is cumbersome. Other times, the perfect mango lands at your feet.

Such is the case with a story which recently came to my attention. It entails a movie titled “Secuestro Express”, the most successful Venezuelan film in contemporary history, and one of the best films I have ever seen in my life. “Secuestro Express” tells the story of a young and affluent Venezuelan couple who, after a long night of partying, are kidnapped and carted through Caracas by thugs bent on a hefty ransom. As the film unfolds, so does the reality about the reasons that the kidnappers target the couple, as well as other truths.

On the surface, “Secuestro Express” is an action film, esconced in the same genre that Tarantino mastered. Upon closer inspection, however, the film surfaces as a poetic treatise on the devastation of class conflict, and a social commentary on the chasm between the rich and poor. If Margaret Mead used documentaries to expose audiences to other cultures, Venezuelan screenwriter and director Jonathan Jakubowicz uses the narrative of the suspense film to explore Venezuela’s endemic class crisis.

The kidnapping provides the plot’s structure. However, the film’s foundation rests on its exploration of the why which lies beneath every crime – in this case, the lonely desperation that leads to drugs and despair, inciting men and women to commit desperate acts. The brilliance of the movie is its relentless pursuit of the truth, portraying a ruthless rapist as a loving father, a savior as criminal, and a criminal as a hero. While other movies continuously resurrect stock characters, “Secuestro Express” creates new ones, daring to expose the complexity of human nature, and the shades of grey which define us.

Without picking sides, the film is political. Because behind every great injustice is a great political failure, “Secuestro Express” depicts Caracas as it has been for many years, steeped in violence and corruption. At the beginning of the film, Jakubowicz uses actual footage of a shooting which took place on April 11, 2002, when Chavez government supporters fired at opposition protestors from a bridge. The images – televised throughout the day – led several generals to demand Chavez’s resignation, which Army Chief Lucas Rincon later said he accepted. The events that day would later be labeled a “coup”, though the details of the shooting incident remain murky. In addition, the film depicts images of the National Guard’s violent suppression of opposition protests, which would later be denounced by international human rights organizations.

Because the filmmakers use actual footage (which legally rests within the public domain), the Venezuelan government has launched an effort to stop the film from appearing in Venezuelan theaters. Shockingly, one of the bridge shooters, Rafael Cabrices, sued the filmmakers, claiming that his image portrayed him in a negative light.

Two days after filing the lawsuit, Cabrices died. At his funeral, Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel called the top-grossing Venezuelan movie of all time "a miserable film, a falsification of the truth with no artistic value". More alarming still, a Chavez supporter wrote an article claiming that the film was being promoted by “Zionist Tycoons trying to take Chavez out of power,” referring to Jakubowicz’s Jewish ancestry.

While a court ruled in the filmmakers’ favor during the first trial, they now face an appeals process, during which the film could be pulled from theaters. In addition, they could face criminal charges for Cabrices’s death.

This legal incident is the latest in a litany of injustices – some more surreal than others – which have recently plagued Venezuela. Without a judicial system which protects the freedom of expression, artists such as Jakubowicz face political and racial persecution.

Ironically, according to Jakubowicz, the film was a collaboration of government supporters and opposition activists, “working together for the first time in contemporary history. We are just trying to bring peace and understanding.” The cast includes stellar performances by Argentinean actor Mia Maestro and Panamanian Actor and Tourism Minister Ruben Blades. The film has been popular within every social strata, gaining box office strength every week.

Now more than ever, Venezuela requires projects which unite its classes and political extremes with the objective of building bridges. It is time to subdue the flames of hatred which the Chavez government has fanned to retain control over Venezuela’s poor. May brave artists such as Jakubowicz continue to reveal the dark truths which keep Venezuelans repressed and oppressed. Nothing less than the future depends on it.

"Secuestro Express" is currently showing in movie theaters around the world. Please check your local listings and for more information.

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