Secuestro Express director sued in Venezuela

By Agustin Gurza | Los Angeles Times

02.11.05 | The critically acclaimed film "Secuestro Express," about violent street crime in Caracas, has become a box office smash in Venezuela while sparking a raging political controversy that could get it yanked from theaters and possibly land its director in jail.

"Secuestro's" gritty depiction of the class-driven kidnappings common throughout Latin America has been denounced by Venezuela's vice president as a "miserable" movie that unfairly puts his country in a negative light.

Since its summer release in Caracas, the Miramax-distributed movie has generated two lawsuits, including one that calls for pulling it from circulation to delete a specific scene culled from news footage during a public rebellion against the Chavez regime. A second lawsuit accuses director Jonathan Jakubowicz of fomenting illegal drug use and vilifying the nation's armed forces and its president, charges that carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. Those cases are pending before Venezuela's high court.

Earlier this month the Venezuelan film board rejected "Secuestro Express" as its entry in the Academy Awards' foreign film category. Supporters of the crime drama cried foul, particularly when a less popular and less critically respected film, "1888," was endorsed by the film board for Oscar consideration.

While Venezuelans vigorously argued the merits of the competing films in recent weeks, they remained largely unaware of yet another problem that is sure to further inflame the controversy: Venezuela blew its Oscar chances — with either movie — by missing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Oct. 3 deadline for foreign film submissions. (Although Venezuela has consistently submitted Oscar candidates in the past, none of its films has been nominated. Supporters considered "Secuestro Express," one of the most successful homegrown films in the country's history, to be its best shot yet.)

"They're out of luck this year," said academy spokesman Jon Pavlik.

Jakubowicz was headed for the film's premiere in London this month when he heard that his country had dashed his Oscar chances. Over lunch near his Los Feliz apartment — where he has been living on and off while while the controversy and court cases heated up in his hometown of Caracas — he received continual messages on his cellphone from supporters back home.

"It's really chilling that this is the message they are sending to our future artists," said Jakubowicz, "because even if they haven't banned the film, they're engaging in a kind of indirect censorship. How will future Venezuelan artists feel about expressing their opinions when [authorities] want to put us in jail even though we never attacked them, or even spoke ill of them at any time?"

Treachery, tenderness

STARRING Mia Maestro and Rubén Blades, "Secuestro Express" is the blow-by-blow story of a "quickie" kidnapping in which a well-off Caracas couple are briefly seized by street criminals from the city's poor barrios who demand a ransom. During the harrowing three hours that follow, the victims are soaked of fast cash at bank teller machines and at retail stores using their credit cards.

The first Venezuelan film to be distributed internationally by a major Hollywood studio, the movie earned critical praise in the U.S. even before its August release in Venezuela. Since then, the movie has remained at the top of that country's box office, beating even major American releases.

In depicting treachery and tenderness on the part of both prey and predator, Jakubowicz tries to put a human face on a crime problem that has gripped many Latin American capitals. In his fictional script, inspired by his own kidnapping, neither the rich nor the poor are absolved of responsibility for the problem.

From the start, the brash young director said he hoped the movie would start a healing dialogue in a country divided by politics and class conflict. In recent years, Venezuelan society has been polarized, sometimes violently, by the election and attempted ouster of socialist President Hugo Chavez, an ally of Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"My film is a plea for both rich and poor to work together to bridge these social divisions," Jakubowicz said. "I never thought the Chavez administration would be against a movement that calls for unity, for the benefit of all Venezuela."

Venezuelan officials say, however, that the government has never officially taken a stand against "Secuestro Express" and has never tried to censor or suppress it. The harsh critique from Vice President José Vicente Rangel represented his opinion, they say, not a government crackdown.

Still, skeptics suspect politics played a part in Venezuela's Oscar submission because the film board that makes the selection is a government agency and its head, Juan Carlos Lossada, was appointed by President Chavez. But Lossada, in a recent phone interview from Caracas, rejected that speculation.

"Absolutely not," said Lossada, president of the Centro Nacional Autónomo de Cinematografía. "I want to make this very clear: This institute is the guarantor of creative freedom for filmmaking in Venezuela and could not countenance any trace of censorship, despite the statements from Mr. Jakubowicz. He has complete freedom of expression, and his movie is proof because it continues to make money at the Venezuelan box office."

Lossada said "1888," a fictional account of an expedition on the Orinoco River, was chosen unanimously by the film board's seven-member executive committee. The vote was taken in the last days of September and sent by rush mail to academy offices in Beverly Hills, he said. He added that he was unaware that the entry had not arrived on time.

At the moment, though, the loss of a possible Oscar nomination might be the least of Jakubowicz's worries.

In one suit against him, the filmmaker is accused of violating the penal code, the drug laws and the so-called armed forces law because his film allegedly encourages drug use and heaps scorn on the country's military and president, according to the director's attorney, José Antonio Baez Figueroa. The case has been filed by a private attorney in Venezuela, where, unlike the United States, a private party, not just a prosecutor, can initiate legal actions based on penal code violations. The complainant, representing the Venezuelan people, is a celebrated lawyer known for his participation in controversial government-related cases.

The other suit is a defamation case involving a former Chavez government official who appears briefly as part of news footage spliced into the movie's menacing opening montage. The official, Rafael Cabrices, is shown firing a weapon from a bridge during a massive street demonstration in 2002 that led to the temporary ouster of Chavez.

To this day, the incident symbolizes the country's deep political divisions. Some consider Cabrices a hero for defending Chavez's so-called Bolivarian revolution. Others call him a criminal who shot directly at demonstrators, several of whom died that day on Caracas streets. Cabrices and several comrades, dubbed "los pistoleros del puente" (the gunmen on the bridge), were charged and exonerated.

Cabrices' lawyer alleged that the use of the footage damaged his client's reputation by linking him with a film about violence and delinquency. Cabrices unexpectedly died of a heart attack Aug. 31, but the attorney is pressing forward with the case on behalf of Cabrices' survivors.

It was at Cabrices' memorial service that Vice President Rangel publicly panned the kidnapping drama as a "falsification of the truth, a miserable film with no artistic value that [focuses] on the most base and vulgar parts of society." The suit asks that "Secuestro Express" be removed from theaters until Jakubowicz deletes the scene with Cabrices.

After losing in lower courts, both cases are awaiting rulings on their legal merits from the higher court. Baez, the filmmaker's lawyer, does not give them much chance of success. But if they prevail, it would open legal doors for banning the film and seeking prison time for the director, he said.

A box office boost

ALL sides agree on one point: The controversy has no doubt boosted the film at the box office.

"I definitely think there's a deliberate publicity strategy to make Mr. Jakubowicz appear as a victim," said Lossada. "But in the end, I think this is also about his massively out-of-control ego…. He has talent and certainly a promising future, but at such a young age it's presumptuous for him to make statements that define our national cinema as before and after him."

Citing figures from film distributors, Jakubowicz claims that "Secuestro Express" is the No. 2-grossing film of all time in Venezuela, behind only "Shrek 2" and ahead of American blockbusters such as "The Passion of the Christ" and "Spider-Man." As of last week, it had grossed about $2.5 million in a country where the minimum wage is $189 per month and an average movie ticket costs $1.80.

Numbers aside, the movie's popularity has fueled an Internet petition that asks the American motion picture academy to consider "Secuestro Express" for an Oscar. It was posted Oct. 5 and has accumulated more than 18,000 signatures.

Although a Miramax spokesperson declined to comment on the controversy, a link to the petition can be found on the film's official web page,

As for the petitioners' chances of persuading the academy to change a country's nomination, the group's spokesman said that won't happen.

"We just sort of stick by the rules," Pavlik said. "Things can get pretty political in certain countries, but the academy stays out of all that stuff as much as humanly possible."