'The Kidnap Express': Chavez and the great divide

Venezuela's rich and poor have been brought to violent life in a new film that explores the dark side of the Bolivarian revolution. The people love it but the Government hates it
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The Independent US

It starts in the early hours in downtown Caracas, in a nightclub full of wealthy, drug-snorting members of the city's decadent elite. It ends several hours, later with a member of that wealthy sliver of Venezuelan society having been kidnapped and held to ransom, her boyfriend having been shot dead and with her having almost been raped before finally being dumped on the edge of the city.

In between, the fast-paced and often violent scenes highlight the gaping and apparently unbridgeable divide between Venezuela's rich and poor, between those who can afford to go to nightclubs and those who do not have the money for their children's medicine. As one of the kidnappers says to the young woman he is holding for ransom: "When half city is knee-deep in shit, and you're rolling in a expensive car, shit, how you expect them not to hate you?"

This is Secuestro Express, the most successful Venezuelan film of all time, which opens in the UK on 9 June. Written and directed by the young Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz, the film has smashed all box-office records for a home-produced film and is second only to the Hollywood cartoon movie Shrek as the biggest-grossing film to be shown in the nation. It was the Latin American's country's first film to be picked up by a major distributor and it was nominated for the British Independent Film Awards .

But while Secuestro Express (Kidnapping Express) has been hugely popular among Venezuelan film fans it has not been so well received by the government and supporters of President Hugo Chavez. When the film came out in Venezuela last summer the Vice-President, Jose Vincent Rangel, denounced it as "a miserable film, a falsification of the truth with no artistic value".

Meanwhile the movie has attracted two lawsuits, one that calls for one specific scene to be deleted and another which accuses Jakubowicz of encouraging drug use and of insulting the military and the President. The cases are still before the courts and Jakubowicz faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

In addition to the anger and disappointment of the film's supporters, the Venezuelan film board last year decided to select another film as its entry for the best foreign film category at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Oscars. In the end, no Venezuelan film was considered because the board missed the deadline for submissions.

While this controversy has done nothing but good in terms of assuring the film plenty of free publicity, the movie has now become a part of the battleground of the political debate about Venezuela and the actions of its President. Seized on by opponents of Mr Chavez as a purported insight into Venezuela's ongoing social problems and the President's alleged failure to address the issue of poverty, it has been equally vigorously denounced by his supporters as another example of the lies and distortions espoused by the elite and the media they control.

Bolivarian revolutionary hero of the people who has stood up against the threats of Washington or ego-driven autocrat? Or a man who has invested the nation's oil wealth in health clinics and education or just a cunning populist? Buy your popcorn and take your pick.

Jakubowicz, 28, readily admits he is a member of the opposition but denies that he set out to make an anti-Chavez film. Indeed, he says he voted for the military officer when he was first elected to office - the first of three elections Chavez has won - in 1998 with more than 55 per cent support.

But he says he has become increasingly disillusioned with the man in the years since he became President. Speaking from London, where he has been promoting his film, Jakubowicz, said he believed the movie has been so successful in his home country because the problems of social breakdown were common place.

"I think the movie speaks for all Venezuelans that suffer these problems," he said, as he prepared to catch a plane to Los Angeles, where he spends part of his time. "I think there is not a single Venezuelan who is not a victim of a social problem. I think we have gotten to the point where we all acknowledge that saying now that we need to do something about it.

Jakubowicz claims the government's response to his film is typical of an administration that wishes to portray the image that it encourages free speech and democratic participation and yet really wants to tighten its grip on various institutions.

"They have a very particular way of acting. They don't do repression in the traditional way. I would be very surprised if they put me in jail or else or banned my film. [Instead] they denounce me on television and create a national campaign against me and my film," he said. "They spend so much money trying to convince the world that they have a revolution and it would not be very good if they put me in jail. How would they be able to come here and speak in Camden [London] and say Venezuela is going down the democracy path if they then put a film-maker in jail because of a movie they don't like? They don't do anything officially so they can always claim I'm making things up."

To many viewers, Secuestro Express, which stars Mia Maestro and Jean Paul Leroux as Carla and Martin, the young wealthy couple seized by a gang from the barrios, would not be interpreted as a direct assault on the Venezuelan government. It is violent and unsettling and it would certainly not be welcomed by the country's tourist board as a way of encouraging visitors to the nation's capital, but neither does the film cast - many of whom are Venezuelan rappers who received just six weeks acting training - blame the government for the problems they confront.

Jakubowicz believes his film has been attacked for several reasons. One is that it contains real-life footage from a still-disputed incident during the short-lived 2002 coup when opposition politicians and elements of the military - with the support of elements in Washington - sought to overthrow Mr Chavez.

The now-notorious incident, which has become a cause célèbre in the anti-Chavez/pro-Chavez debate, shows a Chavez supporter firing a gun from the Llaguno bridge, apparently into the street below. Chavez opponents claim he was firing at unarmed demonstrators but a documentary produced by Irish filmmakers,The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, suggests he was firing at Metropolitan Police units who were supporting the coup and who were advancing on the President's supporters on the bridge.

The gunman, Rafael Cabrices, was cleared by a court of any charges and died of a heart attack last year. Perhaps ironically, it was at his memorial service that Vice-President Rangel made his comments about Jakubowicz's film - comments that the government has since said represented a personal opinion rather than an official position.

But Jakubowicz believes the most important reason he has become a focus of attacks from Mr Chavez's supporters is that his film seeks to suggest that a solution to the challenges facing Venezuela will only be found when rich and poor find a way of coming together. "[The film suggests] reaching a point of saying 'Let's fix the problem' and 'What can I do to help you and what can you do to help me. [The government is] really against all that. They need the constant struggle and the constant hatred."

Perhaps even more controversially Jakubowicz, whose family were Polish Jews who travelled to Venezuela to escape the Holocaust, also claims that while Chavez has made some important contributions to the country's development, living conditions since he came to power have got worse. "I don't think anyone can say that things are better now than they were before Chavez," he said.

This is a claim that Mr Chavez's supporters immediately rebut. They point out that using the country's recently discovered oil wealth, the President has invested millions of dollars in the poorest neighbourhoods of Caracas and elsewhere, building free clinics, schools and establishing a system to subsidise food in his effort - outlined in a recent interview with The Independent - to "change the direction the world is going in [away from the] destructive model of capitalism ruling the world".

Indeed, a recent report by the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) suggested that the poverty rate in Venezuela fell from around 50 per cent when Mr Chavez took office in February 1999 to less than 44 per cent at the end of last year. The CEPR report points out that because of initiatives taken by Mr Chavez's government, 54 per cent of the population receives free health care under the Barrio Adentro programme and that between 40 and 47 per cent of the population buys subsidised food. Even the Economist magazine, a strident critic of Mr Chavez, was this week forced grudgingly admit that he has "finally created some health and education programmes for the urban poor. At last poverty is falling". The magazine never asks what Mr Chavez's predecessor, Rafael Caldera, did for the nation's poor.

Figures also suggest that as a result of Mr Chavez's literacy programme, known as Misión Robinson, an 1.4 million people have learned how to write and the adult literacy rate now stands at a minimum of 93 per cent.

The author of the CEPR study, Mark Weisbrot, claimed Mr Chavez has been the victim of a widespread disinformation campaign both in Venezuela, where the political opposition owns 95 per cent of the media, and internationally. He said the US media routinely took the lead of the Bush administration, who have not hidden their distaste for Mr Chavez.

Indeed, in 2004 it was revealed that the National Endowment for Democracy, which is 100 per cent funded by the US Congress, had channelled hundreds of thousands of dollars to opponents of Mr Chavez, including those involved in the coup. "The press's reporting of Venezuela is atrocious," said Mr Weisbrot.

Some human rights groups say Mr Chavez has showed signs of increasing authoritarianism. A 2005 report by Human Rights Watch accused the government of introducing laws that stifled press criticism of the authorities. He has also been accused of packing the Supreme Court with his supporters.

By itself, watching Secuestro Express will not equip the viewer to settle the controversy about Mr Chavez and the success or otherwise of his leadership of Venezuela. It may, however, encourage them to join the debate.