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MOVIES | WORLD CINEMA

Taking control of chaos

Jonathan Jakubowicz relived his own minute-by-minute experience as a kidnap victim in creating the gripping 'Secuestro Express.'

August 07, 2005|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

The kidnapping happened fast. It was early evening in a nice part of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital gripped in recent years by political chaos and street crime. Young filmmaker Jonathan Jakubowicz and a friend were driving home from a movie when a car suddenly cut them off and forced them to stop. Two assailants jumped in, guns drawn.

Jakubowicz recalls a sensory rush. The gun against his head. Barked commands to look down. Fleeting glimpses of people and places. The confusion of not knowing where he was.

It was all over in less than an hour. No ransom notes. No calls to relatives for money. Just stops at ATMs to drain bank accounts and at stores to use credit cards. The victims were released on a highway outside of town, no car, no cellphones, no shoes.

The filmmaker found the experience unsettling, but he didn't dwell on it. And when producer Sandra Condito suggested the topic might be grist for a film, he dismissed it as too mundane.

"I told her it wasn't that important because it happens every day," Jakubowicz recalls. "And she said, 'That's precisely why it's important.' Seriously, it's so frequent to be kidnapped, I didn't consider it that big of a deal. But now that I think of it, I guess it is."

Kidnappings have become commonplace in Latin America -- one per hour on the continent, according to one estimate. In places such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Caracas, almost everyone knows a victim. More and more, the middle class has fallen prey to so-called "quicknappings," in which people like Jakubowicz are held for short periods for fast cash. The crime now has a nickname based on the Spanish word for kidnapping -- "secuestro express," a sort of in-and-out abduction.

The more Jakubowicz delved into the problem, the more he was convinced his producer was right. The planned project evolved from a music video to a short film and finally a feature-length movie, joining a spate of recent films dealing with Latin America's most turbulent themes.

Drawing on his own ordeal, minute by minute, he wrote the riveting story of a couple kidnapped in Caracas by three street thugs after a night of partying. Jittery, unpredictable and immersed in menace at every turn, the movie bristles with a raw-nerve realism arising from "that continuous flow of fragmented images" he recalls from his captivity.

"The way the movie feels is the way I perceived the kidnapping," says Jakubowicz, 27, who spoke accented yet fluid English during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "You see images. You hear voices. You get a feel of the environment and the relationships of the people that are suddenly in control of your life. That's what I intended to create in the movie, and that's what people seem to feel from it. They feel they're being kidnapped. And I think that's my greatest accomplishment -- to translate the way you feel when you lose total control of your life."

"Secuestro Express," which opened Friday, marks the feature film debut of this documentary filmmaker, who parlayed a chance encounter in Caracas into an informal internship with Austin-based producer Elizabeth Avellan, the Venezuelan wife of director Robert Rodriguez. Behind the scenes, Avellan offered moral support and an incentive for her young protege: Bring back a good film about kidnappings and she'd provide post-production services.

The deal paid off. Times critic Kevin Thomas calls Jakubowicz's debut a "jolting, go-for-broke thriller."

The film opens in Caracas this week, in what the director describes as the widest release ever for a national production. But he hopes it will be more than just a box office success. He wants his movie to be the spark for "a social movement" that prompts Venezuela to confront the problem he considers "a national emergency."

A city of predators

The Caracas of "Secuestro" is a town where nobody can be trusted, not even the one you love. A place where the car you drive identifies your social class and makes you a target for the vengeance of the poor, represented by prowling predators.

Jakubowicz's screenplay takes surprise twists that reveal layers of problems on both sides -- corruption, drugs, selfishness, betrayal.

Reality was never far away as the film took shape. During the eight-week shoot in early 2003, six people directly related to the crew were kidnapped. And separately, a girl was snatched from the street two blocks from the filming location in Caracas.

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