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He's on an 'Express' train to controversy

Director Jonathan Jakubowicz is caught between ardent fans and angry legal opponents.

October 30, 2005|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

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 Ruben 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 Jose 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.

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