Venezuela’s Jackson Gutierrez makes films that are gangland hits

The director has risen from barbering in a slum to capturing Caracas’s violence on screen
Venezuelan filmmaker Jackson Gutierrez © FT

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Jackson Gutiérrez’s films are distinguished by a narco-themed telenovela-meets-John Waters trashiness — all with a tropical barrio twist. They feature swearing, gun-pointing and outrages uncomfortably close to reality.

The Venezuelan director’s films are a far cry from those his country has produced recently, such as Lorenzo Vigas’s Desde Allá (From Afar), Golden Lion winner at Venice last year, with its subtle, violent beauty.

Nevertheless, the viral success of Mr Gutiérrez’s first film has led to bigger budgets, proper distribution deals and a measure of national celebrity.

“Venezuela has a lot of stories about social conflicts, some of them close to me, and I focus on those,” says Mr Gutiérrez, a barber-turned-director who has made 23 films about his experiences of life and death in the violent slums that blight the hillsides of Caracas.

“Inspiration comes from telling my own anecdotes, of my friends, my acquaintances, those who have died and those who still live.”

After stints earning money by collecting bus tickets and making hot dogs in Ocumare del Tuy, on the outskirts of Caracas, Mr Gutiérrez became a barber at the age of 15. Three years later, he moved from Ocumare, “where violence had been unleashed and I was entangled with the gangs”, to Petare, one of Latin America’s largest and most violent slums, which overlooks Caracas from the east.

“When I opened my own barber shop, I started to get to know people who were involved in shady dealings,” he says. He told his cousin he wanted to make a film. His cousin laughed. But luckily, Mr Gutiérrez was then shaving a man who offered him a cheap Video 8 camcorder.

Mr Gutiérrez, a chunky 33-year-old with spiky hair, confesses he “had no idea how to handle a camera, how to deal with sound, with photography”. Yet he started filming anyway and made his first home movie, Azotes de Barrio (Slum Lashes), about youngsters from the favela involved in drug-dealing.

Directing was not all about pointing and shouting: “As I also acted in the movie, I sometimes had to place the camera atop a brick.”

A devoted follower of the Afro-Caribbean religion of Santería and a self-confessed revolutionary, likely inspired by Hugo Chávez, the late leader of Venezuela, Mr Gutiérrez says he “made that movie for the community, for the people in the environment I was living in”.

Even if it were only meant for local consumption, it attracted much broader attention after somebody uploaded it to the internet and it attracted hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. Bootleggers started selling it on the streets of Caracas and prosecutors and policemen came after him as an apologist for crime. “There are lot of people who dislike the truth, that can’t be — we have to show the reality.”

Some feel his films contain gratuitous violence: all of his scenes are acted with real weapons, and the gunshot sounds added in post-production are often from firing real guns with real bullets because blanks are too expensive and scarce. (At first, he used tomato soup but now he has enough funds for fake blood.)

However, these films depict the reality of a country that is in freefall, dragged down by spiralling political, social and economic crises, something particularly patent in the grimy labyrinth of streets and alleyways that snake around the hillsides of Caracas’s ragged slums.

Mr Gutiérrez does not understand the outrage: “Reality is much tougher. My movies are trifles compared to what really happens on the streets,” he says. “If I were in Hollywood, I’d make something like Star Wars. Here, in Caracas, I have to make movies about social conflicts, gangster movies à la Venezuela.”

Indeed, Azotes de Barrio was later remade as a “proper” film (trailer above) and released in Venezuelan cinemas in 2013, where, according to Mr Gutiérrez, 214,000 people went to watch it. The film may not be Fernando Meirelles’ City of God — a critically lauded story in a Brazilian favela — nor the much-hyped Secuestro Express by Venezuela’s Jonathan Jakubowicz, but it is an example of what Mr Gutiérrez calls “guerrilla film-making”.

© FT

That means “cinema with lots of sacrifice, with no money, but a lot of love”. Even though he sometimes hires Budú, a Venezuelan rapper-actor who appeared in Secuestro Express, there is an element of social entrepreneurship too in what he does, as he teaches youngsters in the barrios how to make documentaries. Often he recruits real malandros, or hoodlums, to work with him, granting them another opportunity in life.

One of them is Pedro Escobar, a frequent actor in Mr Gutiérrez’s films. “We all come from the same story here,” says Mr Escobar. “If no one taught you values, respect, humility, you are vulnerable to succumbing [to crime] until you reach your final destiny, which is either prison or death — most likely death.”

His life has changed: he is now also a babalawo or soothsayer-priest. Mr Escobar believes that the best film Mr Gutiérrez has made is the semi-autobiographical Caracas: The Two Faces of a Life (trailer below).

For this film, Mr Gutiérrez won the award for best supporting actor alongside a special prize from the jury in Venezuela’s film festival in Mérida in 2012. As an example of guerrilla film-making, it cost him just Bs15,000 to make. (In Venezuela’s highly dysfunctional economy, that means $2,380 at the main official exchange rate, or $16 at the black market rate.) “That was my cheapest movie, but the one I appreciate the most.”

As his reputation has grown, so has his ability to find financing. Venezuela’s former culture minister helped him with Bs300,000 ($47,600 officially, $318 black market) for the financing of his forthcoming Cuatro Esquinas (Four Corners), the story of a Venezuelan basketball player rising from his slum life.

Heads or Tails, based on the true story of a girl’s kidnapping, will be released this year. It is his most expensive film yet, at a cost of Bs3m ($476,000 officially, $3,188 black market), and was fully funded by private Venezuelan investors.

But in Caracas, the streets rule — and they can’t get enough of Mr Gutiérrez. His films are bestsellers among counterfeiters; in some of their rickety stalls, there is even a special section for his movies. For David Capachero, a fan from the San Blas area of Petare: “We see something wonderful in a guy from the slum making movies about the guys from the slums.”

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