Sequestro Caracas

February 22, 2008

Caracas - Two Cities

“Sequestro Express” is a harrowing film about the ordeal of two affluent young people who are kidnapped in Caracas, Venezuela. The title translates as “Kidnap Express”. Watching the film is like being one of the victims, and it’s not a pleasant experience – the director was himself kidnapped at one time, so the emotional feel is intense. The female victim comes through with her life – she isn’t raped either – but as the lead to the film tells us, a kidnapping happens once every 60 minutes in Latin America, and most of the victims do not survive – “this is the story of just one of them.”

The criminals are sadistic and brutal, but they are human after all. They take calls from their kids and their parents while they are “working.” One of them wants to be an artist. Another is a bit of a thinker – he tells the woman victim that, yes, everyone gets robbed, but only the ones who “flaunt” their wealth get treated with such hatred. The police are corrupt and criminal themselves.

80% of the country lives in miserable poverty: As the director says at the end, the choice is simple – “Confront the beast, or invite it to dinner.” As he says in this fascinating interview:

…it was even for myself a real journey of education and understanding of the way that people – 80% of the people live in poverty in my country – the way they live, the way they think, and why this is the fastest growing crime in Latin America.”

The opening credit sequence of the film includes an aerial pan over the city showing images like the one above, and I think this one in particular encapsulates the idea behind the film. On the right, the sprawling, unplanned, crowded, ramshackle ghetto covering the hills that surround the city. On the left, the ordered, geometrical, spacious, flatlands of where the city of civil society, capitalism, and affluence is placed. [Unlike the USA, in Latin American cities, the well-to-do live in the center, the poor live in the outlying hills.] Two cities, two geographies, two terrains, both economically, socially, morally, medically…on and on. Can a society be a society and live this way?


City as Man’s Fate, Planet of Slums

September 28, 2007

saint_elia.jpg

I’ve been reading an old book by Wolf Schneider, Babylon is Everywhere: The City as Man’s Fate. I read it first when I was a teenager, and it fired my imagination with images of urban splendor and excitement, both historical and contemporary. Later, I traveled a bit, and my priority was to see cities, to walk their streets, visit the museums, gaze at the monuments, drift in the currents of their surging crowds. I loved it. Cities, civilization, human history.

Some of the cities I eventually visited had a lot of slums: Delhi, La Paz…, Bombay. My appreciation for the accomplishments of western sanitary engineering (drainage) grew apace, and one of the enduring sensation-memories of my stay in India is the foul smell of human excrement, everywhere. Now I am reading another great book, Planet of Slums, about the large portion of urban humanity that lives in these filthy, dangerous, polluted, rickety shantytowns, slums, favellas, bustees, or whatever they are called locally. The picture is depressing. Human life reduced to a basic struggle for survival, but not in the wild, in the man-made environment of the peripheral city.

Interesting that both of these books agree on one point, the city is man’s fate! In Planet of Slums, there is a remark that the city holds the solution to the global environmental crisis, as cities are vastly more efficient in their use of energy and space than rural areas, and they provide for human interaction beyond “commoditized leisure consumption.” Well, I agree completely. As one colleague of mine remarked a while ago, “farming is the most environmentally destructive activity invented by man.” So much for “back to the land,” recreating the garden, and the typical American anti-urban, Jefforsonian fantasy of agricultural utopia. Let’s all move to the city – see you there!