CARACAS -- Jackson Gutiérrez was trimming the hair of one of his regulars while the client shared the latest neighborhood gossip: a group of men on motorcycles had chased down a thief and thrown him off a cliff.
“No way,” said Gutiérrez without looking up from his shears. “We should put that in the next movie.”
Gutiérrez’s first love is cutting hair. His second love is making movies. And Caracas’ gritty Petare neighborhood has given him the opportunity to do both.
Gutiérrez, 30, cuts the hair of local arms dealers, petty thieves and regular street hustlers. It’s cliché to say that people talk to their barber, but they do.
And Gutiérrez has woven many of their stories into the 17 films he’s made about crime, gangs and murder. His movies are made fast and cheap, and they’re distributed by a network of sidewalk vendors who pirate the movies alongside the latest Hollywood blockbusters.
His breakout film Azotes de Barrio en Petare or, roughly, The Afflictions of Petare Neighborhood, was finished in 2006 for $230. It was seen more than 1 million times on YouTube before being taken down and is thought to have sold hundreds of thousands of copies on the street.
“His movies are something of a phenomenon with the street merchants,” said Carlos Caridad, a Venezuelan filmmaker who blogs about the industry. “If he had made money on those sales, he would be a rich man.”
His movies haven’t made him rich, but they have opened doors. Gutiérrez has been given a production job at a local television station, and he and director Carlos Malave have made a new version of Azotes de Barrio that will be on the big screen early next year. Another film, Caracas: Las Dos Caras de la Vida, won a special jury prize at this year’s Venezuelan Film Festival and nabbed Gutiérrez an award for best supporting actor.
Gutiérrez seems unmoved by the recognition. Almost every day he can be found at Tazmania, his cramped one-seat barbershop that’s tucked between scrap-metal stores in Petare.
On a recent weeknight, he was shearing “El Gocho” a one-time arms dealer who played himself in Gutiérrez’s third film Azotes de Barrio III. Gutiérrez stars in most of his own films and often casts his friends as extras. One of the reasons El Gocho got the role was because the film needed his guns, Gutiérrez said.
“People have told me so many things sitting here,” Gutiérrez said, patting his barber chair. His first movie was based on one off his customers, “Junior,” who regaled him with stories about a pack of kids, some as young as 12, who were using drugs and robbing people in the neighborhood.
Lately, Gutiérrez has been collecting tales of vigilantism.
“Right now what seems to be popular is ‘lynching’ thieves. Just last month they burned some guy alive,” Gutiérrez said. “That’s the craziest thing going on right now.”
Gutiérrez’s use of natural actors and his zero-budget sensibility spread like a crime wave through Caracas, and now every poor neighborhood seems to have a handful of filmmakers who are emulating him, said Ociel Lopez a professor of communications at the Central University and the founder of Avila TV, where Gutiérrez sometimes works.