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.
“It’s not an overstatement to say that Jackson’s work revolutionized the way movies are made in Venezuela,” Lopez said. “He just filmed on the street and told real stories that found a mass-market following without any film or television distribution.”
Caracas is a Mecca for true-crime stories. The city has one of the highest murder rates of any major metropolitan city in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. And kidnappings are rampant. Locals say if you squeeze the newspaper hard enough it drips blood.
While Gutiérrez’s films seem like rollicking violence-fueled capers, he said he hopes his work will open people’s eyes to inner-city crime, and be a warning to the community.
“Many people blame the government [for the violence], but it’s not the government’s fault,” he said. “It’s the fault of our parents who have stopped looking through their kids’ notebooks or asking them who they are spending time with or asking them why they got home late.”
Gutiérrez’s passion for storytelling comes as Venezuela is seeing a boom in national cinema. Unlike other Latin American nations, where Hollywood blockbusters often crowd out the market, Venezuelan theaters are required to reserve some of their screens for national productions —lowering the risk for financiers. A decade ago, Venezuelan productions drew about 5,000 viewers a year, Jose Antonio Varela, the president of the Fundación Villa del Cine, the state-funded film agency, told state-run media. Now, the country is producing about 20 feature length films per year, which draw some 1.6 million national viewers.
Gutiérrez no longer needs to cut hair. He makes enough money from his production job and acting gigs to support his family. But he says he will never give up the barbershop. Asked if he had to choose between being a barber or a director, Gutiérrez doesn’t hesitate.
“I would stay with being a barber — it’s a long-term profession,” he said. “You’re only a director as long as you have a story to tell.”