Don’t expect to make money. When I started making this film, I thought I was going to sell it to a big channel for a big payday. Things turned out to be more complicated. While we made respectable money, it wasn’t the paycheck I was hoping for.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Andres Markovits. Director of “Tupamaro: Urban Guerrillas.”
Martin Andres Markovits is an award-winning director, producer and multimedia reporter. He worked as a freelance journalist throughout Latin America and the United States for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, ABC-Univision, Huffington Post and CGTN America. In 2011, he graduated with a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia University. Martin’s first feature length documentary, “Tupamaro: Urban Guerrillas,” about a group of armed Venezuelan vigilantes won Best Feature Film at the Beverly Hills Film Festival and was broadcasted and streamed worldwide on Nat Geo Mundo, ARTE and Amazon Prime.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
It was never my intention to be a filmmaker or a journalist. Sure, I love movies and read the newspaper daily. However, I thought I was going to have a career in government or become a professor. I was teaching English in Buenos Aires, Argentina when I started really learning about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. I was fascinated by his leftist policies, such as the redistribution of oil wealth to the poor. One of the other things I liked is that he took a hardline against the Washington neo-liberal agenda in Latin America. I made up my mind. I had to go to Venezuela to see this revolution first hand. In less than three months from stepping off the plane, I was hired to be a reporter at The Daily Journal, an English newspaper in Caracas. Three months following, the newspaper assigned me to cover Hugo Chavez in person. While reporting, I heard about the Colectivos, armed leftist vigilante groups tied to Chavez that the poor referred to as “Robin Hoods.” They killed drug dealers and acted as the de facto police in areas overrun by crime and corruption. One name kept surfacing regularly, Alberto “Chino” Carias, a legendary figure and a man once accused of robbing banks and killing cops. He was now a high-ranking government official in the Chavez administration. He was also on a international terror watch list. I had never before seen a man captured on film that was a politician who openly talked about killing his enemies. But that was Chino, a walking contradiction. A religious man but also a murderer. A loving Dad, yet also a drunk. A man who hated American imperialism, yet loved American culture. One of Spain’s biggest newspapers, “El Pais” called Chino “The Tony Soprano of Western Caracas.” We set up a team that included Producer/Cinematographer Carlos Corredor, Producer/Editor Peter Marshall Smith, Producer Matt Weinglass and Co-Writer/Co-Producer Andrew Rosati. We spent ten years working on this project! The process turned me into the filmmaker I am today.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
Chino suffered from a wide array of ailments due to his alcoholism. I hadn’t talked to him in a long time.
Our film was selected to screen at the Beverly Hills Film Festival. To our shock and amazement, we won Best Picture. A few days later I got a call from Chino. At first I was very nervous. I was worried how he would feel about our on screen depiction of him. When he got on the phone, he had an ominous tone. He said “I sent two secret agents to the Chinese theatre in LA to watch the film”. There was a long pause. I was worried what he was going to say next. Then suddenly, his tone shifted and he said, “They loved it”. I went on to tell him that the audience was enthralled with him. It was almost as if they viewed him as a modern day character such as Charles Bronson or Tony Montana. Chino loved that. But then Chino’s tone got serious again. And he told me, “Thank you for showing Venezuela’s reality.” He hung up the phone. It was the last time I ever talked to him. He died three weeks later.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Alberto “Chino” Carias, the central character of our film “Tupamaro: Urban Guerrillas.” Despite being known allegedly as a cop killer, he became one of the chiefs of police of Caracas, the capital and also biggest city in Venezuela. Chino was a complex man. To a certain extent he did help the poor. But he was also a coldblooded killer. We show all of this in the film. When you make a documentary, it should not be a fawning piece on your subjects. It needs to fully develop the characters and show depth and dimension. We accomplished this by exposing the good, the bad and the ugly. That is what a documentarian’s job is. You cannot let your subject control or manipulate your narrative.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am working on a narrative TV show based on “Tupamaro: Urban Guerrillas.” I have a script of the pilot and I am in the process of pitching it to networks. I am also working on a documentary about the founder of Hip Hop.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
John Lennon is inspirational to me because he proved that a commercial artist could be political without compromising his or her art.
Spike Lee. I feel that his works are not just films; rather they are symphonies of sight and sound. I also think that he has his finger on the pulse of American culture, especially in current times.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
The film was a passion project for my team. “Tupamaro: Urban Guerrillas” shows the open links between armed vigilante groups and the Venezuelan government and that they’re one of the same. I think our movie is the first film to expose this. It is interesting how Chino and Chavez are so similar. Both came from impoverished backgrounds. At first they were fearless and idealistic leaders who wanted to help the poor. However, once in power, they took it too far. Money and power corrupted them. The country collapsed, everything they fought for got destroyed. It doesn’t matter if you are liberal or conservative, absolute power corrupts.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
The “Aha Moment” happened in the middle of filming. During the shoot, we got confirmation that Chino was not the social justice warrior he claimed to be. I was faced with a dilemma. Do I tell the truth and expose him as a gangster and put my family and life at risk, or do I portray him as the Robin Hood that he wanted the world to see him as. As a journalist you always have to tell the truth, no matter the cost
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
What has been great is that people from both the left and the right have praised the movie. I think it is because we did something that was impartial. In the current media landscape that is harder to do. We don’t judge Chino. So it is the audience that decides whether he is a good or bad person or maybe something in between. I think another reason people have had a strong reaction to the film is because it zooms in on the recent humanitarian and economic collapse of Venezuela, which has one of the highest crime rates in the world. People are starving. There is ten million percent inflation. Over four million people have left within the past five years. This is one of the worst refugee crises in modern times. And very few people in The U.S. talk about it. The film also highlights Washington’s role in destabilizing and impoverishing Venezuela for decades. Their presence in Venezuela was due to the exploitation of Venezuela’s vast oil wealth, the largest in the world. Extreme poverty led to not only the rise of Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro but also to these vigilante Colectivo groups, the main subjects of our movie. They were the only people in the community that could be counted on to maintain some type of security. The poor areas had zero confidence in the police. Very similar to what is the going on right now with Black Lives Matter. It really saddens me to see what happened to Venezuela during the Chavez and Maduro era. There was hope in the beginning that Chavez’s leftist policies would make a difference in helping to lower poverty rates. Although not always his fault, in the end, his administration was loaded with corruption and violence. A line was crossed when he and Maduro, started using the Colectivos as their own-armed militia to attack demonstrators and enemies of their governments’. Ironically, they became the enemy they had always fought against.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Embrace films from different cultures and countries. Be open-minded about gender and all races portrayed in films. Individuals can also support Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other NGOs that are helping Venezuela during its humanitarian crisis.
I also think the democratization of film and video has given filmmakers more opportunities than ever before. If you know of injustices happening, go out and film them. Be curious. Expose the reality for the world to see. But I am not going to sugarcoat it. Making the film was dangerous. We were filming in areas controlled by violent Narco gangs where even the police weren’t allowed inside. Keep in mind; Caracas has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. The Colectivos are heavily armed groups, leery of anybody and everybody, but especially of an American director. I really can’t believe the access we were granted. I am so happy that we made it out safe.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Don’t expect to make money. When I started making this film, I thought I was going to sell it to a big channel for a big payday. Things turned out to be more complicated. While we made respectable money, it wasn’t the paycheck I was hoping for.
2. Review the footage you shoot at the end of each day. Label and make notes daily. When I was making the film, we did not do that for two weeks and it really set us back. Organization is key.
3. Transcribe every interview. This really helps in creating a story and a narrative. I did not do this for months. But in graduate school, my professor basically ordered me to do it. I have to say; it made writing the story so much easier.
4. Sound is key when filming. You have to be monitoring every second of every interview. Our headphones did not work for a few days when filming “Tupamaro: Urban Guerrillas” and in the end it wasn’t usable.
5. Finish what you started, especially if you are making a film. Follow through and ride it out and don’t get sidetracked. And, don’t stop working on it for too long of a time. “Tupamaro: Urban Guerrillas” took ten years to finish. I put it aside many times while I was working as a reporter and the movie was delayed for years. I don’t want that to happen to my next project.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I think people need to read more. Everything now is about the quick fix or the easy headline, to name a few. It seems thought, analysis and patience has gone out the window. I think this is dangerous.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I would love to work with Alfonso Cuarón. In my opinion he is the greatest director of movies today. His films tackle such deep personal themes that have inspired my own work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When one door closes, another one opens.” Film festivals, and distribution companies at first rejected this movie. Regardless, we never gave up. We kept working on the film. It paid off. We won numerous festival awards. The film was broadcasted on Nat Geo Mundo and streamed on Amazon Prime. It started out small and then it became an epic production, documenting not only the rise and fall of the Colectivos but also of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. That was not our intention at first but that’s what happened. Life does not always progress in a straight line. There are many twists and turns along the way, and we must embrace different paths and outcomes throughout the journey. The same can be said for making movies. Filmmakers must be prepared for their story to adapt and evolve with the process.
How can our readers follow you online?
TUPAMARO: URBAN GUERRILLAS TRAILER: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmuyjiTVJdE
TUPAMARO: URBAN GUERRILLAS FULL FILM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAmtpUntgdk
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!