REGION — Filming interesting people around the world is nothing new for Oceanside resident Jonah Gercke, 20, a student at UC Berkeley and a graduate of Carlsbad’s Pacific Ridge School. The founder and CEO of Alternate Productions has already made two documentary films and is working on a third.
Gercke’s first documentary “China Ridge” covered the experiences of classmates on a 2014 trip to urban and rural China. A second documentary followed in 2017 about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seen through the lens of youth culture and activism in Israel and Palestine called “Borders.”
A sophomore studying film, Gercke’s most recent project, the documentary “Malandros” tackles a challenging situation in another corner of the world: the economic, political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.
“It focuses on the perspectives of two artists in Caracas and the individual narratives of other people affected by the escalating crisis,” Gercke said. “Street marches, violent protests and military unrest are currently racking the country, and its economy is in free-fall. Over 3 million Venezuelans have fled to other parts of the continent and the United States.”
Gercke said the idea for the film came after studying abroad in Chile and Argentina last fall. They (Gercke is nonbinary and normally uses “they” or “them” pronouns) were traveling to Venezuela for three weeks to interview residents and gather footage. The visit, however, wasn’t without risk.
“We have footage that no other outlet has ever gotten regarding the Venezuelan crisis because I had less people around me and less large equipment, so I was able to get into situations that people haven’t seen before,” Gercke said.
And the name of the film also holds special meaning: “’Malandros’ (at least the in the Venezuelan context) roughly translates to criminal or delinquent; in English we might use the word thug, as well,” Gercke said. “However, within the Venezuelan barrio, the word malandro has become a source of pride.”
As one interviewee says in the film, “Malandro”has come to signify someone persevering against difficult odds or learning from their mistakes and producing positive change in their community, Gercke explained.
“The film juxtaposes this idea of malandro with the true malandros of the film — the politicians and entrenched elites who exploit the barrio and working people of Venezuela for political and economic gains,” Gercke said. “Essentially, it’s a verbal illustration of the changing nature of definitions and contexts within Venezuela; event though the dominant or historical narrative might suggest one idea, it doesn’t mean it’s the most accurate or true.”
Gercke said after making the documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they wanted to make a new film “understanding how people adapt and survive in a state where all the institutions designed to protect you collapse.”
“Venezuela seemed to illustrate that concept quite clearly, as it is going through one of the most intense periods of institutional fragmentation in the entire world,” Gercke said. “Understanding what life is like in a situation like this, beyond sensationalized headlines and five-minute news reports, captured my attention and motivated me to reach out and see whether traveling to Venezuela and engaging with people in an intimate manner was possible.”
Considering the recent protests moving through Venezuela, Gercke said “Malandros” shows how and why people (especially from the barrio) are calling for some type of political change.
“My film was made last summer, about six months before the recent political turmoil, and details a number of stories about people surviving in a situation of crisis,” Gercke said. “Watching the documentary helps sets the stakes as to why Venezuela has become a dysfunctional state and incredibly intense place to live.”
A risky venture
Gercke said they looked forward to the challenge of making the documentary in the controversial country even though it could be dangerous.
“People originally told me that there was no way I was going to be able to get into Venezuela and do it safely,” Gercke said. “So, I was going to focus on the Venezuelan diaspora for the documentary. But the more research I did, the more it seemed possible to get on the ground, though we’d have to keep safe and would have to take some risks.”
The risk paid off for Gercke, who was able to connect with Venezuelans in neighborhoods across Caracas.
“I never really feel afraid when going to a place where there is turmoil, I primarily focus on risk factors,” Gercke said. “I recognize areas of potential danger of high-risk zones, and then I see whether it is possible to mitigate or eliminate said risk.”
“In terms of staying safe, I always work with well-recommended professionals, typically producers, who know the lay of the land and have made connections with the people who can keep us safe in each community,” Gercke said. “As of this moment, I have only ever traveled with a producer. In the case of Venezuela, I came to the country alone and met my producer on the ground. “
To get access to that story, Gercke had to be bold. There were certain situations that were heightened in terms of intensity and potential danger, including interviewing gang leaders in Caracas and going into hospitals and other places that are typically not the most statistically safe.
“Because of my youth and lack of a crew, I was able to get incredibly intimate access to various parts of Venezuelan society,” Gercke said.
These included an extensive amount of time spent throughout the various barrios of Caracas, providing an in-depth look at a community that reporters rarely go to because they are told it’s too dangerous; an in-depth interview with gang leaders from West Caracas, which delves far deeper into the orchestration of their criminal activities and the background experiences that pushed them into said criminal activity than any other outlet who has been to the city; eyewitness testimony from the late-July assassination attempt against Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro; victims of extrajudicial police killings; former prisoners readjusting to civilian life; the wealthy clubbing and DJ scene still permeating the more affluent areas of Caracas; and the story of a rapper producing his next album, trying to gain more money and fame for his family.
“All of these stories have rarely (if ever) been reported on in Caracas and create a compellingly complex portrait of life in a situation of great intensity,” Gercke said.
Gercke was also impressed by the resiliency of the Venezuelan people, especially those in the most extreme circumstances.
“For the people in extreme poverty, it was ‘how do I get food for this day, how do I get water? How do I get medicine?’” Gercke said. “That’s a really big one. But people were always able to survive. I think to U.S. audiences, sometimes these people in crisis seem helpless, but it’s very far from the truth.”
“What impressed me most was that, despite a relative lack of comfort and security compared to life in the United States, the goals and aspirations of people living in Caracas were largely like our own,” Gercke said. “People generally want to provide a solid foundation and bright future for their children, to realize their professional goals, to fulfill themselves emotionally and spiritually, to positively impact the communities they come from and build a better world for anyone who looks up to them.”
Gercke became interested in making documentaries growing up in a family of actors and artistic directors at San Diego theaters and being surrounded by the arts at an early age.
“I first wanted to pursue acting at 5, then film acting around 8, and knew I wanted to pursue film direction about the age of 10 or so (after seeing“2001: A Space Odyssey” for the first time),” Gercke said. “However, I found that it was easier to make documentaries at a young age because I needed no crew — just myself, a camera, and something to record sound with.”
“What has drawn me to this medium is the ability to connect with people and begin to understand worldviews and experiences very different from your own,” Gercke said. “The more you expand your bubble of experience, the greater of an understanding you develop not only of the world around you, but also yourself.”
Gercke’ s documentary, “Malandros,” received a first screening at Carlsbad’s New Village Arts Theatre on Jan. 15.
“I held a family and friends test screening in Carlsbad to get a sense of how people would respond to the film, and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive,” Gercke said. “People felt incredibly moved by the film and were surprised by the intimate access into various communities portrayed in the film. It made me excited to share it with a wider audience, which is my hope moving forward.”
Gercke is currently seeking financing to distribute the film and is hopeful that it will get picked up soon. They are also working on a yet-to-be-named third documentary.