by Jake Kring-Schreifels
Directed by Shaul Schwarz
Playing in NYC at AMC Empire 25
At the beginning of Narco Cultura, a beautiful and brutal film from director Shaul Schwarz, three Mexican boys converse with each other. They are gazing at the forensics team surrounding an all too common crime scene in Juarez, Mexico, attempting to explain how a man was murdered. They mimic the killers’ sequence of pistol and AK-47 shots with their hands above sirens and flashing lights. “That’s how they killed my Uncle,” one of them says. It’s spoken so terribly matter-of-fact.
Thus sets the tone for a documentary entrenched in the seemingly infinite Mexican drug war that has plagued the country since 2006 when its President vowed to fight the powerful cartels. The city of Juarez, where most of the film takes place, has quickly become the murder capital of the country. The stats are frightening enough. In 2007, police processed 320 murders. In 2010, they recorded 3,622. Just north of the Mexican border, in El Paso, Texas, only five murders occurred that same year. It’s the safest city in the United States the film states.
This is one of the many large paradoxes that Schwarz highlights between the two countries, just miles apart. The other, and primary focus of the film, comes in its exploration of narcocorrido music, a subversive phenomena that has quickly risen to cultural significance in both Mexico and the U.S. At its very basic elements, it’s a strange blend of polka-infused rhythms coupled with Mexican folk, emitting a gangster-rap ethos, lyrical voices that advocate murder, torture, and drug smuggling, to name a few.
One of the main subjects documented is Edgar Quintero, a Los Angeles husband and father part of a highly popular narcocorrido band touring the United States. He sings in a recording studio and tours with his band members, often vocalizing the real stories that Mexican cartel members send him, singing approvingly of beheadings, bazookas, and AK-47s. They carry fake guns on stage and one talking head believes this genre can be the next hip-hop. One of Quintero’s more popular songs ends its chorus, “We’re bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill.”
Schwarz juxtaposes this perverse fame with Richi Soto, a devoted member of Juarez’s forensics lab team who sees the real death every day. He drives his van with a mask to protect his identity from any cartel members in the area. Many of his colleagues have already quit; many have already been killed in the field. These are the men that spread caution tape around the city’s corners, pull dismembered bodies out of cars, and bag them up. At one point his mother pleads with him to tell her why he continues to roam Juarez’s dangerous empty streets, staring death straight in the face. He has no answer. There’s nothing else available.
Besides directing, Schwarz is also a war photojournalist. It’s evident in the gruesome pictures he takes of bulleted cars, blood spattered windshields and bodily fluids that stream into city drains. A shot that opens the film hovers on the border fence, to the left crammed desolation, to the right open calm. He often sits in the back of Soto’s van as he drives around constantly checking his mirrors, looking over his shoulder patrolling the streets, every stoplight a potential confrontation. You feel paranoid just turning a corner.
The documentary continues to shift back and forth between Soto and Quintero, finding room to delve into their personal lives. But before this becomes exhausting, Schwarz eventually addresses the overlap and cyclical nature of Mexico’s drug war. The narcocorridos often seep into the radio airwaves of Soto’s dispatches, the lyrics often glorifying another homicide, ironically alerting police.
This murder will most likely be taped up, bagged and fingerprinted back in the lab and soon enough will be forgotten. About 97 percent of the 10,000 murders in the last four years haven’t been investigated. “It’s a symptom of how defeated we are in society,” says journalist Sandra Rodriguez. Above her lamenting commentary Schwarz follows Soto as he places a murder file into a cardboard box and slowly pans out for an Indiana Jones-type reveal: shelves stacked with more and more boxes.
Immune to the soundtrack of wailing mothers is Quintero, who, living in Los Angeles, can only write song lyrics based on the blogs he reads beneath the border. He naively expresses his fervent desire to travel south to Sinaloa to find inspiration in the drug-fueled state, all to his wife’s displeasure.
Quintero, with his growing niche following, sees himself as carrying the Robin Hood torch, fighting back against authority. In Mexico, he and his band navigate a city of dead, mausoleums built as mansions, some that house the deceased’s pickup trucks, and others surrounded by bulletproof glass. The skyscraper cemetery is expanding each day. This place loudly- louder than the victims’ sobbing mothers- implies why the culture persists. How do you end this war when death is valued just as much, or more, as life?