With an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder
Cross my path and I’ll chop your head off
We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill
As sung cheerfully by a crowd of Mexican-Americans at an El Paso, Texas nightclub in Shaul Schwarz’s new film Narco Cultura, and punctuated by accordion beats, the above lyrics seem strangely innocuous. With smiles on their faces and drinks in their hands, the joyous club-goers revel in this violent rhetoric as if it were a Sound of Music sing-a-long.
Again and again, Narco Cultura, which premiered at Sundance and opens in theaters this week, effectively reflects the weird disconnect that exists between the Mexican “narcocorrido” drug ballads that glorify the country’s drug cartels and the horrible realities of death and destruction that those mythic outlaws have inflicted on their society.
The film accomplishes this with a straightforward but powerful strategy of crosscutting between these two worlds—between the rising North American narco-centric culture industry and the gruesome experiences of Crime Scene Investigators in Juarez, Mexico, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Schwarz shows us grieving Juarez families, cars riddled with bullet-holes, the body of a young man who has apparently been shot in the head, and ineffectual CSI investigators frightened out of their wits. At one point, we see a literal river of blood flowing down the gutters of a street in the wake of some unidentified act of carnage.
Meanwhile, above the border, the affable Edgar Quintero and his band, Buknas de Culiacan (famous for such hits as “El M16” and “Armas Y Billetes”) is rapturously embraced by adoring fans as they celebrate these “modern day Robin Hoods,” amid his own gangsta-like posturing. Through this continued juxtaposition, Narco Cultura firmly lays out the vast disconnect between narcocorridos as entertainment and the harsh realities they narrate.
What is less defined, however, are the people and societies in which narco culture originates and is embraced. Much of the film criticizes and lampoons narcocorrido’s makers and consumers rather than illuminating who they are and what the music means to them. In a possibly unfair gotcha moment, the film captures a naïve woman carrying a machinegun in the parking lot of a concert, babbling incoherently about unrest in Mexico and offering the platitude, “Stop the violence” as she raises the weapon in the air. And late in the movie, in a similar instance of winking judgment, we observe Quintero making a trip to the drug capital of Sinaloa to establish his street-cred, where he shoots off small-arms fire while his partner takes promotional photographs with his iPhone. Undoubtedly, the scene is ripe for critique, but without the deeper social context, it’s a bit of a cheap shot.
Veteran photojournalist and conflict photographer Schwarz may have extensive experience covering Mexico’s drug war, but Narco Cultura always feels like it’s looking in on its subjects from the outside. The film is beautifully shot, particularly in a gorgeously constructed noir-ish prologue complete with hazy yellow streetlights and flashing blue police sirens, yet it accentuates the exotic nature of Juarez’s tragic and unceasing torrent of violence rather than granting viewers intimate access to it.
The film acknowledges parallels between the rise of the narcocorridos and the earlier ascendance of hip-hop culture, but as was the case for much of the early kneejerk criticism of gangsta rap, which ignored the emotional weight of the music and the catharsis it provided for listeners, Narco Cultura provides little context or understanding of the drug wars and the music’s relationship to it. Nor is there any exploration of what Elijah Wald describes in his book Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs. Guns and Guerillas of the music’s ties to an “anarchic folk tradition” and “working-class pop.”
Thus, as well-made and watchable as the film is, Narco Cultura shouldn’t be the last film that Western audiences see on the subject. And they don’t have to look far: Mexican filmmaker Natalia Almada has already made two acclaimed documentaries that overlap with and expand upon Narco Cultura. In 2005’s Al Otro Lado, Almada focuses on the complex phenomenon of corrido and narcocorrido singers, from its historical roots to the way it expresses the Mexican people’s frustrations about poverty, the U.S. border, immigration, political corruption and a host of social issues.
And in 2011’s El Velador (The Night Watchman), she captures a majestic cemetery in Sinoloa—which Schwarz and Quintero also visit in Narco Cultura— a favorite resting place for the region’s drug lords that has become famous for its massive and extravagantly decorated villa-like mausoleums. With its quietly mesmerizing style, El Velador examines the consequences of the drug war through indirection and omission. We never witness actual violence or its aftermath—only in the background do we hear the devastated cries of grieving loved ones. Thus, El Velador captures the country’s self-destruction without resorting to sensationalism. A melancholy reverie, the movie provides the space in which to contemplate the epidemic of death that has ravaged the country and the quotidian ways in which the people suffer through it.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.