NARCO CULTURA (2013)
Running Time: 103 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Shaul Schwarz
Language: English and Spanish w/English subtitles
As we in the audience watch the frames unfold in director-cinematographer Shaul Schwarz’s NARCO CULTURA, some of us will see parallels with the vulgar lyrics embraced by some within the American hip-hop movement. Others may conjure scenes from docs and dramas about how the Nazi Party in Germany had no problem getting millions of that country’s citizenry to raise their arms in salute and cheer wildly when listening to speeches of their evil chancellor. The Israeli-born director, whose documentary THE BLOCK follows the last months of the Jewish settlers’ lives in Gaza, points his lenses on the seemingly hopeless drug wars in Mexico, which have resulted in the deaths of 60,000 of that country’s residents since 2006. The cartels, notably the powerful Sinaloa gang, target rival drug gangs (for example the criminals in Sinaloa move in on their opposite numbers in Juarez), and go after police and business owners who do not give in to extortionate demands.
More specifically, Schwarz gives us a view of one aspect of the tragic conflicts in our neighbors to the south, that of the popularity of narco corridos, i.e. songs whose lyrics glorify the activities of these very gangs, its listeners bopping to the rhythms of the songs about people looked up to as heroes who have made it out of the ghetto and are living large.
The doc divides its time primarily between two individuals: Richi Soto, a crime scene investigator living in Juarez with a family that wants him to quit his dangerous work; and Edgar Quintero, a musician living in Los Angeles who makes a good living recording these narco corridos.
We need not wonder who is more admired by fans of these songs, and it’s not Richi Soto—who is in most ways a better person than Edgar Quintero. Soto, now thirty-four years of age, is called upon to look into crime scenes whenever a body is found either sitting bloodied in a car, lying on the street, or even cut up into several pieces.
To add to Soto’s problem, the official does not even have the pride of doing great things for his country, since most killers are not caught. In fact, 97% of the homicides are scarcely investigated, and of the 3% of murderers who are brought to trial, figure half of those are going to be found not guilty. In just the city of Juarez in 2010, almost 4,000 Mexicans were murdered by the cartels, while just a football-field’s distance away, over a tall, barbed-wired fence in El Paso, Texas, the police registered only five murders, making El Paso the safest urban center in the U.S.
Meanwhile Quintero, seven years younger than Soto, is knocking out ballads to celebrate the criminals notwithstanding their role in destroying the social fabric of Mexico. In fact Quintero is shielded from the blood by recording his songs in the U.S., perhaps not even visiting Mexico to get a better feel for its culture. The ballads may remind some of us here in the U.S. of a fashion still followed by some of our youths for wearing T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara, perhaps not even knowing much of his exploits or of Guevara’s habit of ordering the execution of hundreds of alleged spies and informers without a trial.
Schwarz contrasts Quintero, rich and successful, protected from the dangers in Mexico, with Soto, who must be considered by all rational people to be the better man, up to his neck in murders while never knowing whether he will be the next victim. But who’s rational? Surely not the vast assemblages eating up the music on both sides of the border. Now and then, Schwarz shows us the grisly carnage, getting his cameras up close to the bodies of people whose murders will never be avenged.
One sin of omission, a major one at that: while I’m not fond of an over-reliance on talking-heads interviews, I would have liked to see interviews with members of the audience for these songs. After all, isn’t Schwarz’s principal point that hordes of innocent citizens revel in these ballads? I’d have liked to hear from members of that audience in L.A. and Atlanta and Juarez and Culiacan the reasons for their interest. Would they say, “My friends like it, so I do too?” Or, “These gangsters are the most exciting people I know?”
What do you think would they say?
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