Sundance Review: 'Narco Cultura' tackles the drug war with a keen eye
Shaul Schwarz's cinematography is a Festival standout
Subject Repetition Fatigue is always a Sundance Film Festival struggle.
For several years now, it's been tough on any documentary about post-9/11 terrorism or the wars in Iraq/Afghanistan because the subject had been covered so frequently and, often, so well. How are you gonna keep them on the farm after they've seen "Restrepo" or "Hell and Back"?
Just this week, I watched Jacob Kornbluth's "Inequality For All" and then, two days later, I found it difficult to stomach the economic flimsiness and sloppy anger of "99% - The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film." Would I have liked the "Occupy" doc more if I hadn't enjoyed those 90 minutes being lectured by Robert Reich? Perhaps.
Heck, Subject Repetition Fatigue is such a serious issue that I've already discussed it previously when reviewing "Manhunt" in the context of the year's various Osama Bin Laden projects.
We've already moved into Subject Repetition Fatigue Repetition Fatigue, wherein I've grown tired of mentioning the repeated topics that I've grown tired of mentioning. [Yes, it's been a long time since I last had a full night's sleep.]
Or maybe I just need a different name for it? Docu-Deja Vu? That sensation that you're hearing a fact or figure that you've heard in previous films? Or that moment you realize you've seen the same talking head discuss the same subject matter in multiple documentaries?
Just as I praised "Manhunt" for finding a different point-of-entry into the OBL field, I was pleased that Shaul Schwarz's "Narco Cultura" is able to stake its own position within the recent spate of terror-in-Mexico documentaries. While some of the claims and statistics in the documentary are definitely familiar, Schwarz builds his documentary around several fresh and interesting characters and anchors the film with superlative cinematography. "Narco Cultura," ends up being one of the better features in Sundance's US Documentary Competition and its originality ends up being one of my greatest reliefs.
More after the break...
Between HBO's "Witness," PBS' "Reportero," NatGeo's "Narco State" and a slew of "60 Minutes" reports and myriad shorts, I've been fully immersed in the horrifying blowback from Mexico's War on Drugs. If you also yoke in the border politics inherent in the Juarez/El Paso setting, you can include the disappointing World Documentary opener "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" in this category.
Juarez, Mexico has become the murder capital of the world, with a whopping 3622 homicides in 2010, the same year that El Paso, sitting on the other side of the border, had only five homicides, making it one of the safest cities of its size. If you've never seen a documentary before, this could be news to you, as could the fact that departed Mexican President Filipe Calderon has been credited/blamed for the tragic shift in the country's fortunes with his 2006 decision to target drug cartels and organized crime.
Again, the ability to tackle this subject matter in an interesting way comes not from awareness that Juarez is a dangerous and unstable city, but from finding the proper point-of-entry.
In this case, it's Richi Soto, who would be a fine centerpiece for whenever CBS decides to do "CSI: Juarez." An investigator in SEMEFO, Soto has one of the most thankless jobs in the world. Just the other day, when reviewing "Gideon's Army," I talked about public defending as a thankless task, but it looks positively lucrative compared to crime scene investigation in Juarez, a city in which only three percent of all homicides are even investigated and the percentage of successful prosecutions is even lower. Soto jokes that he's more than just a bullet collector, but all indications are that he spends most of his life logging evidence and information, putting it in white bankers' boxes and filing it away never to be looked at again. It's a job where he has to wear a ski mask to crime scenes because you never know who's watching and, despite efforts at anonymity, members of Soto's team have been assassinated with disturbing frequency. Some of Soto's colleagues have basically surrendered because the risk of death is far beyond the rewards to justice and public safety. And then there's the perception that the police are in the pocket of the cartels, a topic brought up by other people, but one which Soto seems not to want to discuss.
But what else would Soto do? Opportunities for other jobs in The Murder Capital of the World are few and although his girlfriend is anxious to move to El Paso, Soto and Soto's parents were born and raised in Juarez and he tries hard to emphasize the city's positives.
Schwarz, who comes from a photo journalism background, has a different point of emphasis. He's trying, and completely succeeding, to make the horrifying into something beautiful. To watch "Narco Cultura," you'd think that every sunset in Juarez was an eruption of red and orange, that every urban street was a miasma of flickering lights, that every bullet-shattered window was inherently positioned perfectly for the racking of focus or the refraction of light. The "Juarez" segment of HBO's "Witness" also took the "every frame is a like a war photograph from the front lines" approach, but Schwarz even exceeds that aesthetic achievement. He's producing shockingly gory footage, not shying from corpses or from those moments when the streets of Juarez literally flow red with blood, but the viewer's ability to process the footage comes from hyper-sensation, rather than desensitization.
Note that making violent imagery appear beautiful isn't the same as making violent imagery appear cool and that's the second side to "Narco Cultura." The title refers to both the narco culture itself, but also to the adulatory culture that has sprung up around these real-life 21st Century Scarfaces.
Representing that side of the story is Los Angeles-based singer Edgar Quintero, a singer in the narco corrido genre, which blends traditional Mexican music with the visceral language of the narco culture. Drug kingpins pay big wads of cash for Edgar and other artists within the genre to write personalized songs glorifying their lifestyle and exploits, which creates a different level of complicity from the occasionally violent world of hip-hop, which the narco corrido singers compare themselves to. And the kids? They love the narco corridos. Watching a teenage girl North of the Border giddily announce "I would like to be the girlfriend of a narco" is a little funny and a little chilling. [I know about narco corridos from a short I saw at Sundance a few years back. The good thing about Subject Repetition Fatigue is that occasionally knowledge sinks in and sticks. Right now, for example, I could recite tax rates on the wealthiest Americans going back to the 1940s. I will not be able to do that by this time next week.]
Quintero has done prison time and now he's on the straight-and-narrow, other than smoking weed and occasionally accepting firearms as payment for his songs. He's a fine singer, but what's most interesting about him is that he's basically a fanboy. He's never been to Culiacán, but he idolizes the Sinaloa cartel and he dreams of someday making pilgrimage to the cartel breeding ground to add authenticity to his songs. This is a dream that provides no satisfaction to his wife, who kinda appreciates that her husband is making money of this culture, but without the same risk of death. Quintero gives the filmmakers an excuse to head off to Culiacan, capturing the singer's giddy joke, which is something akin to buying a six-year-old three churros and then watching them carom around DisneyLand for a day.
In Mexico, drugs are huge business and in the United States, narco corridos are a far bigger thing than you think they are, unless you happen to have a personal connection to the phenomenon. In addition to the music, which you can buy at Walmart or Target, the cultural appropriation has also spread to horrible-looking direct-to-DVD movies. Both the movies and the music are taken from real life, but also ripped from the headlines of sites like BlogDelNarco.com, which is an astounding repository of the narcotics-based macabre.
Schwarz documents most of the movie at an observational remove. While he asks occasional questions in Spanish, his approach is not one of putting his subjects on the spot. Edgar's spiral in Culiacan is a fine example of a director letting a subject's actions illustrate a point that a different type of storyteller might have just delivered in a talking head segment. There are exceptions to Schwarz's hang-back-and-watch approach and those exceptions lead to telling moments. There's one case, for example, that Richi just won't or can't discuss, but his squirming speaks volumes. Ditto with the American border patrol spokesman who gets marvelously flustered on a fairly easy question and ends up having to call a supervisor.
While it's a good moment with the border guard, it's also one of a few examples of Schwarz overreaching and then including footage that seems isolated and unexplored. The border guard, a prisoner in a Juarez jail and the aforementioned narco direct-to-video filmmaking seem like they might have initially be envisioned as characters to match Richi and Edgar in breadth, only to be trimmed to remnant vignettes in the final cut.
I saw nearly all of the films in the US Documentary competition at Sundance this year and "American Promise" is my favorite to take the top prize, but I'll be nearly invested in "Narco Cultura" taking the doc cinematography award. Even if it's not perfect, "Narco Cultura" will be a tough act to follow for the next Juarez-based doc that should be coming around the bend any second now.