When Michael Moore indicted America’s gun lust for its role in school shootings in his film, Bowling for Columbine, his work was decried as “un-American.” Israeli photographer-turned-director Shaul Schwarz is an outsider looking in on the mass cultural appeal of violence in Mexico as the drug wars continue to destroy family and communities.
As if that wasn’t already bleak enough, Narco Cultura starts its exploration by overseeing a scene that has become all too familiar: groups of kids gossiping about the murder they just witnessed, cops with masks pushing onlookers away, their work punctured by the unearthly wails of relatives held back by neighbors from the bodies of their loved ones. When the title fills the majority of a blacked-out cityscape, only a bloodied body and the attending officer’s legs are lit.
That is when we meet our guide to the battleground of Juarez, Juan Luis. A life-long resident, he recounts the drug war’s push to the border as he drives along vacant city streets and shuttered businesses that couldn’t afford extortion money. In 2007, there were 320 homicides in the metropolitan city, he tells the camera. Three years later, 3,622 lives were lost in 12 months. The drug war had mercilessly arrived.
Across the border in Los Angeles, a young musician is busy recording a theme song for a drug lord. The music he and his band specialize in is known as corridor alterado, part of the Movimiento Alterado (“altered movement”) culture of art, music, and movies that deify Mexican drug lords and the violence that comes with them. While outlawed in Mexico, Movimiento Alterado is gaining popularity with characters like El Komander and the young corrido band introduced on tour, BuKnas. The movement has also spilled into exploitation-like movies about gunslingers and drug runners.
However, the focus (and perhaps blame) on the new counterculture remains steadfastly on the music and sold-out crowds to which many of these performers preach. They have no qualms waltzing on-stage with a bazooka on one shoulder and an AK-47 dangling off the other, while thousands sing along about bloodbaths. Band members brandish gifts from drug lords, including an engraved pistol, or reenact gruesome crimes in music videos. Artists defend their legitimacy on the scene, with the Mexican singer El Komander boasting about his roots to the biggest kingpin in the country. But in the arguably safer streets of the United States, there are plenty of bitterly ironic moments of Tejanos and Mexican-Americans extolling the values of the narco life style.
Juan Luis hangs his head when explaining how little respect he sees from the community, who readily heckle cops at crime scenes. Weeping mothers do not place blame on the cartels, but on the president and the police. Allegations of extortion and corruption are rampant. Not a single murder in Juarez has been brought to trial in years, and the staff of the forensic lab must hide their identities lest they become the local narco’s next target.
The film is a brutal poem of tragedy. Each stanza switches sharply from the reality of a dead child shot by accident to fake pistoleros performing to thousands in the Nokia Theater in L.A. The near-disorienting juxtaposition of concert footage of singers extolling narco virtues and a shop owner cleaning his store front after it was the scene of a massacre can also show the powerful disconnect between pop culture and reality. Schwarz brings a photographer’s eyes with the camera, so the lighting becomes its own character, adding overlit notes to shine a light on harsh realities. There is nary a talking head to be found in this gut-wrenching documentary. Which comes as no surprise after glancing at Schwarz’s work: National Geographic, New York Times Magazine and TIME.
Movimiento Alterado, as one producer pointed out, is about the illusion of power, to embody someone outside the law. Some have likened drug lords to modern-day Robin Hoods, and one young schoolgirl explains why she wants to be a narco’s girlfriend: it’s the promise of a better life. Schwarz does more than throw images together ad hoc, he’s careful to contextualize the situation for outsiders such as himself.
In one of the final moments of the film, the members of BuKnas tour a grandiose tombstone city in Mexico for songwriting inspiration. The gravestones are McMansion-sized mausoleums built by young narcos who sought to live out their wealth underneath empty, gaudy buildings, buried alongside their trucks and boats. So much money, so little life to live it out.
Director: Shaul Schwarz
Writer: Shaul Schwarz
Release Date: Nov. 22, 2013 (limited)