In the wasteland of prescriptive, satirical, American documentaries, it is rare for a film as powerful as “Narco Cultura” to surface these days.
Shaul Schwarz’s striking and honest documentary “Narco Cultura” examines the pop culture influence of Mexican drug cartels on both sides of the border. Amid a sea of films and television shows like “Breaking Bad” whose themes focus on the drug industry, this film stands out because it puts a concrete face on the abstract drug war in Juárez, Mexico across the river from El Paso, Texas.
Schwarz—a veteran Israeli photojournalist who covered drug-related crime in Juárez for Time magazine, the New York Times, and National Geographic—presents a previously untold story of the Mexican border in his first film. The film tells two personal narratives from both sides of the war, flouting the typical documentary style that tends to feel like a statistics-filled news program. Schwarz puts a face on the war that hits too close to home to be ignored, especially since immigration is an ever-present question in the current political climate.
The cinéma-vérité documentary is a story of two people: Edgar Quintero, a Los Angeles-based narcocorrido singer-songwriter, and Richi Soto, a CSI investigator living and working on the other side of the border in Juárez.
Narcocorridos are a musical phenomenon with growing popularity in both the United States and Mexico. These songs’ lyrics portray the Mexican drug traffickers as models of individualistic success and fame, which is part of a larger narcoculture that glamorizes these violent drug lords as Mexico’s new generation of Robin Hoods. A music producer in the film compares this music and its glorification of violence to American gangster rap.
One of the most distressing images of the film is a scene in which Quintero teaches his little son to sing the lyrics to a narcocorrido about killing. In another scene, Quintero, wearing an AK-47-embroidered jacket and holding a bazooka, sings his violent hymn to a packed club in California, proving that the narcocorrido subculture has crossed the border.
As Schwarz follows Quintero and other narco-musicians on their tours, he juxtaposes the gun-toting outlaws of the narcorridos with the death and destruction that the real criminals are causing, as body bags pile up and pools of blood are hosed down on the streets. Schwarz highlights the corruption of the Mexican regime as Soto is increasingly paralyzed by fear for himself and for his family.
The film pushes us face first into the drug war without making any easy conclusions. Schwarz takes the viewer with him into the belly of the beast as he braves the gang-infested streets of Mexico’s onetime murder capital of the world, even going to a Sinaloa drug lord’s living room and a party thrown by another drug lord who hires Quintero to sing for him.
Schwarz is realistic about the cyclical nature of drug violence, and “Narco Cultura” will certainly start a conversation. It forces the American viewer to face the fact that this is not just a Mexican war.
“Narco Cultura” is playing at the AMC Empire 25, 234 W. 42nd St.