Review by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
Director: Shaul Schwarz
Running time: 103 minutes
In Juarez, Mexico, there's a cartel war going on outside no man is safe from. In the graphic, disturbing, and beautifully shot documentary Narco Cultura, director Shaul Schwarz focuses his lens on the once lively city, which now appears to be a ghost town because the populace hides indoors, afraid of becoming another statistic in the high kidnapping and murder rates. Although there are many who see the drug dealers as a villainous plague, others in Mexico and the U.S. have turned them into Robin Hood-esque folk heroes, singing their praises in popular drug ballads known as narcocorridos, which are like a polka-infused Mexican version of 1990s gangster rap that raises similar questions about whether they document or exploit suffering.
Schwarz interviews people on all sides of the violence, from children milling about murder scenes, to politicians, police, drug dealers, and musicians. He rides with a Juarez homicide investigator who has to hide his face with a mask at crime scenes, where large crowds gather around bullet-riddled, burned, dismembered, and decapitated victims, for fear of being identified and targeted for murder. He has lost numerous colleagues and lives a prisoner’s life, only leaving the barred home he grew up in to work.
In contrast, singers of narcocorridos like Bukanas de Culiacan and El Komander live cushy celebrity lives, writings songs from the drug dealer's POV (sometimes paid by them to write the ballads). In gaudy outfits, they posture like smugglers—the lead singer of Bukanas goes so far as to bring a bazooka on stage with him—and tour the United States and Mexico, performing in front of houses packed with people who giddily sing along to songs that celebrate cruel men who torture and decapitate people. Producers of equally popular Spanish language narco films cast them in movies where they act out these parts. While those living in the middle of the violence flee from it, those singing about it from a safe distance struggle mostly with keeping it real, and research online to get the stories and slang right.
Schwarz is unflinching as he visits crime scenes and incarcerated drug dealers who describe torture sessions. At times, if his shots weren't so gorgeously constructed, it would be difficult to not look away. The end result is a fascinating documentary that makes the viewer ponder the relationship of real-life barbarism and showy faux violence for entertainment's sake. Even if you never go to Mexico or listen to a narcocorrido, you'll likely pause for a second and think the next time you throw on Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Murder was the Case."