Los BuKnas de Culiacan in Shaul Schwarz’s NARCO CULTURA. Photo Credit: Shaul Schwarz Courtesy of: Cinedigm
Photo-journalist Shaul Schwarz spent many years in Mexico tracking and reporting the violence in Juarez. “Narco Cultura,” his first film, is a documentary exploring that violence and the pop culture glorifying the drug cartels responsible for the bulk of the crimes committed. It is a searing film, bringing the viewers up close to the aftermath of drug executions, drive-bys, mass murders and the collateral damage that accompany so-called targeted killings. In a span of only 6 or 7 years, since 2006, the homicides in Juarez went from approximately 350 per year to over 3,000 per year. In 2011, Juarez had the highest murder rate in the world.
It goes without saying that the increase in homicides is a direct by-product of the drug wars waged against the cartels by the government and by the cartels against other cartels. And none of these statistics address kidnapping and extortion as blood sports.
Schwarz’s stated intention was to demonstrate the pop-culture as illustrated by the new, very popular narcocorridos, songs glorifying the kingpins of the drug culture as Robin Hoods fighting against the oppression and greed of corrupt governments and corporations. And, horrifyingly, he makes his point in following an L.A.-based band as they travel the Southwest singing their ballads, many of which have been commissioned by minor drug lords to promote their activities and alleged supremacy. The following of Mexican American youth, gravitating to the exploits of dangerous criminals would be shocking if it were original. These young people, as seen singing along with the bands in clubs and makeshift concert halls, do not appear to be of a class of disenfranchised and disadvantaged youth. They seem to be cut from the same cloth as the youth who have embraced hip hop and cop-killer rap; admirers of the gangsta lifestyle. They are no different than an earlier generation’s embrace of Al Capone and the Purple Gang or Gotti or Joe Bananas. It is, nevertheless, horrific to hear the admiration of killers who, rather than the anti-establishment heroes they are portrayed, slaughter innocent men, women and children who may be in the wrong place at the wrong time or are crossing the street or buying groceries. Out of 3,000 mostly narco-related murders, a substantial number represent collateral damage.
More chilling is Schwarz’s portrayal of the honest men and women of Juarez’s crime scene investigation investigators. These are the police who gather evidence in a fruitless search for solutions to the murders that keep coming without end. They are an endangered species and already within the last couple of years, four of the investigators in this department have been executed by the cartel; the chief having been given the choice between quitting or execution. He chose to quit. Riding along with one of the investigators, Schwarz sees first-hand the brutality results of the cartel’s indiscriminate targeting and the Sisyphean task at hand as “unsolvable” murder piles up against “unsolvable” murder.
These are the elements that make up “Narco Cultura” and they are also the elements that prevent it from having a greater impact. For although the lyrics of the narcocorridos is stomach-turning, the impact and implications of what they approve and encourage would have been far greater if Schwarz had more carefully structured his film. Certainly the emotional impact of what is seen on screen is powerful but it could have been more so and made a greater statement if he had had more focus in his storytelling. If, instead, he had made the investigator of the Juarez CSI his central character, following him (as he did) and telling the story of life in Juarez under the cloud of a cartel that kills indiscriminately and has shut down most of the downtown business district with its demand for “protection” money that exceeds the intake of such shops, the irony of celebrating narco kingpins as Robin Hoods would have been more dramatically stated.
The film, as it is, leaves you with a feeling of melancholy. But if Schwarz had shifted that focus as illustrated above, the audience’s sense of sadness and rage would have been elevated especially when reminded that it is the U.S. that is driving this culture of violence. Drugs are sent across the Mexican border and in return, the cartels receive billions of dollars in both currency and guns, further fueling the cycle.
See the film, hear the music and then reflect on your own views about the drug wars and the collateral damage, collateral damage that will eventually touch you if it hasn’t already.
Opening Friday December 6 at the Laemmle Royal and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.