by Matt Levine
With an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder
Cross my path and I’ll chop your head off
We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill!
We are the best at kidnapping
Our gang always travels in a caravan
With bulletproof vests, ready to execute!
These lyrics are performed by the band BuKnas de Culiacán to legions of frenzied, adoring fans throughout Mexico and the United States, typifying a musical subgenre that has existed since the early 20th century (though its popularity has exploded over the last decade): narcocorrida. Stemming from traditional folk ballads and norteño rhythms composed of accordion and brass bands, narcocorrida music skyrocketed alongside Mexico’s cataclysmic Drug War, which has escalated since 2006: as regions of Mexico have devolved into mass murder and unthinkable violence (especially the northwest city of Culiacán, the epicenter of the country’s $25 billion drug-trafficking industry; and the border city of Juárez, separated from El Paso, Texas, only by the Rio Grande), entertainers have applied lively rhythms and often exultant lyrics to the kidnappings, tortures, decapitations, and executions that rage there. Meanwhile, some Latino audiences on both sides of the border have lionized this controversial style of music, as narcocorrida has begun filling the shelves of Walmart and selling out the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The sobering documentary Narco Cultura tackles this fiery musical subgenre with appropriate solemnity and ambivalence, asking if narcocorrida provides a valuable cultural outlet or a lethal glorification of barbarism.
Sound Unseen – Trylon Microcinema
January 8, 2014
Director: Shaul Schwartz
Producers: Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy, Todd Hagopian
Cinematographer: Shaul Schwartz
Editors: Bryan Chang, Jay Arthur Sterrenberg
Music: Jeremy Turner
Premiere: January 21, 2013 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Premiere: October 4, 2013
US Distributor: Cinedigm
The movie splits its time between two primary subjects: Edgar Quintero, headman of BuKnas de Culiacán, who is commissioned to write and sing corrida music for real-life drug traffickers and hitmen; and Richi Soto, a soft-spoken, melancholy 34-year-old forensic analyst in Juárez who must contend every day with the grisly murders and culture of fear so unabashedly glorified by Quintero’s lyrics. As Quintero provides a comfortable if humble lifestyle for his wife and two kids (surreally interspersed with visits to meth-cookers in Culiacán and gifts of gaudy handguns from the criminals who hire him), Soto and his colleagues worry every day about being killed on their way to or from work, their faces forever concealed by masks for fear of recognition by the drug cartels.
Although the New York Times’ Stephen Holden criticizes this dichotomy, claiming Narco Cultura resembles two short films awkwardly jammed together, I couldn’t disagree more: we need both perspectives in order to comprehend (at least partially) how a shockwave of senseless crime has become so culturally prevalent in a relatively short period of time. The transitions from one side of the border to another are masterfully handled by editors Bryan Chang and Jay Arthur Sterrenberg: a morgue bathed in horrific electric light suddenly cuts to the buzzing interiors of an El Paso mall; Quintero’s son playing with a toy pistol in Los Angeles jumps brutally to yet another mutilated corpse discovered in Juárez. The ideas behind such editorial decisions are subtle yet profound; in the manner of the best montage, the film’s aesthetic raises questions that the audience is then forced to address.
This is especially true of the documentary’s incorporation of global politics and modern capitalism, both of which are obviously important factors in the drug and music industries on display. How can filmmakers hope to tackle the difficult interconnection of commerce and politics in Mexico’s drug war as well as in the mass entertainment industry? In order to suggest how the media embeds notions of a sleek like of crime and rebellious artists in the cultural mindset, documentarians and theorists could tirelessly expound upon the history of representation and the sociological aspects of audience reception. But Narco Cultura opts for a more humane approach, focusing on the individuals embroiled in this vast, nebulous process. When Soto’s voiceover mournfully ponders how the drug cartels could have become so untouchable while we see thousands of narcocorrida CDs packaged and shipped on assembly lines, or when Quintero meets a farmer’s son wearing a BuKnas de Culiacán shirt in the eponymous city (which he had never previously been to, despite his band’s adoration of the turbulent region), we start to understand how popular culture plays a role in the political warfare it purports merely to respond to.
Narco Cultura doesn’t vilify Quintero and his exploitation of the violence in Mexico; he’s charming and frightening in equal measure, a friendly artist who seems to love his family at the same time that he lapses into his former drug use (indifferently smoking weed and snorting coke on camera) and celebrates the use of narcocorrida music in online videos of drug cartels executing their victims. The movie recognizes that the problem is much larger and more systemic than wrongheaded individuals, and understands the allure of this life even as it bemoans it.
That said, Narco Cultura’s unofficial hero is Richi Soto, who professes his love for his hometown of Juárez—the love and dignity that can still be found on its bloodstained streets—even as he hopes to move to tranquil El Paso with his family someday. The film also applauds the efforts of outspoken critics in Juárez such as Sandra Rodríguez, journalist for El Diario, whose criticisms of corruption in the local government complicate what could have been a simple dichotomy of hardworking policemen vs. abhorrent criminals.
The director/cinematographer, Shaul Schwartz, started as a war photographer, covering such catastrophic events as the 2007-8 Kenyan crisis and the Israel-Lebanon War. His background explains both the somberly beautiful photography in Narco Cultura as well as its hardened analysis of disturbing subject matter. Rather than employing a roving handheld camera as many documentaries do (especially when they’re filmed in dangerous locales), Schwartz thankfully takes great care with the fluid, slow-moving camerawork, as the film's somber aesthetic resembles one long, beleaguered sigh. Graceful tracking shots through warehouses of evidence might be from the perspective of the ghosts of victims whose murders go unsolved. In other scenes, selective focus devices allow only a narrow swath of the frame to be in focus, giving a disconcerting, alien quality to this besieged world. The images themselves are often horrifyingly grisly: real-life decapitations and beatings play out onscreen with a frankness we usually don’t see, even in war documentaries. Yet the violence never seems exploitative—we need to get a sense of the traumatizing cruelty of these murders, if only to get beyond the staggering statistics we read so often in the news. (A closing title card informs us that Mexico experienced more than 60,000 gangland murders from 2006 to 2012—a truly horrifying fact, if we imagine any one of the murders we see repeated that many times.) A lazier documentary could have indulged in obvious, self-satisfied antiwar messages (as Narco Cultura threatens to in its first image: a young, wide-eyed boy dreaming of a world without death), but Schwartz, having documented some of the worst international conflicts of the last several decades, hopes simply to convey some of the human dramas playing out within the abyss.
Narco Cultura cannot, of course, answer its central question, whether narcocorrida music is a positive or negative response to this torrent of violence. Maybe it’s both. It only makes sense that lyricists would respond to the brutality rampaging through their society, but, like the gangster rap of Biggie or Terror Squad, narcocorrida can seem at once inhumane and cleverly resilient. What makes both kinds of music so powerful and so disturbing is the way they immediately reflect what’s going on in unfathomable reality. The music in Narco Cultura unnervingly proves what Richi Soto says about the culture of outlaw violence pervading Juárez: “The youth have lost hope and now idolize the devil."