Since 2006, when the War on Drugs was officially declared in Mexico—a joint operation by Federal Police and the Mexican military known as Operation Michoacan—approximately 60,000 known murders have been recorded. At the epicenter of the major narcotics trafficking and drug cartels that ravage Mexico is the city of Juarez. Its murder rate has absolutely skyrocketed—4,500 people have been killed since 2006 making it the homicide capital of the world, and just across the border is El Paso, Texas, named one of the safest cities in the United States. This juxtaposition is staggering, and marks the impetus for the film.
Israeli-born filmmaker Shaul Schwarz—an award-winning war photographer who started his photographic career in the Israeli Air Force and whose work has appeared in Time, National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Newsweek among others—began documenting the cycles of violence in Juarez in 2008. Haunted by the imagery he captured in this chaotic and dangerous environment and disturbed by just how cheap the value of life appeared to be, the photojournalist knew he had to return to continue documenting these images of death, crime and violence.
Some four years in the making, while Schwarz’s feature-length documentary debut, “Narco Cultura" does chronicle the death and devastation drug trafficking has brought to Mexico as well as the bleak and depressing futility of the war on drugs, the film also angles itself on a disturbing and growing trend in the country: a pervasive acceptance that has calcified into idolatry known as narco cultura.
First and foremost in narco cultura is the narcocorridos -- the Mexican equivalent of gangster rap. Songs that glorify the drug traffickers as modern day Robin Hoods; iconic outlaws who have paved their own roads to “fame,” success and narco-luxury (the ironic, borderline absurd element of narcocorridos is that they essentially sound like every day corny and polka-flecked Mariachi songs set to violent lyrics boasting about who they’ve murdered and what caliber they carry—to the untrained ear, they are anything but bad-ass). “Narco Cultura” follows several groups, many of them on the American border that make narcocorridos. Often times they are called directly by members of the cartels who formally request (and pay good money) for a narcocorrido tribute to be written on their behalf (the showrunners of "Breaking Bad" picked up on this phenom fast and had one written for Walter White in the early seasons).
But narcocorrido and narco culture extend beyond these glorified gansta songs into film, TV, and other media such as blogs that chart and celebrate the cartels' exploits, often depicting graphic images and videos of decapitation and other horribly violent atrocities. Schwarz also documents gigantic and ostentatious mausoleums commemorating assassinated kingpins. Even in death they are legend, practically rock stars with immense shrines as testament to their once luxurious lifestyles.
Perhaps the true chilling aspect of narcocorrido and these drug ballads is how accepted, omnipresent, and permeating they are. Seen as a viable way to get rich or die trying, no one blinks an eye at the social implications of a culture so inured and dispirited by violence that they’re willing to turn around and give full consent, and this is where “Narco Cultura” is quietly powerful. While gangster rap was generally absorbed by teens and admonished by the adult media in the United States, narco anthems are close to mainstream, widely popular and listened to by many quadrants of the population in the country. Several concert sequences are unnerving, with the brutally violent lyrics joyfully sung along to by drunken crowds, happily engaging in the music.
The drug cartels’ pop culture influence in the documentary is depicted on both sides of the border: via an L.A.-based narco ballad singer (and family man) dreaming of stardom and a quiet Juarez crime scene investigator fighting the battle on the frontlines. The singer is typically brash, naive, a would-be Tupac dying to go to Mexico to “live the lifestyle” so his narcocorridos with be authentically full of experience. The crime scene investigator’s existence is discouraging; living at home, staying on the job because it’s the only one he knows, and living in fear as his co-workers are picked off one by one and murdered by the various cartels. Corruption is rampant, and 90% of the murders remain unsolved, barely even processed. Ineffectuality is an everyday occurrence.
While most war-on-drugs documentaries are talking head style with newsreel footage, “Narco Cultura” is cinema verite, with Schwarz and his camera right in the thick of the action either with the police, the narcocorridos singers, or on the streets just mere feet away from bodies. A chilling, dangerous air pervades many nighttime scenes, and one has to assume the documentarian put himself and his crew at risk several times by simply driving around in Juarez making this documentary. Acting as his own director of photography, Schwarz’s imagery is just as striking as his photographs, and “Narco Cultura” looks both beautiful and eerie when police lights streak through dark city streets looking to collect the next discarded body.
Produced by Parts & Labor (“Beginners,” “Cold Weather”) and Ocean Size Pictures, “Narco Cultura” is gripping, gruesome and arresting; a disquieting look a pop (sub)-culture phenomenon that is mushrooming all over the United States and Latin America. Mexico’s present situation is chilling, and “Narco Cultura” is a haunting and sobering portrait of the crossroads where crime and culture are inextricably linked. [B+]