It’s 7PM when Shaul Schwarz, director of the documentary, Narco Cultura, calls from his Brooklyn office to discuss his film. He tells me, “I kept feeling this hunger to tell the wider story of this war that’s affecting millions of people on both sides of the border and how we are all involved. I was haunted by this story.”
Narco Cultura is a study in contrasts. The subject matter is serious and violent while the film itself is an easy, engaging watch. The footage manages to be as beautiful as it is horrifying. We’ve heard about the drug wars ravaging Mexico, but this movie finds a new lens to explore the crisis through bringing audiences two very different perspectives from the front lines.
The film splits its focus between Richi Soto, a crime scene investigator in the warzone that is Juarez, and Edgar Quintero, a narcocorrido singer in Los Angeles. Narcocorridos, we learn, are the soundtrack of the drug wars. This genre, which has been called the Latin Gangsta Rap, features songs that combine upbeat Mexican folk music with explicit, violent lyrics celebrating the exploits of the drug cartels. Narco Cultura tells the story of the drug wars from both sides of the border, effortlessly contrasting the on-the-ground realities of the violence with the pop culture fantasy world of the narcocorridos.
A veteran photojournalist, Shaul spent two years photographing the violence in Juarez before he began filming. He explains to me, “As the pictures got published people would say, ‘Oh, the Mexican drug war’, which made it sound far away. And I would say, ‘The Mexican-American drug war’. People would ask, ‘Who’s killing who?’ I would start explaining but end up getting frustrated because it’s complicated.”
Shaul, your film paints a complex picture of the narco culture. Depending on where you’re sitting the violence is treated as cool or it’s terrifying. Can you talk about the contrasts and connections?
The juxtaposition also comes from the contrast between the U.S. and Mexico. In the U.S., Edgar can glorify the drugs and the violence through his music and as much as he lives in a hood he is safe to a certain degree. The drugs move, but the people die south of the border. The money and the demand are here in the U.S., the money drives south, the guns go south, and the bodies stay south. Right now I think more than 60,000 are dead. Look at Juarez and El Paso. You wonder how the contrast can be so big, especially when a large part of El Paso is either first generation American or Mexican. You literally have families split on both sides of the border. I think as Americans we have this sense that the drug war is the status quo. We don’t know what to do about it and it’s not our problem. But that’s not true and I wanted you to feel that in the film. I wanted to make a movie that was raw.
I’ve heard that during the editing process you consulted Richi and omitted information from the film he thought might put him at risk. Talk about this process.
I wouldn’t say that we consulted Richi. He saw some things and gave some feedback, but we cut very independently. For safety you have to make certain decisions. With Richi and the Juarez story I always said that I am not an investigative journalist. I’m not trying to see who killed who, or how drugs moved, or open any files. That would have gotten us killed. I quickly learned that in Mexico, forget publishing, even knowing things can get you killed. That’s very different from most conflicts or most stories you do as a journalist where you always want to have big ears and listen to everything then decide later what to use.
Discuss the ethics of making a doc like this. How did you balance your artistic vision for the film with the realities of trying to protect your subjects?
As a journalist, you know there are things you don’t do to your sources. If somebody gets hurt because of what you do it’s not worth it. That’s what they teach you in school, but how do you practice that with such a complex story? It comes down to each scene and each shot and common sense and going back and forth and thinking with editors, and sometimes with the protagonists, or sometimes with lawyers. I mean you have the right to know and you have the right to publish, but there’s limits. Some stuff we knew we didn’t want to know, some stuff we didn’t dare ask, and we also saw a lot more than we could shoot. When we went out in Juarez many, many times we just couldn’t shoot. It’s not one of these places where you say, but wait, I’m on public property, I have a right. Shit no. Again, to me this film wasn’t about investigative journalism. I wanted to show the reality of two people involved in the so-called drug war and where it has taken them and us. In the editing, you find the balance that tells the story but won’t hurt anybody. Each scene, each layer has its own rules.
This film contains graphic footage of the violence. How did you approach the challenge of grabbing your audience’s attention without desensitizing them?
We needed to think about what’s too much versus what things were important to show. I wanted to grab the audience’s attention because I feel we’re sticking our head in the sand and this is my way of telling you it’s right here, I won’t let you turn away. But of course if you over do that, or do that incorrectly, you’ve desensitized your viewer and there’s no purpose. It’s just grotesque. It’s a line, mostly an editing line. We tried to make sure that every scene where you see something graphic also has meaning. For example, ok, there’s burnt bodies and that really grabs your attention, but it’s important and the footage has a right to be in the film because these people were burned with the intention that everyone would see them and that’s really narco culture- that’s the intimidation factor. Almost everything in the film represents something.
What do you want people to walk away from Narco Cultura with?
I want people to be upset because I believe it’s upsetting. I want them to see the drug war like they’ve never seen it. This is the cancer of Mexico and to some degree the cancer of the U.S. I want you to care. It’s too sad, we’re too involved, it’s not far away, and we’re all in it together. If you’re angry maybe you’ll think about how to change things. There are a couple of clear 800 lb gorillas – legalization, demand, and access to guns. It’s also important to understand that this problem does not have a military solution. You can’t just throw money and guns at it and solve things. It’s never worked and it’s not going to work. Things are getting worse and the collateral damage is tremendous. I want people to think about the bigger picture.
Narco Cultura is currently in theaters. For more information visit: www.narcoculture.com.