As we are well into the New Year, I am still finding myself thinking about a film I watched just before the holidays: Narco Cultura, a documentary about drug violence and the narcocorrido songs that glorify it, directed by the photographer and filmmaker Saul Schwartz. Shot in the United States and Mexico, the film’s website describes it as “featuring powerful footage from the front lines of the drug wars and performances from some of the hottest Narcocorrido artists … tak[ing] viewers behind the scenes of the most explosive and violent music subculture in America.” In my mind it did much more than that, presenting a complex, masterfully paced, and richly observed portrait of cultural production, creative expression, political injustice, and national grief.
The film, through gorgeous observational verité cinematography and keen storytelling, paints a psychologically compelling and ambiguous portrait of its two main characters. At first, Richi Soto and Edgar Quintero seem like opposing figures living at two different poles of the drug violence landscape. Richi is a solemn crime scene investigator working out of the busiest forensic office in his natal Juarez, “the murder capital of the world,” while Edgar is an ebullient musician enjoying a peaceful and prosperous life in Los Angeles singing narcocorridos, explicitly violent ballads about drug lords set to catchy polka music, with his band Buknas de Culiacan. But as the film progresses, the men seem to shift under our gaze like holograms. At first Richi seems like a noble martyr risking his life to protect the city he loves, but by the end is revealed to be at least partially complicit in the bureaucratic inefficiency and selective inaction of a corrupt police force under the thumb of the cartels. Meanwhile Edgar at first appears to be a naïve but basically harmless musical artist making money off his deft wordplay and tough image, but in his quest for “authenticity” becomes an increasingly calculating champion of drug use and violence.
These character shifts support Schwartz’s underlying thesis in depicting the effect of drug violence on perpetrators, victims, and cultural consumers alike: as long as someone is getting paid, no one is innocent. Narcocultura is just as much about economics as it is about culture, if not more so, and the movie shows the grisly and tragic human toll of a robust profit mill. The film pointedly illustrates how everyone involved is financially benefiting from drug violence. Ricci, the conflicted cop, is just as grateful for steady employment in a weak economy as he is trying to redeem his city, and alongside him are the new legions of forensic investigators who painstakingly catalogue an ever-growing archive of unsolved murders and the journalists who report on both drug violence and police incompetence. There are the musicians who sell violent fantasies and tributes through their narcocorridos, and alongside them the seamstresses who embroider AK’s on their made-to-order leather jackets, the factory workers doing quality control on their CD’s before they hit the shelves of Walmart, and the clubs who help them draw a crowd. And then there are the undertakers and construction workers employed in the building boom at luxury Culiacan cemetery complexes, where cartel members’ riddled and ruined bodies can eternally rest in McMansion mausoleums made out of bulletproof glass.
Shwartz’s movie in effect answers its own question: how can the US and Mexican response to drug violence be so pathologically slow when, as according to one scene in this film, the streets of Juarez are literally flowing with blood? Because there is money to be made, through violence, its simulation, and the equally hollow investigations that are little more than empty choreographies. Perhaps it is up to filmmakers outside of North America to shame our hemisphere into real action; Schwartz is originally from Israel and another recent film on the topic, El Sicario Room 164 (2010), was made in France.
If these documentary efforts do invite further attention or even spur some action, hopefully it won’t be just below the border. As of now, the United States is glaringly absent in the economic, cultural, and psychological perspectives presented in the film and in the broader discourse on the topic. As Andrew O’Hehir also points out in his response to the film for Salon.com, the US government, corporations, and US nationals are doing more than merely turning a blind eye to the violence below the border. The El Paso malls Richi visits on his day off may be eerily calm, but American businesses are making money by supplying cartels with guns and ammunition. The American government is building ever-expanding walls across the border and employing more guards to patrol these while enforcing immigration and economic policies that keep Mexican workers at a disadvantage. American citizens demand a steady supply of recreational drugs, while average television watchers like myself have enjoyed five seasons of Breaking Bad, which borrowed a number of grisly plotlines from real-life annals of drug violence. An episode in Season 2, Negro y Azul, even featured a narcocorrido about the alter ego of Walter White, science teacher turned meth dealer, “Heisenberg.”
Meanwhile, the prison industrial complex continues to profit from the mass incarceration that has been one result of the “war on drugs” above the border. Clearly dark appetites, fantasies of a gloriously amoral autonomy, and the exploitation of human suffering for entertainment or financial gain are not confined to any specifically Mexican or Mexican-American narco cultura. As viewers are shown the gruesome underbelly of both illegal trade networks and official economic policies, we are encouraged to face the repressed and sickening truth that even if some parties are temporarily safe, none are blameless.
The film, at times horrified and at times entranced by narcocorridos, does not provide any clear answers as to their allure and power or any singular analysis of the cultural function or meaning of these songs and performances. Are they a demonstration, as one journalist in the film says, of the defeat of Mexican people in the face of impunity? Do they ardently glorify a culture of violence consumers actually know little about, coldly profit off of it, or are they trying in some way to actually process it? Are the songs simply a contemporary variation on a traditional norteño musical form, with narrative content changing to reflect the changing times? Do they provide a harmless imaginative space for escapist fantasy or are narcocorridos actually instigating further violence in a bizarre cycle of “art imitates life imitates art”?
Some of these questions may feel familiar, even tired, after ongoing discussions in and outside the academy about the cultural politics and real-life impact of violence in gangsta rap or video games. However, what might be new in this film or this cultural moment is the direct juxtaposition of fantasies of violence with its graphic real-life double. The film has been called “hard-hitting” and “stomach kicking” in reviews, perhaps because it shows footage of such things as charred and dismembered corpses and close up footage of a child, who couldn’t be more than twelve, shot in the head. As audiences grow ever more accustomed to seeing the visual documentation of actual real-time violence that comes with increased access to documentary technology, will these newly permitted juxtapositions jar us into making urgent new analyses, not just of certain genres of cultural production but of damaging political and economic decisions? Or will it further inoculate us to responses of outrage and thus further postpone meaningful action, turning into just another form of entertainment? For all the outsized glitz and swagger of the narcocorrido bands, what continues to haunt me from Narcocultura were two pared down sequences. The first is that of a prison inmate who confesses to acts of violence, which he clearly regrets and yet the motivation of which he clearly explains: if he refused he would have been rendered useless to the cartel machinery, and hence promptly be made into a victim. The second is a mother of such a victim, calling out those in power and crying for justice. For me, these forthright voices speaking directly from personal experiences of violence and loss drowned out everything else.
Narcocultura runs 103 minutes long and will be available on DVD February 25, 2014. It would be a powerful addition to updated global studies, ethnomusicology, folklore, cultural studies, comparative literature and anthropology curricula and to instructors who want material to ground discussions about issues related to border studies, neoliberalism, empire, celebrity, and the representation of trauma and violence. The film may be particularly useful because while new to me, some students may already be familiar with Quintero, El Komander, and other musical artists featured in the film; my viewing companion, a high school creative writing teacher, has students who have featured some of these figures in their short stories and fan fiction. Narcocultura is deeply engaging and certain to spur impassioned discussion, but teachers and students should be warned that it could potentially be triggering.