Filming in the Jardines del Humaya cemetery in Culiacán, the largest city and capital of Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico, Natalia Almada has made a ruminative yet potent documentary about the carnage that has piled up during that nation’s intractable drug war—a film in which not a single gunshot is heard.
Violence remains resolutely offscreen in El Velador (the title translates to The Night Watchman). Almada’s focus—quiet and unobtrusive—instead is fixed on its aftermath and its grotesque incongruities. These include the garish, towering mausoleums built for the slain narco traffickers that are tended to by widows still in their twenties, whose tiny children transform the graveyard into a playground. Martin, the guard of the title, who arrives at dusk every day in an aqua pickup truck, is tasked with the futile chore of watering large patches of sunbaked dirt. The dull, busy sounds of cement being mixed and bricks being laid for more opulent tombs is punctured by an unseen mother’s wail: “My son!”
Although much more indirect than two other recent films about the terror wrought by Mexico’s drug cartels—Gerardo Naranjo’s based-on-a-true-story Miss Bala, whose titular beauty queen becomes ensnared by a narco kingpin, and the documentary El Sicario, Room 164, in which an anonymous black-hooded figure recounts the atrocities he committed while a cartel employee—El Velador still sharply conveys what life is like in a traumatized nation. Reports of massacres and headless bodies (and the government’s inability to stop the horror) are recounted via news broadcasts that Martin hears on the radio and TV (“Culiacán has become a war zone”); even weather forecasts portend more slaughter (“Unstable conditions will affect the country for the next 24 hours”).
Complementing the film’s sound design is Almada’s eye for the pungent detail within her static compositions. A close-up of the split shoe of a worker building yet another extravagant resting place for a drug lord’s corpse forcefully points out—without overexplaining—a staggering misuse of resources and ineradicable inequities. Only once is the director’s voice heard: To a cigarette-puffing laborer in Modelo Light T-shirt, Almada innocuously asks, “Do you always smoke while mixing plaster?” His reply—”It’s how I measure time”—hints at another kind of calculation, tallied by newscasters intermittently throughout El Velador: the number of deaths that day, that week, that month, that year related to narco trafficking.