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Narco Cultura opens with three young boys sitting outside the yellow police tape of a drug-related murder scene in Juarez, Mexico. The boys relate how they watched hooded killers unload their pistols before finishing the job with an AK-47. “They shoot randomly and liquidate everyone,” one of boys says, in an eerily coversational tone.
Juarez has become ground zero for the Mexican drug war, and its murder rate has increased tenfold in under a decade. Only a tiny fraction of the murders are even investigated; officials are paid off or intimidated. Narco Cultura, directed by filmmaker Shaul Schwarz, is cinema verite at its most stirring and tragic.
What’s most compelling about the film is the way it filters the violence (dismembered bodies, brutal beatings with baseball bats) through the lens of the drug trade’s influence on pop-culture. One of film’s primary arcs follows a Los Angeles based singer named Edgar Quintero, who sings “narcocorridos,” or drug ballads.
The songs are the soundtrack to the drug war with lyrics like:
Heads flying off anyone who dares
We’re bloodthirsty madmen
We like to kill
The music–traditional ballads with a danceable horn beat–has been around forever, but exploded once America began its war on drugs. The latest wave of narcocorridos, called the movimiento alterado, differs in that it features both horns and accordions, which gives the music its menacing sound. It has become massively popular in the United States as well as Mexico. Their performers are mainstream stars, selling out theaters.
Ballads are often commissioned by the gangsters themselves. In the film, Quintero bounces lyrics off a narco called “El Ghost” over speaker-phone–details including what caliber machine gun he carries. (He’s paid a thick stack of hundreds for a song and, later, given a pistol with an embroidered grip as a bonus.)
It’s how he feeds his young family, and to get a better sense of his craft eventually he travels to Culiacan–ground zero for the drug cartels who commission him. (Culiacan is in Sinaloa, where narcos tend to reside and which is often shouted-out in the genre’s songs.)
Quintero gets high, fires off guns, and briefly lives like a tough himself. We also meet kingpins of the narcocorrido industry, twin brothers Omar and Adolfo Valenzuela. Their Burbank, California based company–Twiins Music Group–releases Quintero’s music and other massive artists like El Komander.
The film is hard to watch at times, both because of the violence and seeming institutional indifference, and because one finds oneself fearing for the filmmakers’ safety.
Auteur Shaul Schwarz is a bearded, gruff, animated guy who speaks with his entire body. Born in Israel but a New York City resident since 1999, he has covered the conflict in Mexico as photojournalist for Time and others. Over hot tea at a Polish diner in Brooklyn he explains how in 2010, after two years of shooting the violence in Mexico, he discovered the sub-culture of narcocorridos.
Schwarz had just photographed two murder scenes in Tijuana–a “semi-typical” day at the time–when he got a tip that Quintero’s group would be performing in Riverside, California that night. “I literally went from the crime scene, to the border, to the club,” he says.
Even after photographing constant violence, the glorification of the narcos in the lyrics and the plastic weapons carried as props by Quintero’s group–Buknas de Culiacan -deeply shocked and angered him. “I cared too much, I was too involved,” he says. “They were jumping on blood.”
He noticed that many at the Tijuana crime scene that morning attended the show. Thus began a three year immersion into the drug culture that culminated in Narco Cultura.
Despite his initial reaction to Buknas, Schwarz manages to keep his opinions at arm’s length. We watch as the Valenzuela brothers mug for the cameras and, on the red carpet at House of Blues L.A., proclaim their movement to be the next hip-hop.
That’s a fair comparison, except that narco cultura is much more menacing than gangsta rap at this point. Says Schwarz: “When gangster rap started people were rhyming about their struggle, their hustle, selling dime bags. These guys want to interview the highest person in the cartel so they can sign his name on a song.”
The corrido singers function as one part publicist, one part court jester. “For a trafficker to have a song that plays on American radio, it’s priceless,” Schwarz says.
But it’s the human element that most makes Narco Cultura come alive, whether it’s Quintero’s story, or that of Mexican crime scene investigators or local journalists.
“I wanted you to feel what corruption is,” says Schwarz. “I don’t need more numbers.”
Narco Cultura opens Fri., Nov. 22 in New York. Check the film’s official website for showtimes.