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Xenophobes, take note. If you are hunting for evidence of Mexican immigrants’ alleged corruption of American culture, look no further than Narco Cultura. The documentary charts the influence of Mexican drug cartels, whose ruthless bloodletting is glorified in “narcocorrido” music and movies that seem to grow more popular every day on both sides of the border.
But Narco Cultura doesn’t aspire to fuel the phobias of anti-immigration right-wingers. At its most basic level, the film educates audiences about the violence that has engulfed the Mexican border city of Juarez since President Felipe Calderón launched a war on the cartels in 2006. First-time director Shaul Schwarz starts things off by depicting the daily impact of that war: decapitated corpses, grieving mothers, the streets of Juarez literally running red with blood, and children who are desensitized to the bloodshed that surrounds them every day. A photographer turned filmmaker, Schwarz is a whiz with the camera, which has its costs and benefits; at times, his aesthetic is so strong that you forget the gruesome images are real and not the product of some Hollywood film.
Eventually, Narco Cultura divides its time between the streets of Juarez and the U.S., where singers and movie producers get paid to extol the cartel lifestyle through the popular “narcocorrido” genre. The films—all direct to DVD—are like bad Scarface rip-offs, but they routinely sell out at Walmart. The songs, some of which are commissioned by the cartels themselves, are something akin to gangster rap. There are ballads about decapitations and automatic weapons, and some even refer lovingly to Joaquín “El Chapo” Loera, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel and one of the most wanted criminals in the world.
The film is full of unsettling imagery, but there is something particularly chilling about watching young Latinos in the U.S. sing along to these bloodthirsty lyrics, even more so when the film juxtaposes those scenes with images of naked corpses and grieving Juarez mothers. The images speak loudly, and Schwarz wisely avoids excessive comment.
There are times when I wish he had a firmer hand. Despite a narrative overflowing with colorful characters and vivid stories, the film can feel rudderless. Take a startling moment halfway through the film when Schwarz insinuates that a Juarez crime scene investigator, who has functioned as our guide through the city, may be on the cartel’s payroll. It’s a thrilling realization— that this co-narrator could be an unreliable one—but Schwarz quickly drops the idea and never returns to it.
It’s a minor flaw considering how perceptively the newcomer director documents suffering of this scope; even those up-to-date on news of the ongoing drug war will come away educated. If a documentary’s sole purpose were to inform, Narco Cultura would be a triumph. As it stands, it’s something very close to that: flawed but impossible to forget.