HotDocs13: Narco Cultura (2013)

Heavy. Dark. Twisted. These are probably the words most people had in mind as the credits rolled on Narco Cultura, Shaul Schwarz’s film about the drug war culture in Juarez, Mexico.

The film follows a crime scene investigator in Juarez as he does his daily duty of checking out homicides. Juarez has seen around 4000 homicides a year for the past few years, and the country has lost 60,000 people to murder since 2006. The police force in Juarez is essentially ineffectual. Only three per cent of homicides are charged, and less than that 3 per cent of those are convicted. As the film moves along the investigator seems more garbage man than cop, cleaning up the human debris left in the wake of this monstrous drug war.

Narco Cultura also follows a musician in the narco music subculture, which features pseudo-gangster musicians who sing about cartel heroes living a life of danger and bravery. Their songs combine the beautiful rhythms of classical Mexican mariachi with atrocious lyrics celebrating beheadings and rocket launchers. You’re almost nauseated by the fact that the song is sung so beautifully.

Narco Cultura is all about this juxtaposition. It’s at time humorous—the musicians are a bunch of fools who are easy to laugh at—but its also gruesome, showing us unflinching footage of corpses and assaults committed by the cartels. Schwarz is also great at playing to the audience’s expectations. In one scene, a Mexican police officer comments that he has to watch for suspicious cars that don’t have license plates, as those vehicles might be holding cartel men ready to kill him. Just as he finishes saying this, he pulls up behind a truck with no license plates. We’re expecting gunfire, and then we hear three deafening blasts. We assume the officer’s been shot, but we’re actually hearing gunshots from one of the musician’s music videos.

If Narco Cultura were nothing else, it would still be a masterpiece of editing. But it’s more than that. It’s a haunting examination of the Mexican drug war, and the creation of a culture that perversely glorifies and misunderstands the violence it inflicts. The ever-present spectres that haunt the movie are the American people, whose ravenous desire for drugs has caused a plague of homicides, and who exist just over the border, blissfully unaware of the hardships of their neighbours to the south.

Narco Cultura (2013, USA)

Directed by Shaul Schwarz.

9 out of 10