Like a repellent exhibit at Ripley's Believe It or Not that you can't take your eyes off, Shaul Schwarz's documentary "Narco Cultura" keeps you riveted. I'm not sure if it's the entertainment or the need to make sense of what you're watching that keeps you engaged, but Schwartz has made a film that is compelling in either case. Eager to delve below the surface of the drug cartels' hold on Ciudad Juarez, the filmmaker and National Geographic photojournalist spent about two years delving into the cultural effects of the drug violence and drug lords that have made Ciudad Juarez the murder capital of the world — while also inspiring adulation among a growing group of musicians and young people. By contrasting the world of musicians who have risen to popularity by singing and composing songs that glorify the violent world of Mexican drug lords with the day to day risks and dedication of the Ciudad Juarez police force, he has crafted a film that goes beyond the bloody headlines and body counts.
Schwarz follows the composer and lead musician Edgar Quintero, who was invited to join narco corrida group "Buknas de Culiacan," after his success writing lyrics about the drug world for other singers. Quintero is an affecting and hard-working father of two young children who, although he has never been to Ciudad Juarez, easily weaves stories that glorify the drug culture and drug lords into the corrida style. "We're bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill," he writes. While it's easy to dismiss the songs as appealing to a small audience in Mexico, seeing the band appearing at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, toting bazookas onstage and festooned with bullets on their belts as the audience sings along, familiar with every murderous word, makes it harder to dismiss.
Schwarz has a photographer's eye and the look of the film is starkly beautiful. Many frames stop you in your tracks and could easily grace the pages of National Geographic. He also is a storyteller and those skills are put to good use as he contrasts the day to day dangers faced by CSI investigators like Richi Soto, who don black facemasks on their way to bloody crime scenes for their protection. Three of the detectives on the force were brutally murdered and those like Soto who remain have to question every day if doing their job is worth the risks they take. Of the thousands of murders committed in Juarez over the past few years, 97% have not been prosecuted. Of those prosecuted, few have been punished. The police say, "It's sad when they don't value your work. We feel like we are just bullet collectors."
Mexican journalist Sandra Rodriguez laments in the film the glorification of beheaded bodies, bullets and the drug lords who make it all happen. "It is a symptom of how defeated we are as a society. Kids want to look like narcos because they represent an idea of success and power. Killing someone represents limitless power."
Schwarz has made a valiant effort to make us look at the far-reaching effects of drug violence. At a recent screening of the film, musician Ry Cooder was in attendance. The master guitarist and corridos writer himself made this assessment of the narco corridas the film explores: "Love the music. Hate the lyrics."