It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing about Shaul Schwarz’s excellent “Narco Cultura.” Is it the dead children, wailing mothers and bloody water running through the gutters of Juarez? Or the roomful of clueless idiots at Hollywood’s House of Blues, singing along to a Movimento Alterado chestbeater (“we’re bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill…”) about cutting people’s heads off? Those would be Mexican heads, by the way, not the ones partying along Sunset Boulevard.
A documentary about the U.S.-Mexican drug war – which has resulted in 60,000 people being murdered south of the border since 2006 – would be horrifying in any case. What Schwarz does in his film, which opens Friday, is take it all a step further, into a cultural swamp: He not only follows the near-hopeless battle against the meth-coke-and-pot cartels, but the musical culture that they’ve spawned, a genre that began with commissioned corridos written in praise of drug dealers and has now spawned an entire musical movement built around the glorification of murder, decapitation and crime.
As journalist Sandra Rodriguez points out, the people have no idea how deeply it all goes, and how it anesthetizes society to the murder of innocents and wholesale violence. But it is, she says, “a sign of how defeated we are.” Stockholm Syndrome on a national scale.
Schwarz creates, not that he needed to, a movingly artful film, which creates and juxtaposes its moods and imagery in a manner that seems to distill the sometimes awful content, i.e. the sight of a child’s corpse suddenly making all the rhetoric about crime fighting real, and the musicians heinous and the fans unspeakable (the music is all available at Walmart, not that THAT should be a surprise). Schwarz paints a mini-portrait of one singer (neither he nor his band are going to be named here) who was born in the United States and thus feels culturally deprived: He wants to go spend some time in Mexico so he can advance his career, pick up more slang, be more authentic. He’d seem disgusting, or at the least morally bankrupt, but it’s probably just stupidity.
You want to commend Schwarz on the access he got to the police, one of whom is the centerpiece of the film (we’re not naming him either, though Schwarz does) as well as the startling footage of criminals at work. But of course why should they worry? No one’s going to catch them anyway.
What Schwarz does in “Narco Cultura,” tracing the cultural cost of political criminality, has been attempted before: Eric Gandini’s “Videocracy” of 2009, for instance, examined how the long reign of Silvio Berlusconi had degraded the dignity of Italian culture. But Berlusconi wasn’t abetting wholesale murder, as far as we know. And it’s arguable that “narco cultura” – the movement, not the movie – really is. Schwarz shows considerable cojones having made his film, but it’s understandable why he doesn’t ask his subjects one of the more provocative questions raised by his film: Why they don’t play Movimento Alterado music at Mexican funerals?