Tuesday, 26 November 2013

"Narco Cultura" the Documentary

November 25, 2013

I  was fortunate to have seen "Narco Cultura" http://narcoculture.com/ when it screened at the Toronto International Festival (HotDocs).

Its wider release has been greeted with a number of reviews (traditional print and blogs), and I believe that many (if not most) offer a rather shallow interpretation of this wonderful documentary. Some write about "Narco Cultura" by comparing it to their personal and inaccurate understanding of the drug war and the violence it has unleashed. 

Some reviews appear to compare this documentary to fictional myths promulgated in popular culture: It is a documentary, and "Narco Cultura" should not be judged against fictional tales like Breaking Bad— oreven worse, to the superficial and sensationalistic tropes inserted willy nilly throughout "The Bridge".  "Narcocultura" is not an old news story that has been reported elsewhere as suggested by a New York Times review (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/22/movies/narco-cultura-a-documentary-about-music-and-drug-cartels.html?_r=0 ). Fictional accounts of the drug war in Mexico and its bloody consequences should never be used to dismiss the more accurate portrayal of real lives that are portrayed in this documentary. The biographies of everyone in Narcocultura are tragic, and few - if any— of the those in this documentary will achieve the redemption of a fictional Walter White.

Several reviews have zeroed in on the unrealistic narco corrido dreams that motivate Edgar Quintero and pay little attention to other dimensions of "culture" and/or subculture that are captured by Schwartz's camera throughout this documentary. Although Edgar's simplistic dreams are focused on achieving fame for his band "Los BuKnas de Culiacán", the documentary is NOT intended to be a definitive exploration of the cultural relevance of the narco-corrido genre. In fact, Edgar Quintero is not hoping that he will achieve success and gain riches within the traditional narco corrido stream —but is enamoured with an alternate (and more explicitly violent) version of this music known as corridos alterados popularized by musicians such as el Komander. Edgar Quintero is a sad and modern day imitiation of Don Quixote when he undertakes an unrealistic and improbable search to tilt at windmills - or at least to wildly unleash the firepower of an AK-47 or AR-15 in the hills outside of Culiacán. Anyone who wants to know more about narco-corridos would be better off looking for Elijah Wald's terrific book and its companion CD ( http://www.amazon.ca/Narcocorrido-Journey-Music-Drugs-Guerrillas/dp/0060505109 ). And for that matter, anyone interested in Sinaloense cultural phenomena can seek out a lengthy article that I did a few years ago about the cultural relevance of Jesus Malverde. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/15678405/Without-God-or-Law-Narcotraffic-and-Belief-in-Jesus-Malverde ) (please excuse the shameless self promotion)

Edgar Quintero is not representative of young men in Mexico - he is a marginalized young American with little hope of success in and fame, and a man is driven by far-fetched dreams of riches and wealth to be gained as a "pop idol". Schwartz's documentary should not get sidetracked by debates about the negative or positive impact of narco-corridos, but rather it should raise more questions about the powerlessness and marginalization of young men (and women) trapped in the "interstices" defined by economic and geographical boundaries without the benefit of clear cultural or moral guidelines about right or wrong.

Richi Soto IS representative of the young man in Mexico. He is educated, connected to his community, sincere in his desire to make his country a better place, and working in a job that would be bring him a great deal more respect and provide an honourable living if it were north of "la linea". Instead, Richi risks his life every day that he punches the time-clock, and is trapped in a cycle of ground-hog days and interminable waiting for his never-appearing Godot. He retrieves corposes that will never be tabulated because of a government that suppresses information to convince the world that things aren't so bad in Mexico, and brings back human remains whose identity and family ties are inconsequential to his superiors.  Richi is a man trying to do his best and he works hard everyday, but he is also someone who moves ahead only because he is afraid to stand-still.The devil, the cartels, the army and the police are too close to his back for him to stop what he is doing. Richi's life and his daily world represents the real Mexico of Ciudad Juarez, and it is a world that is very remote from the sad and tragicomic vision of Mexico dancing about in the head of Edgar Quintero when he goes on his road trip to Culiacán to get a feel for authenticity.

The Narco Cultura in the documentary is not limited or bounded by the influence of narcocorridos, although music is an important manifestation of the "culture" that Shaul Schwartz traces in his documentary. The Narco Cultura of this documentry is much more complex and much more powerful - it is seen both in the distorted vision imagined by a marginalized Mexican American with no realistic sense of its power or consequences, while at the same time narco-cultura is expressed in the institutional incompetence and in daily power of rules, norms and values (Culture) that predetermine and limit the options of men and women like Richi Soto.

The parallel lives of these two young men from two realities divided by a border represents the narrative engine (without words) that drives this documentary forward. But we also observe the impact of violence on others and we see how codes of violence are ingrained in everyday life. I literally wanted to scream at the naive stupidity of high school girls who idolized musicians — and I honestly prayed that their comments represented little more than a passing infatuation not unlike my generation's screaming adolescents fainting in the presence of the Beatles. 

I could not suppress a tear in a scene near the end of the documentary where a dignified father patiently stood with his young daughter opposite a horrific scene of carnage and bloodshed.  He said that he wanted her to not look away and to see how this drug war had ripped apart a community that he obviously loves. That scene in its quiet presentation of reality brought back the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins 
"Spring and Fall - to a Young Child"
Margaret, are you grieving    Over Goldengrove unleaving?    Leaves, like the things of man, you    With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?    Ah! as the heart grows older    It will come to such sights colder    By and by, nor spare a sigh    Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;    And yet you will weep and know why.    Now no matter, child, the name:    Sorrow's springs are the same.    Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed    What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:    It is the blight man was born for,    It is Margaret you mourn for.

Shaul Schartz's documentary patiently follows the lives of people on two sides of a great divide, and he quietly allows their lives to unfold  without the intrusion of commentary or super-imposed narrative. He leaves it up to the viewer to make their own interpretation. On our side of the border, some of us may weep for Mexico and its violence and think we know why while there will be others who will not spare a sigh. But on the other side, the dead remain uncounted, unnamed and as numerous as fallen leaves. On the other time there is no time for mourning, only the expectation that there will be sights much colder. 

It is the child in that scene that I mourned at the end of the documentary. Narco Cultura is to be seen and to be felt, and our search for answers and the reasons for this "blight man was born for" are to be discussed elsewhere.


Texcoco De Mora said...

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Anonymous said...

I feel that Edgar Quintero exposed himself as being nothing more than a narco groupie wannabe, much like young,naive teen age kids that live in a fantasy world dream of being a bonafide rockstar living the life of excess of sex,drugs,and rock n roll lifestyle, and the many gangster wannabes that do their best to portray the images, and stories of rags to riches rappers that came from the streets hustling, and gang banging, to which some carry credibility, while most just try to emulate the stories others have lived, but the narco-corrido market is a growing market that is there for the taking.Some will prove to be legit, while others will prove to be generic morons just out to make money.Like Justin Timberlake when he tries to sing about ghetto life ,when he has never been in a ghetto.It comes across as being as fake as it is, but he's laughing his fake butt all the way to the bank. Your description of this documentary is absolutely perfect, and your delivery of it's inward scope was as artistic, and heartfelt as any I have ever read before.

Jorge Kahwagi said...

nice blog