Had Shaul Schwarz’s look at the drug wars plaguing Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez gone the road most traveled, we would have watched something like a Dateline episode writ large, in which the filmmaker embeds himself with a local crime-scene investigator and details how cartels have fueled a major escalation in the region’s murders over the past few years (320 homicides in 2007; 3,622 in 2010). There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach; it would have been enough for a standard journalistic doc. But after setting the scene, Schwarz then turns his focus on several Americans who make money writing narcocorridos—songs dedicated to lionizing Mexican drug lords. And that’s when things go from informative to Big Picture interesting.
Ping-ponging between grisly South of the Border carnage and Angeleno musician Edgar Quintero’s growing success as one of the subgenre’s stars, you start to see how this parasitic relationship works. Bands like Quintero’s group, Buknas de Culiacan, become famous by exploiting the region’s devastation; the subjects of their songs gain further notoriety by having these tunes turn them into larger-than-life Scarfaces. Crime pays, and so does singing about it. Everybody is a winner in the pop-culture sweepstakes, except, of course, the actual corpses littering Juárez’s plazas.
The concept of juxtaposing both of these aspects sounds too clever on paper, yet Schwarz, a former war photographer, deftly balances the elements; he shows exactly how the gangsta-rap-meets–Stagger Lee music is contributing to a real social crisis without boiling things down to a brain-dead reductive headline. You wonder how folks at that Buknas show—the ones yelling out the chorus “We’re bloodthirsty and like to kill!”—would react if they saw this film and realized what they were supporting. You hope they’d at least stop singing along.
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