A Serenade for a Grinning Assassin with Saul Schwarz’s Narco Cultura

TIFF 2014: The national divide between two very different parts of one city, El Paso and Ciudad Juaréz, is the setting for this provocative documentary about the catastrophic ‘war on drugs’, which continues to lay waste to the cities of Mexico.

Narco cultura is a film of contrasts – between the ever-expanding ghetto of despair on one side and the glimmering enclaves of ostentatious self-empowerment on the other. One such enclave is the US itself, the country beyond, tantalising in its physical proximity, but safely enclosed against the elements – the unruly elements it most fears – just the other side of a fence or bridge. This is the place the narco-men seem unable to reach, and where the violence miraculously, mercifully ceases. The national divide between two very different parts of what is really one city, El Paso and Ciudad Juaréz, is the setting for this provocative documentary about the catastrophic ‘war on drugs,’ which continues to lay waste to the cities of Mexico.

The whole film is binary in construction. We alternate between two very different but intimately connected worlds. In one we observe the sordid clean-up operations of the crime-scene investigators of Juaréz, dismissed by one interviewee as ‘bullet collectors.’ These are, at any rate, bullet collectors in constant fear for their own lives, wearing masks on the job, almost afraid to go home at the end of the working day. In another ‘world’ we meet the Los-Angeles-based exponents of narcocorrido, an increasingly popular musical genre celebrating the life-affirming glamour of the ‘drug lord.’ Their romanticisation of violence forms a startling contrast to the grim reality found beyond America’s increasingly fortified ‘cordon sanitaire.’

Our attention is drawn to ‘singer-songwriter’ Edgar Quintero, as he nurtures his music career, and glorifies a culture and political economy of violence of which he has no direct personal acquaintance. A compelling dramatic tension builds in anticipation of his forthcoming encounter with the milieu he seems – from some distance – to have genuinely come to admire. We are expecting some tensions to emerge within his facile endorsement of brutality, if not a fully-fledged epiphany. It is this encounter, when it finally comes, which forms the engrossing denouement of this narratively powerful documentary. Naturally, no plot-spoiling details will be featured in this review.

We might nevertheless note a key feature of the visual, aesthetic and emotional ‘landscape’ in which this denouement unfolds. I believe any viewer will be struck by the resemblance of the inner-sanctums of organised crime, which our protagonist has been privileged enough to enter, to the Californian dream of freedom and luxury he has been chasing across the well-heeled streets of LA. Indeed, one has the sense of setting out, rather timorously, from one self-congratulatory and despotic enclave, and simply arriving in another. The governing impression is somehow always the same. It is that dismal yet glamorous Western imaginary, with its marks and gestures of self-confidence and self-congratulation. It is only the undertones of horror and moral despair, which may occasionally seem closer to the smooth, unruffled surface, that warn you that you may be farther from home than you imagine.

This is a well-crafted and courageous piece of documentary film-making. A dark irony infuses the narrative and imagery, from the casual peace-sign the ‘poet-warrior’ makes to the camera as he leaves the stage, to his exhortations to his son to learn the words of his latest eulogy to nihilism, but also to ‘just say no’ to drugs – except for weed, of course!

There are some powerful cinematic moments here. Who can soon forget the heart-wrenching rant of a suddenly bereaved mother against the ‘authorities’ or the lament of a beleaguered official for a music she sees as the quintessential expression of ‘a defeated society’? Perhaps the most striking sequence of all was nevertheless a surreal tour through a kind of gangster mausoleum, a gristly, ghostly ‘community’ of notorious cadavers. This, ironically enough, seems to represent the pinnacle of gangster achievement.

The pastel-hued tombs with their trashy embellishments, from bullet-proof glass to cherished pick-up truck, resemble nothing so much as the ‘living mausoleums’ of the gated community or entertainment/shopping mall. It is the same anodyne aesthetic that so thoroughly impoverishes the American (or capitalist?) universe we have all come to inhabit – in life as in death.

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