For a wave of filmmakers, 'El Chapo' and cartels as cinematic figures

When the drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from a maximum-security prison in Mexico last weekend, it brought back a certain set of memories for Matthew Heineman.

Heineman, the documentary filmmaker behind the new movie “Cartel Land,” had spent the better part of a year in the Mexican state of Michoacan, where he faced some horrific circumstances.

“There were times when we were caught in shootouts between vigilantes and cartels, when we were in meth labs in the dark desert night, when we were in places of torture,” he said in a phone interview late Monday night. “The scariest might have been with a young woman who, along with her husband, was kidnapped by the cartel and then forced to watch as he was chopped into pieces in front of her. She looked like she had the soul sucked out of her.”

Art is imitating life in a number of ways south of the border. “Cartel Land,” a Sundance Film Festival prizewinner that opened in Los Angeles last weekend, is one of several new movies or TV shows about drug wars both current and not so long ago. The previous week saw the release of Andrea Di Stefano’s “Escobar,” about the infamous Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, that has parallels to what’s happening in Mexico.  

Next month Netflix will premiere the "Narcos" TV series, another Medellin Cartel-themed story, this one from "RoboCop" (2014) and "Elite Squad" (2007) director Jose Padilha.

And September will bring the theatrical release of “Sicario,” a cartel action-thriller directed by “Prisoners” helmer Denis Villeneuve and starring Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro (also the title character in “Escobar). The movie, which premiered to strong reviews at the Cannes Film Festival, takes place on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border, as shadowy American agents attempt to flush out a drug kingpin not unlike El Chapo Guzman.

The Sinaloa Cartel leader is believed to have escaped through a mile-long tunnel connected to his shower at Altiplano prison, west of Mexico City. A manhunt is on by Mexican authorities, who have offered a reward up to nearly $4 million for information leading to his capture. It is the stuff of thrilling on-screen plot turns, and, not insignificantly, gruesome violence, as officials seek an escapee regarded as one of the most powerful and dangerous men in Mexico.

“I wasn’t surprised when I heard the news about Chapo Guzman,” said Di Stefano, who spent years in Colombia researching Escobar. “You read it and it’s, 'OK, one guy escaped from prison.' But then there are many things you can’t understand. I mean, there are cameras everywhere, and he goes to take a shower and he disappears for an hour and no one sees?"

Di Stefano added: "With that kind of money, the cartel can make people confused very easily.”

Though the drug war has been running at a high boil since at least 2007 (80,000 people have been killed since that time, according to some estimates), in the U.S. it has often played second fiddle to other news events.

“The war in the Middle East is psychologically so far away, which may be why we feel comfortable thinking about it. We feel safe on American territory,” said Villeneuve, who is French-Canadian. “But these [cartel bosses] are neighbors. It’s a few feet. You can throw a Frisbee into Juarez. And yet nobody is talking about it.”

That has certainly been true in recent years in mainstream Hollywood, which has long been attracted to drug kingpins as villains and heroes in mass entertainment but has not set many serious movies in the Mexican drug war, choosing instead to visit conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the few exceptions are Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” 15 years ago and, more recently, Oliver Stone’s “Savages.” The 2012 thriller was based on a book by Don Winslow, who last month came out with an acclaimed novel, “The Cartel,” that draws from the events of the last decade.

Those behind the new spate of offerings say it isn't a specific event behind this wave. It simply takes a few years for Hollywood to catch up, they argue, but when it does, it's with a purpose.

“There was a period of Vietnam movies after Vietnam, and I think there’s going to be a long period when we see movies like this,” said Di Stefano.

Indeed, there may be more on the way. Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who chronicled the costs of foreign violence in "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty," may develop a scripted version of “Cartel Land.”

And “Narcos,” which centers on a Mexican drug agent dispatched to Colombia during the height of Escobar's powers, could be renewed for another season beyond its initial 10 episodes, perhaps set farther north, to where the drug wars have now migrated.

But even as Hollywood trains its eye on the subject, some are concerned that the movies and shows send the wrong message. They want to be careful not to glamorize what they say is a human tragedy. Heineman, whose movie focuses in part on the self-appointed protection group known as the Autodefensas, said he saw his movie as a kind of pop-culture corrective.

“One of the things that really motivated me to make this film is to take this issue out of the headlines,” he said. "It's been glorified in movies and on TV [in the U.S.], and I really wanted to look in a raw and visceral way at how it's affecting everyone."

Whether the movies succeed in casting the drug wars in a different light remains to be seen. The filmmakers, at least, say they have a goal that goes beyond entertainment.

Heineman said that he began by making a “hero-villain story” but by the end of the process came to believe that there were almost no clear lines of good and evil in the battle. The verite-style doc, which has earned plaudits for its access, contains a number of striking scenes, including one near the film’s end showcasing Mexican authorities' complicity that will do little to refute those who believe officials had a role in Guzman's escape.

Di Stefano, too, said that the forces in the drug war have often been misunderstood north of the border, and he hopes his movie helps clarify them. “It’s hard to understand sitting on a nice couch in Los Angeles, but if you understood the pressure that even regular people are under, the pressure of either ‘be corrupted or be dead,’ you realize how hard it is to fight against.”

Villeneuve said he was interested in exploring his own moral gray zone. A “Sicario” character played by Josh Brolin, who may or may not be a CIA agent, and another even more murky figure played by Del Toro employ ruthless tactics in fighting the drug war.

“The movie is saying, 'How do we condemn violence but not be violent?' " the director said. "If someone else is a monster, do we need to become a monster to fight them?"



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