We know too much about Mexico's drug war and not enough. We hear about it constantly, about the 60,000 murders and the slaughter of innocents, but getting a sense of what that means on the ground — and how pervasive its cultural influence is — is harder to come by. The potent documentary "Narco Cultura" is an excellent place to start.
This dispassionate but devastating film looks at the drug wars from two very different but chillingly complementary perspectives. As directed and shot by Shaul Schwarz, an accomplished photojournalist who spent two years in this world as a still photographer before starting to film, "Narco Cultura" benefits from the access Schwarz earned through his time on the ground.
What this film does is reveal two very different societies — both exhibiting, each in its own way, unmistakable signs of collapse. What's happening on the ground in Juarez, an epicenter of killing sometimes known as the murder capital of the world, is bad enough, but how that slaughter is reflected and refracted through the lens of Mexican American popular culture is in some ways equally shocking.
Our guides to these complementary worlds are completely different. In Juarez, we are in the company of Richi Soto, a soft-spoken but dogged crime scene investigator, while in Los Angeles and on tour we hang out with Edgar Quintero. He's an ebullient twentysomething who is a rising star in the writing and performing of narcocorridos, hugely popular songs that glibly celebrate the savage killings and killers whose handiwork Soto painstakingly probes.
Soto works in what's described as the busiest forensic department in the world. Juarez got that title because its murder total has risen from 320 in 2007 to 3,622 in 2010 (El Paso, Texas, just across the river, had five that year).
Quietly determined, Soto is not naive about his job: He knows full well that colleagues have been killed or quit in fear for their lives.
"You always go out with a prayer on your lips," he says. "You're not working in a flower shop."
Still, Soto perseveres and takes us with him to experience his grim working conditions: mangled bodies, bloody streets, hysterical mothers who wail "shout, Juarez, shout about the pain they are causing" as well as children who trade stories of death the way other kids trade baseball cards.
Just as depressing is the realization that, the hard work of Soto and his colleagues notwithstanding, few of these murders actually get prosecuted. It's no wonder that the people in Juarez exhibit little faith that the system works.
"Narco Cultura" goes back and forth between these scenes and the much cheerier life of Quintero, who apparently makes a nice living both writing songs celebrating the creators of this mayhem — "we're bloodthirsty, crazy and we love to kill" is how one lyric goes — and being the frontman of a successful rock band, Buknas de Culiacan, that sings them.
Director Schwarz is much too sophisticated a filmmaker to push this comparison too hard, but it is rather boggling to witness the complete disconnect between the awful reality of the streets of Juarez and the songs that are written about that reality with zero direct knowledge of the situation.
Even more disturbing is the gradual realization that this kind of celebratory music is becoming wildly popular among Mexican Americans, that these sadistic killers are, against all reason, being idolized as entrepreneurial Robin Hoods who are rebelling against the System.
"The sky's the limit," one music executive boasts. "We can be the next hip-hop."
"Narco Cultura" uses few talking heads, but the reaction of Juarez journalist Sandra Rodriguez to the narcocorrido phenomenon of drug lord glorification is especially apt:
"That these people represent the ideal of success, impunity and limitless power," Rodriguez says, "is symptomatic of how defeated we are as a society."
Someone else puts it more bluntly: "Youth now idealizes the devil."
MPAA rating: R, for grisly graphic images of disturbing violent content, drug material, language and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: In selected theatersCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times