Dramatic, inspiring 'El Poeta' targets Mexico's War on Drugs

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
'El Poeta' on PBS looks at Mexico's War on Drugs through the eyes of poet-turned-activist Javier Sicilia

Other countries' problems come to us like poor radio signals — emerging from the static when something exceptionally sensational occurs and then sinking back into the white noise of bad business as usual.

So it is with Mexico's 9-year-old War on Drugs, marked from the ascension of former President Felipe Calderón; that it is also a front of our own War on Drugs is one point made in "El Poeta," an affecting documentary by Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega that looks at the civic and civil effects of that war on the Mexican people through the prism of poet turned activist Javier Sicilia. The film premieres Friday on PBS.

In 2011, five years into the war, Sicilia's 24-year-old son, Juan, was found bound and suffocated, along with six friends, in Cuernavaca; that the film never makes clear the immediate why and wherefore of the killing (it had to do with a theft at a gang-controlled nightclub) is perhaps less than thorough reporting but not inimical to its theme: Not knowing is a condition of the situation.

Tens of thousands of civilians, by some estimates more than 100,000, have been reported to have been slain or have gone missing since 2006, when Calderón militarized the fight against the cartels — victims not of the drug trade but of an escalating war on the drug trade, which created chaos and corruption and that sometimes made even the reporting of a crime dangerous. Silence was the rule.

Sicilia, one of his country's best-known writers and a figure of great personal authority, was impossible to ignore. "People listen to poets in Latin America," writer Rubén Martinez says here. The death of his son turned Sicilia from a poet to an activist; he publicly abandoned poetry ("There is nothing else to say / The world is not worthy of the word," he wrote in what he said was his last poem) and became an activist.

Six weeks after the death of his son, Sicilia led a walk from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, gathering supporters along the way to fill the capital's central square and sparking a protest movement still ongoing. The next month came a caravan to the north, "into the heart of Mexico's pain ... where people are killed for nothing"; and a quixotic American tour, the next year, to raise consciousness in the run-up to the 2012 elections, which included meetings with U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran of the 1965 Selma, Ala., marches, and controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, but it received scant domestic coverage.

Although "El Poeta" is not without facts and figures, it's only a partial accounting, both in the sense of being less than exhaustive and of taking a point of view. Its approach is experiential: Like the movement it documents, it seeks to make the abstract particular. Appropriately to the figure at its center, it has as much to do with poetry as policy: faces seen by candlelight, massed crowds, flowered shrines and handmade signs, images underscored with long floating chords that feel at once elegiac and anxious.

It's about the force of personality, the authority of loss and the memory of a time when, says Sicilia, "we had a horizon toward which to move."

And there is Sicilia himself, a compelling figure: worn but not weary, soft-spoken in a way that betokens strength. He radiates a kind of moral melancholy that does not indicate a lack of resolve. Indeed, he tells Calderón to his face, "You are responsible, together with the state governments, for thousands of dead, thousands of disappeared and thousands of orphans. ... You are obliged to ask the nation for forgiveness."

Not surprisingly, that did not happen. Calderón is no longer president, but the war goes on. The film bears a closing dedication to the 43 student activists slain last year in the Mexican state of Guerrero. This is in some respects an inspirational story about the failure to be heard.

Still, says Sicilia, quoting a disciple of Gandhi, "it doesn't matter if we've reached the tree and picked the fruit. What matters is having walked toward it."


'Voces: El Poeta'

Where: KOCE

When: 10 p.m. Friday

Rating: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for violence)

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