Narco Cultura: Sundance Review

Narco Cultura

U.S.A. (Director: Shaul Schwarz)

An examination of Mexican drug cartels’ influence in pop culture on both sides of the border as experienced by an LA narcocorrido singer dreaming of stardom and a Juarez crime scene investigator on the front line of Mexico’s Drug War.

This issue-based journalism piece yields diminishing returns the deeper it digs.

Director Shaul Schwarz's documentary examines Mexican popular music that celebrates widespread drug violence and the growing popularity of the "narco ballads" in the U.S.

PARK CITY -- For those who think that Mexico’s brutal drug wars have yet to cross the border, Narco Cultura presents an ongoing cultural invasion, as the Mexican musical phenomenon of narcocorridos (drug ballads) seeps into the U.S. Passably absorbing to start, Shaul Schwarz’s examination of the issues surrounding Mexican and immigrant musicians who glorify drug lords and their exploits gradually bogs down in repetition and narrative inertia. K5’s acquisition of international rights at Sundance will find plenty of buyers in territories south of the border and beyond, but domestically the film is most appropriate for cable and VOD.

Israeli photographer and filmmaker Schwarz contrasts the drug trafficking conflicts in Mexico with the musicians who exploit the violence to create popular music in the traditional corrido narrative song style, which features a polka- or waltz-like rhythm on guitar, often accompanied by accordion. The film contextualizes this highly popular musical genre by profiling crime scene investigator Richi Soto, who works for the law enforcement authority of Juarez, the border city that reportedly has the world’s highest murder rate, principally due to drug violence.

On a daily basis, Soto examines crime scenes, collecting evidence on killings that rarely is pursued by judicial authorities after processing at the Juarez crime lab. Several of Soto’s colleagues have been assassinated over the past few years, and he has to be extremely cautious about his movements and protecting his family to avoid the same fate.

The doc also focuses on Los Angeles narco corrido singer-songwriter Edgar Quintero, who makes a living writing the violent lyrics that celebrate the criminality of Mexican drug gangs and selling the songs to a variety of musicians as well as performing them with his band Buknas de Culiacan. They tour U.S. cities where the genre has garnered a major following among young Latinos who revere the ruthless cartels and the thug life they represent.

Much like gangster rap, many narcocorrido adherents in the U.S. have only a passing familiarity with the murders, drug trafficking and other outlaw activities associated with the gangs but revere their limitless power and impunity to the law that’s depicted in these highly popular songs. A lucrative industry producing CDs, music videos, concert tours and movies has sprung up alongside the genre, which only seems to increase its popularity with fans.

Alternating scenes between Soto’s dangerous life in Juarez and Quintero’s laid-back music scene in L.A., Schwarz demonstrates a rather simplistic calculus: As the drug wars escalate, the narcocorridos document and celebrate the cartels’ brutality, which encourages more violence.

Repetitive segments featuring Soto collecting photos and evidence at crime scenes, many of them very explicitly revealing the condition of bloodied corpses, and events at the Juarez evidence processing center gradually begin yielding diminishing returns. Similarly, scenes of Quintero writing and recording his music and touring with Buknas don’t have much left to offer after several rotations.

The film consists almost entirely of footage that Schwarz shoots himself on a Canon 5D with a photojournalist’s eye for the big picture surrounding the drug wars, as well as the telling details elicited from more intimate scenes with Soto, Quintero and their families. Capably assembled by editors Bryan Chang and Jay Arthur Sterrenberg, the film runs at least 10 minutes too long and could be trimmed even further to improve pacing by eliminating duplicative scenes.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Production company: Parts & Labor
Director: Shaul Schwarz
Producers: Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Todd Hagopian
Executive Producers: Fred Warren, Robin Warren
Director of photography: Shaul Schwarz
Music: Jeremy Turner
Editors: Bryan Chang, Jay Arthur Sterrenberg
Sales: CAA
No rating, 102 minutes