The Night Watchman (El Velador): Cannes Review

Visually remarkable but obtuse portrait of a Mexican narco cemetery.

Mexican director Natalia Almada continues to document the toll of her country's drug wars in doc about a narco cemetery.

An aesthetically impressive but rather trying meditation on the Mexican drug war and its countless victims, Natalia Almada’s The Night Watchman (El Velador) should continue its fest tour following stops at ND/NF and the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, though theatrical play for this minimalist documentary may be limited to museums.

Following the 2005 border doc, To the Other Side, and the 2009 Sundance award-winning El General, Almada once again focuses on her troubled homeland in this restrained, nearly dialogue-free depiction of the “El Jardin” cemetery, located in the notoriously narco-friendly city of Cualican. A work in progress filled with freshly dug graves and kitschy mausoleums erected for the latest fallen kingpin, the place is home to an array of hardworking builders, cleaning women, street vendors and a watchman, Martin, who presides over the morbid theme park with detached aloofness.

The film purposely avoids confronting funeral goers or trying to identify the bodies that day after day are buried within the ever-growing necropolis, concentrating on the purely visual and sonic reminders of the catastrophe that has become modern-day Mexico. Radio and television broadcasts recount the latest Ciudad Juarez shooting spree, while marching bands accompany mourners to yet another marble-lined crypt, inside which can be glimpsed a portrait of the dead. In one telling scene, a mother wails off-camera for her lost son, while Almada films a row of empty graves waiting to be filled.

Certainly, such directorial choices will frustrate viewers who are looking for some sort of in-depth investigation, and the repeated HD images of builders constructing tombs can feel like watching cement dry, which is actually what we see from time to time. If Almada is trying to show the repercussions of narco-trafficking, she’s taken a route that may not reach many, though high-art film admirers will appreciate the way she uses arresting visuals and layered sound to reveal the drug trade’s tragic remains.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production companies: Almatura Films, Tita Productions, Les Films d’ici, American Documentary/POV, in association with Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB)
Director/producer/director of photography: Natalia Almada
Director of photography: Natalia Almada Editors: Natalia Almada, Julien Devaux
Sales Agent: Doc & Film International
No rating, 72 minutes