How do you make a documentary about violent drug culture without getting yourself killed? The answer is: with a lot of patience, intimacy, and trust.
Last week week I spoke with photographer and filmmaker Shaul Schwarz about his new documentary Narco Cultura. The film examines the grim reality of the violent drug war in Mexico, as well as the glorification of that lifestyle in a popular form of music called “narcocorridos.”
Schwarz was originally inspired to make the film while working on a 2010 National Geographic story called Troubled Saints that profiled narco culture, as well as the rising dedication to various folk icons of death. (Photos from that story are seen in this post.)
While working on that assignment, Schwarz spent a surreal day covering two murders in Tijuana, then drove straight to a club in Riverside, Calif., to photograph the musicians of the narcocorrido band “BuKnas de Culiacan Sinaloa.” He was still covered in blood.
The bizarre collision of witnessing actual violence, paired with people celebrating killing in the music of the narcocorridos, totally jarred him. It was at that moment he decided to make the film.
“I had been focusing on the violence, and I saw how it affected so many people in so many ways,” said Schwarz. “It really haunted me, but it didn’t really live in the photographs—I realized it wasn’t a story that could be told in pictures.”
The film follows two main characters: Edgar Quintero, the singer of the narcocorrido band “BuKnas” from Los Angeles, and Richie Soto, a crime scene investigator in Juarez, Mexico. It cuts back and forth between the two, allowing viewers to experience the surreal dichotomy between the shell-shocked residents of Mexico, and the club-goers who shake, dance, and sing to the deceptively cheerful narcocorridos.
(One typically upbeat song’s lyrics are: “With an AK-47 and a Bazooka on my shoulder, cross my path and I’ll chop your head off. We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill.” The music has been banned from the radio in Mexico.)
Schwarz, originally from Israel, spent three years traveling from his home in Brooklyn to Mexico and Los Angeles to gain the trust of his subjects, allowing them to slowly open up to him over time. It gave him access into a world that few journalists infiltrate because of the inherent danger involved.
“I looked at a lot of documentaries that were made about the drug war, and it was always talking heads, it wasn’t photojournalistic—I wanted it to feel real,” said Schwarz. “This war is a little bit scary, it’s not like Israel or Afghanistan. The narcos are everywhere but they are nowhere.”
To make the film as raw and real as possible, Schwarz said he pushed Edgar and Richie to allow him to document intimate moments of their lives, even if it meant showing illegal activity or gruesome scenes of death.
“At first Edgar said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” said Schwarz. “But then I spent three years flying in and out of his life. We had a growing trust, and as he saw me more, he would slip and let me shoot stuff. Also, I began to understand him, not judge him. I saw he was a good father, and I saw that this music kept him out of prison himself. I didn’t want to make a movie that hangs my protagonist, and I think he felt that.”
Schwarz and his soundperson, Juan Bertran, eventually filmed Edgar with guns, drugs, and on a mad trip through Culiacan, Mexico, where he partied with, and performed for, narco gangsters.
The filmmakers also documented Richie as he recovered bodies from crime scenes, and interviewed him about his career, even as he faced the real risk of being executed himself for saying too much.
“In Juarez, the SEMEFO [Forensic Medical Service where Richie works] really respected me as not just another journalist who comes just for the day—there was a ‘brothers in arms’ feel about it,” said Schwarz. “We made almost 20 trips to Juarez—we got a lot of trust there. And what was clear is that you can get killed for just knowing stuff, so we quickly understood that we wanted good access, but we weren’t going to ask too many questions. We would get ourselves, or Richie killed.”
“I told Juan and my producers, ‘This is not an investigative piece, this is about getting the people in the U.S. to feel what it feels like across the border,” he continued. “I wanted the cuts between the worlds to feel like the moment I felt that night at the club.”
Schwarz was able to make such an intimate film because he operated on a small scale—using minimal gear, and minimal people (just himself as videographer and Bertan as soundperson and translator.) And because of Schwarz’s background as a photojournalist, his instinct was to get as close as possible to his subjects.
“The access and trust we had was really was the DNA of the movie,” said Schwarz. “We want to set examples for photojournalists who are getting into film, because the one thing I think we [photojournalists] have is the ability to go further, to be raw, to put ourselves in harms way.”
Most importantly, Schwarz says he wants viewers to come away with the understanding that the drug war is not just confined to Mexico, but that it’s an American problem as well.
“We are so accepting of this war which is not that far away, we are really a part of it,” he said. “While the movie is not political, I hope that it makes people feel like we can’t live with the status quo. I don’t want people to just sweep it under the table–lets talk about it.”