Mere miles from El Paso, Texas, one of the safest cities in America, lies Ciudad Juárez, ground zero for the drug war – only conventional wars have rules of engagement. The battle raging within our neighbor to the south is something far more disturbing since Juárez is at heart a no man’s land, where rhyme and reason do not exist. Enter veteran photojournalist Shaul Schwarz. With honest artifice-free filmmaking and gorgeous lush cinematography – that allows us to viscerally experience the surreal nature of life on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border – the Israeli director has created a debut feature equal parts elegant and eye-opening. Shifting from the tale of a hugely popular, Los Angeles-based musician whose “narcocorridos” celebrate the drug lord lifestyle, to a Mexican crime scene investigator who puts his life on the line everyday sifting through the chaos, Schwarz gives us a glimpse through a looking glass filled with contradiction, frustration and ultimately death. After having played to great acclaim at this year’s Sundance and Berlin film festivals, “Narco Cultura” opens in NYC in November with a national rollout to follow.
Lauren Wissot: You seem to have very intimate access to your subjects on both sides of the border. How did you go about forming these relationships?
Shaul Schwarz: It’s all about time and trust. I started covering this story in 2008, and only released the film in 2013. This was a long commitment, developing ongoing relationships that got us quite deep into our subjects’ worlds on both sides of the border. We set out to make a doc about the drug war that wasn’t “talking heads,” and didn’t have experts or a set amount of people involved in the trade. That type of doc has been done many times before. We wanted to make a real cinema vérité story that allows you to feel how people so deeply absorbed in this issue live their lives. So the goal of gaining intimacy and ongoing relationships – that was the key to the project from the get-go.
LW: Israeli docs suddenly seem to be making a splash in the American market. Films like “The Gatekeepers” and “The Law in These Parts” are striking not just in content, but in structure. In lieu of bells and whistles they seem to possess a clear-eyed, intellectual focus. Your film, by contrast, is much more cinematic and visceral, obviously owing to your background in photojournalism. Do you consider yourself a part of the Israeli doc scene, or are you a photographer first, your influences more global?
SS: I think I am more affected by the 13 years I have lived in the U.S., and by my 20 years as a photojournalist covering conflict around the world. With that said, I love seeing my fellow Israeli directors continuing to make great films that have a larger audience and that do well in the American market. I would definitely say I have been looking at what’s coming out of Israel in the last few years, as well as staying in touch with a handful of Israeli doc directors that are friends. I am happy, though, to be working on issues outside of Israel, my native country. I feel relieved, after years of covering Israel as a journalist, to be more detached from any side when I delve into a subject like the Mexico-America drug war.
LW: I read that you likened the feeling of working on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border here to covering the border between Israel and the West Bank. Could you elaborate?
SS: Well, I think there is this huge change when one crosses the border – but with that said, there is a lot of crossover as well. At the end of the day we would land in El Paso, walk 100 feet across a bridge, and our whole reality changed. But at the same time, you meet endless people in El Paso that are connected by blood and family to Juárez, and have their brothers or parents living just across the fence. On the other hand, you see Mexicans in Juárez going shopping in the U.S. So although the worlds are so close physically and geographically, they are a world apart at the same time. I think that’s what I see in the Israel-Palestine border, too. Working on that story for years I would see how the Israelis and the Palestinians grew further and more segregated as the conflict escalated. Once again, you can say the same about the Mexico-America border, as we are seeing billions of dollars poured into building up the barrier while segregation and fear also build.
LW: There’s been an oft-made comparison between hip-hop and narcocorridos. As a white American outsider, I’m much more disturbed by Mexican-Americans glorifying the slaughter south of the border than by inner city youth celebrating gangsta life. But maybe that’s just because Mexico’s nonfunctioning justice system – its institutional failure and corruption – is greater, so narco culture seems more malignant. What are your thoughts on this?
SS: It’s a bit of both. On the one hand, I think that the narcocorrido world is different from that of gangsta rap in the fact that it takes direct sides, and sings glory songs to huge organized crime cartels. Gangsta rap doesn’t connect directly to mega-sized cartels. It’s more about a man’s hassle in the ‘hood and how he is forced to survive it. Narcocorridos glorify the biggest organized crime outlaws in the world, and they do so in a very direct way, including using names to sign each story/corrido.
On the other hand, where I do see this as similar to rap is in the musicians’ trying to say “the truth” about a very unjust situation. This is an art form of people spitting out their ways of survival in a bad ‘hood. It’s listened to and admired by a much greater crowd then the actual outlaws. Clearly, most of the people going to narco clubs and involved in the scene are not cartel members but just Latino teens. These teens didn’t connect to rap as culture-wise it’s black – so narcocorridos are their way to connect to their heritage. The same is true with rap that has gone mainstream. So many people now listen to this music that are not really living that life, and we have learned to separate the two. I think it’s important to go through that same process with the Mexican population, knowing that just because they listen to and sing this does not mean they are a direct part of it.
LW: Finally, did you ever consider filming actual narcos? The recent doc “El Sicario, Room 164” starred an anonymous Ciudad Juárez hit man, so there are obviously perpetrators out there willing to talk about their lives and crimes. Or would that have taken the focus away from Mexico’s victimized society?
SS: There are real narcos in my film – it’s only a bit hinted at who they are. And unlike “Room 164,” they are not retired and not hiding in the U.S.
Photo by Mel B, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license