One of the most harrowing, powerful and shocking documentaries of the year, Shaul Schwarz’s Narco Cultura predominantly documents two very different sides to the darker aspects of Mexican drug trade culture.
In the border city of Juarez where 3,622 murders occurred in 2010 (up almost 1,000 murders from the year before, and just across the border from El Paso, Texas which only had 5 making it per capita the safest major metropolitan city in the US), a massive drug war has been waged in front of ineffective and bullied police officers who don’t get paid nearly enough to deal with truckloads of well dressed gangs with AK-47s who want to kill them and their families on sight. Most murders will go unsolved, get covered up, or sometimes end in the officer investigating them getting murdered.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the business of crafting “narco corridos,” or traditional sounding Mexican songs with gangsta rap styled lyrics about beheadings, meth cooking, kidnappings, and mass shootings have become huge business. With big names commanding upwards of $45,000 for shows and often commanding hundreds of dollars for songs often commissioned for dealers back in Mexico, it’s a legitimate business designed to glorify and edify a culture that most of these songwriters have never once actually experienced for themselves outside of internet blogs.
While Schwarz generally focuses on two men – one Mexican cop and one singer/songwriter from LA – they are both devoted family men who refuse to cop to their own ignorance in their own situations. The cop comes across as soulful, but cowardly. The singer as a brash poseur who one wonders what he would actually do if confronted with the violence he sings of and has never actually experienced firsthand.
There are plenty of other asides to underline Schwarz’s thankfully non-judgmental and visceral look at both side of the equation. Stops are made to look at a cop’s funeral and the shooting of a cheapie exploitation picture, but a scene where a grieving mother screams about the lack of justice and compassion in her country feels like a catharsis for hundreds of people who have been forced into remaining silent. Schwarz never shies away from the violence, either, and this film’s raw depictions of crime scenes and the aftermath of real life violence certainly isn’t for the squeamish. It’s brutal, but it’s a necessary and very pointed brutality designed to bring to light the uncomfortable gray area where pop culture and drug culture begin to mix.
Tokyo Waka: A City Poem
While assuredly not nearly as dark of a subject as Narco Cultura, it’s also quite comprehensive in its look at a different kind of scourge on a local population and how it pertains to the cultural vibrancy of its residents.
John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson head to Tokyo to document local residents interacting with, grousing about, or admiring the city’s population of Jungle Crows that number over 20,000. Some residents admire the large raven coloured birds’ resourcefulness, cunning, and intelligence – like how they can get cars to crack walnuts for them or how they can make elaborate nests from pilfered wire hangers. They still pose a great deal of health and safety problems – such as ripping open trash cans, getting paranoid and attacking people, and even lifting the stray prairie dog infant out of the zoo. And yet, efforts to curb their growth look incredibly inhumane, and there are also some artists profiled who would go as far as using taxidermied birds to use in their video installations for really no good or discernible reasons.
Haptas and Samuelson take a look at how these birds thrive in dense environments and how the city’s residents have unwittingly created ideal homes for them. There probably hasn’t been as loving and balanced of a documentary about creatures most consider to be vermin, but it’s a great look at how even the smallest creatures can inform a city’s identity.
Tokyo Waka is also just barely over an hour long, so as an added bonus it will be screening with the exceptional Oscar nominated short from last year THE TSUNAMI AND THE CHERRY BLOSSOM, which looks at one Japanese community’s efforts to restore the country’s most treasured and recognizable plant life after the devastating tsunami that hit the country a couple of years ago.
Directors John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson will participate in Skype Q&As following the 9:00pm show on Saturday, November 30th and the 12:00pm show on Sunday, December 1st.
Also at The Bloor this week:
Tonight (Friday) marks this month’s screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (with shadowcast, as always) at 11:30pm
Chris Marker’s recently restored Le Joli Mai comes to the Bloor for a couple of shows (Saturday, November 30th at 2:45pm and Tuesday, December 3rd at 6:00pm). Also returning is the mountain climbing tragedy documentary The Summit (Tuesday, December 3rd at 9:15pm and Wednesday, December 4th at 3:30pm) and the TIFF award winning Alan Zweig picture, When Jews Were Funny (Sunday, December 1st at 2:30pm).
World AIDS Day on Sunday December 1st brings the premiere of the documentary Fire in the Blood (4:30pm), and takes a look at how Western pharmaceutical companies were willfully blocking shipments of useful medications to African countries in the 90s.
After kicking off their festival there last week, the Serbian Film Festival returns to close out their line up with a screening of Circles on Sunday, December 1st at 9:00pm.
Although it doesn’t open in regular release at The Bloor until Christmas Day, the always popular and well loved 2013 Cannes Lion Awards: The World’s Best Commercials will have a special advanced sneak preview, complete with a Q&A with The Globe and Mail’s marketing and advertising reporter Susan Krashinsky, on Monday, December 2nd. Doors at 6pm. Screening at 6:30. Tickets are $15.
And last, but certainly not least, it’s time once again for the latest installment of the Hot Docs Doc Soup series! This month, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia looks back on the beloved American author’s final years and talks to those who knew and admired him the most. It screens twice on Wednesday, December 4th (6:30pm and 9:15pm) and again on Thursday, December 5th at 6:45pm.