Still from Luis Estrada's El infierno (2010)
Hand in hand with the so-called “Drug War,” another struggle is unfolding in Mexico: the cultural battle of the representation of the narcotraffic in the media and of its discussion in the public arena. The official discourse on the subject, which has found echo in most mainstream media, has been largely Manichaean and one-dimensional, attempting to justify the rapid rise in drug-related murders (over 40,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006) as a mere casualty of the declared war against the drug cartels, in effect arguing that the resulting violence is an affair between criminals. Furthermore, the government has condemned popular representations of the narco-culture. For example, it has criticized the musical genre of the narcocorrido as a glorifying vehicle for drug traffickers; it also condemned the editors of Forbes Magazine for including the Mexican drug kingpin, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in the annual list of the world multimillionaires (“El Chapo” was ranked at 1140 in 2011 with an estimated fortune of $1 billion USD). The temptation to use popular culture as a scapegoat for failed government policies has been powerful, and the public conversation has largely fallen into the black-and-white oversimplifications of official discourse.
Recent Mexican cinema, however, has engaged in the representation of drug trafficking and narco culture in more interesting terms, although its insights and analyses have not been incorporated into the national public debate and remain largely marginalized. These films offer diverse and variegated depictions of the narco for the mainstream, art-house, and B-movie realms, drawing from both fiction and non-fiction narratives. Looking at these films, it becomes evident that filmmakers have sought creative ways to represent the drug war and its impact on different political, financial, and social registers. Some of these films try to fill the information vacuum that is the result of the strange mix of sensationalism—images of beheaded bodies plague local newspapers—and superficiality characteristic of the mainstream news outlets’ representation of narco violence, as well as of the dangers faced by independent journalists in the country. Mexico is considered one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work in the world, and there is little financial support for investigative or in-depth journalism. It is in Mexican cinema, therefore, that some of the most interesting conversations about the narco are unfolding.Consider Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala (2011), which is bound to become a Mexican classic in the vein of Amores Perros (2000). The film was a favorite with critics when it premiered at Cannes in May 2011, a box-office success in Mexico, and Mexico’s submission as Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards. The film skillfully imagines the machinations that unfold behind the scenes of real-life media reports on the capture of drug traffickers through the lens of a young woman, Laura (Stephanie Sigman), who dreams of participating in the Miss Baja beauty pageant, in part to leave a life of poverty. Laura ends up being forcefully recruited to serve as a mule for a drug cartel in exchange for them helping her win the beauty contest. Naranjo here achieves a complex representation of how drug trafficking permeates everyday life in specific parts of the country.
The very same day the agreement was signed, the Mexican Academy of Film Arts and Sciences announced the nominations for the 53rd edition of the Ariel Awards, the country’s national film prize. Luis Estrada’s El infierno (Hell, 2010) led with 14 nominations, and eventually won nine awards, including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actor. Described as an “epic black comedy,” the film offers a satirical portrait of drug cartels, centered on an undocumented worker who is deported back to Mexico where he—like “Miss Bala” in Naranjo’s film—finds few viable options to earn a living. He pursues the only “profitable” industry in town, the narco, and ends up participating in unbridled violence and corruption.
As the rich variety of cinematic responses to and incorporations of the narco suggest, there is a pressing need to incorporate cinema to the public debate on the drug war in Mexico. Unlike the official government discourse and mainstream media representations, these films bring complex insight into the narco as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon. Yet, we also need to create more textual analyses of Mexican cinema, as this body of work will be necessary to discuss the nuances and complexities the films elaborate, for better and for worse.
Carlos A. Gutiérrez is a film/video programmer, cultural promoter, and arts consultant based in New York City. As a guest curator, he has presented several film/video series at different cultural institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, BAMcinématek, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco, CA), and Museo Rufino Tamayo (Mexico City). Along with Mahen Bonetti, he curated the 53rd edition of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. He is a contributing editor to BOMB magazine and has served as a member of the jury and the selection committees for various film festivals including the Morelia Film Festival, SANFIC - Santiago Film Festival, The Hamptons International Film Festival, The Asian American International Film Festival, and New Fest: The New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, among others. He has served as both expert nominator and panelist for the Rockefeller Fellowship Program for Mexican Film & Media Arts and for The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, as well as a screening panelist for the Oscars' Academy Awards for film students. He holds an M.A. in Cinema Studies from New York University and a B.A. in Communications from Universidad Iberoamericana (Mexico City).
Almada, Natalia. 2011. El velador. Brooklyn, NY: Icarus Films.
Estrada, Luis. 2010. El infierno. Mexico: Bandidos Films.
Gómez, Beto. Salvando al soldado Pérez. 2011. USA: Pantelion Films.
Naranjo, Gerardo. 2011. Miss Bala. USA: Fox Searchlight.
Rosi, Gianfranco. 2011. El sicario: Room 164. Brooklyn, NY: Icarus Films.
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