The “talking head” style of documentary filmmaking can be something of a warning sign from time to time. With the exception of a few particular auteurs (Errol Morris, for example), talking heads represent an easy way of communicating information, but they’re not particularly visual filmmaking. Worse, when discussing sensitive topics, subjects aren’t always willing to go before cameras.
Devil’s Freedom is a talking-heads movie, but it’s incredibly visual - and anything but safe. Making a documentary about Mexican gang violence generates peril for interview subjects, who if identified can become targets for arrests, kidnappings, or executions. When the law enforcement system is as corrupt as it is in Mexico, the lines between cops, criminals, and the military blur to the point that police will turn a blind eye or even assist in kidnapping plots. Nobody’s safe, but you stay safer by staying out of sight. Why risk telling your story?
Filmmaker Everardo González gets around this danger by putting all of their subjects - every single face we see in the movie - in strange, balaclava-like masks, allowing eyes, ears, noses, and mouths to poke out and emote while preserving subjects’ anonymity. González interviews both the victims and perpetrators of heinous gang crimes, many of whom have never even spoken about their experiences privately, let alone publicly. What we get as a result is an outpouring of raw emotion that in many cases has been bottled up for years. It’s simultaneously cathartic and horrifying.
The stories told in Devil’s Freedom range far and wide, but all of them are linked by trauma caused by the proliferation of drug gangs in Mexico. We hear from young women who lost parents to kidnappers, never to hear from them again - or even get any confirmation of life or death. A woman speaks about finding her son’s body in a mass grave. Multiple people complain of stonewalling by corrupt police when attempting to seek answers. One man tells the story of his own kidnapping, torture, and rape, before quietly admitting he’s told not a single soul before now. That González managed to get these people to speak at all is a miracle; that they’re so forthcoming and honest is bravery personified, despite the masks.
González interviewed a number of former gang members, too - maybe even current ones. An ex-Army man tells of how, upon seeing the corruption and violence taking place in his institution, he tried repeatedly to resign, only to be denied every time - eventually risking his life to desert. Men too young to have done what they’ve done, by conventional standards, share stories of their first kills - of killing children - with chillingly distant matter-of-factness. An image quickly emerges of a systemic problem, involving drug cartels, street gangs, and corrupt police, that tears families apart and dehumanises everyone involved. Listening to young men explain why they continued killing for their gang - because once you’ve killed, you can’t rejoin normal society or rewind the changes in your psyche - it’s clear this widespread tragedy affects those who implement it as well as its more direct victims.
Many of the film’s subjects don’t even speak, simply looking out from their tan eye-holes, letting us into their truths, even if not their facts. Those masks - at first, spiritual armour for the interview subjects inside them - quickly turn into curse marks of a sort. Within this movie, they brand their wearers with massive emotional damage. If they were to remove them, the subjects would look like anyone else; in Devil’s Freedom, they look like everyone else. Shots of people in their ordinary settings - whether on the couch with their families or riding around in vans with machine guns - just become that much more eerie with masks on.
What does Devil’s Freedom have to say about all this, though? It’s one thing to educate about a massive criminal problem; it’s another entirely to be constructive about it beyond that. In the minds of the people interviewed, the answer to gang kidnappings is fluid. Some demand justice; some express a need for compassion and forgiveness; some share their feelings of guilt and regret - and all those feelings come from both sides of the coin. These killers aren’t under any illusions they’ll be rewarded in the afterlife. They know they’re bad people, doing what they do. They just have no choice in a society ruled by this very kind of thing.
So while Devil’s Freedom is almost entirely made up of talking heads, those heads are as emotionally varied as they are visually uniform. But even if you don’t remember a face, you won’t forget stories like these.