Fantastic Fest Review: NARCO CULTURA Is A Highlight Of The Fest

An haunting examination of the Mexican drug war and the music industry it has spawned.

There’s an episode of Breaking Bad called “Negro Y Azul” that features a Mexican band singing a ballad about Heisenberg. It’s a narcocorrido, a drug ballad that reveals that Heisenberg's fame has spread all the way to Mexico and drawn the ire of the cartels, thanks to his glorious blue meth. It’s ludicrous and many fans of the show didn’t know what to make of it- a Mexican band singing songs about an American drug dealer and murderer? Come on.

But the reverse happens all the time. Narcocorridos are hugely popular in America and spreading across the world, with traditionally accordion-driven, polka-based music that tell beautiful and soulful songs about drug dealers decapitating cops. They spread the legends of these apparent modern-day Robin Hoods, while in reality tens of thousands of people have died from the Cartels in Mexico’s war on drugs.

Narco Culturua is a documentary that examines both sides of the story. In LA we follow a 27 year-old Mexican-American who has never set foot in his motherland, yet sings narcocorridos about the most brutal people residing there. He gets ideas for his stories from internet news sites and even works on commission writing songs for drug dealers, who don’t seem to mind that he’s making it all up as he goes along. His one regret was that he hasn’t been able to go to Mexico to live the life himself, because as someone obsessed with guns and money and singing about the acquisition of both he knows he needs a little bit of reality to step up his game and become like his heroes, such as El Komander.

We see these nacrocorrida bands playing to crowds full of people, places where everyone’s dancing and laughing and singing along to the most gruesome lyrics imaginable. And then we see the result of the real thing.

Juarez is one of the most dangerous places on Earth, a place where the murder rate beats anything seen in cities in Afghanistan or Iraq.Thousands of people die yearly from the drug war being fought there, and the cops have it pretty hard. We meet a man who works as a crime scene investigator - he gets a lot of work, and the film doesn’t hesitate to show you any of it. We see him working crime scenes where people are laying half out of cars that are just obliterated with gunshots. We see dead children left out in the middle of the road. We watch a shopkeeper using a broom to push a literal river of blood down the street. And we find out how scared the cops are- how they wear masks while driving around because they get targeted by gang members. Many of them die in the line of duty.

The juxtaposition between these stories is jarring, and wonderfully done. Unlike gangster rap or death metal, musical styles that can be argued also glamorize the most vile aspects of society, the music of narcocorridos don’t reflect the brutality of their lyrics. It’s easy to get swept up in the danceable sounds and smile at the crowds of people enjoying themselves, only to be brought crashing down by the next scene that displays another crime scene, another crying mother. Does the music help contribute to the violence or is it just a result of the culture? Is it wrong to listen to a music that seems to promote an awful real-life situation?

For its intense subject matter it’s actually as beautiful a film as you’ll ever see, with strong location shots giving you a great look at this apparently doomed city. It's a heart-breaking story- is there a way out? No one seems to be able to see it, but the musicians don't mind because their careers are thriving. Not an easy film to sit through, but an important one.