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'Narco Cultura' Explores The Violent Music Inspired By Brutal Drug Cartels, Crafted In Los Angeles

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While this year's The Act of Killing candidly took us inside the mind of a man that committed acts of horror decades ago, the documentary Narco Cultura, directed by war photojournalist Shaul Schwartz, observes a contemporary world of horror through the perspectives of two outsiders. In both films, these acts of horror are refracted through popular entertainment that valorizes murder and its perpetrators. But unlike The Act of Killing, whose vanity film-within-a-film won't be coming to a theater near you, the CDs of the music examined in Narco Cultura are available at your nearest Wal-Mart.

The two outsiders of Narco Cultura are Edgar Quintero and Richi Soto, a narcocorrido singer in Los Angeles and a crime scene investigator in the embattled Mexican city of Ciuidad Juarez respectively. Though they live on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, they are both trying to infiltrate the bloody world of drug cartels in their own ways. What makes the contrast especially chilling is that both are family men with humble lives.

For the singer Quintero, Mexico and the narco lifestyle is a glamorous fantasy. The band he fronts, BuKnas de Culiacán, performs onstage with prop weapons celebrating the heinous crimes perpetuated by members of drug cartels. In some instances shown on camera, he is commissioned by some of these individuals to write specific songs about them, with lyrical details honed down to their preferred nicknames and weapon caliber. A family man living in a small bungalow somewhere in Los Angeles, it is not hard to see what draws Quintero to the narco lifestyle. A visit by him to a graveyard in Sinaloa towards the end of the film shows that even in death their power and wealth are flaunted; their mausoleums resembling mini-McMansions are large enough to allow them to be buried alongside their favorite trucks.

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But while Quintero and his band tour both Mexico and the United States, literally daily murders occur on the streets of Ciudad Juarez in the most active flashpoint of the drug war that has torn Mexico apart. There, Richi Soto works as a "bullet collector" for Mexican authorities. He nominally investigates these murders but in reality he spends most of his time organizing evidence and filing it away in unmarked boxes. The judicial process is halted either by corruption or fear. Investigators at crime scenes are seen wearing balaclavas out of fear for their own safety. In the course of the film one of Soto's colleagues resigns after a threat and another is murdered. It is estimated that over 97% of murders go uninvestigated.

Using both perspectives, the film shocks the viewer not only with the bloody aftermath from these cartel murders but also with the sight of concert attendees singing and dancing along to songs of beheadings and revenge killings. Even the investigator Richi Soto is seen at a gathering of family and friends dancing with his girlfriend to a folksier narcocorrido performed live, albeit stripped of the aggression of electronic drum beats. Narco Cultura at first seems to cast a judgmental eye on the Latin community that glamorizes the narco culture, but when one of the narcocorridos entertainment moguls proclaims, "I think we can be the next hip-hop," it causes us to rethink the collective consumption of real-life horrors through pop culture.

Narco Cultura opens in theaters nationally today.