Narco Cultura. Shocked would be a mild way to describe how I felt as I was watching this documentary. The sad part is, the story felt so far-fetched (these entire worlds are painstakingly real) that it made me question my “normal” level of violence. I thought a lot about perceptions of violence, success and admiration, not only while watching the film, but even more so while talking to the director, Shaul Schwarz, and one of the lead subjects from the film, Edgar Quintero.
What was the reasoning behind the making of this project? Was it something personal?
Shaul: I had this long love affair with the subject. During 2008-2010, I covered the drug wars in Mexico as a photographer and was blown away by how fearless and ruthless things were. What was really haunting, though, was that I felt I wasn’t really telling the story; it was just gangs vs. gangs but through pictures you don’t get it. You don’t see the violence go to the front doors in Juarez. How it affects kids in LA. I had a vision of what really was happening, and having foreign eyes was an advantage in Mexico. Native journalists couldn’t do what I do because of fear. I could show what they were afraid to say.
Edgar: I wanted to take a risk. At first, it was a little overwhelming. At the same time I kept thinking, “I’ve loved music since I was a kid. I’ve wanted this with a passion.” I wanted people to see my perspective as a musician and I thought this project was worth the risk.
How has it affected your life now that it’s over?
Shaul: Personally, this is my first big movie so there’s that. Honestly, I’ll be a little more careful and not cover Mexico in the near future. I’m happy that after covering the same story for five years, I’ve gotten a very deep message that the public can digest. At this point, all I can do is blow my whistle and let the public take it however they want to.
Edgar: Seeing the point of view from the CSI agent really affected me. It’s affected my music. Now I feel I have something else to talk about; the victims, good guys, bad guys, all of them and through this music I can add another level and make it moral, make a message.
At any point during or after filming did you guys feel you were in danger?
Shaul: Absolutely. We tried to stay safe, did everything we could, but when you work in that environment you have to be aware that the cartels are everywhere; the hotel, 7-11, where I buy a soda. So at first you can see and hear more than what you can film. When someone says “no,” it’s a no. You don’t push, but with time, if you can be persistent and get trust, you can get an in.
Edgar: Life is [as] dangerous as much as you make it. Although you can say I’m in the mix, I don’t get involved. I keep it professional, strictly to music, not disrespecting anyone. The thing is, not all of the people are narcos; some workers who just like to go and drink on the weekends. I don’t think it’s dangerous because I respect everyone.
Seeing how the nature of the documentary is very dangerous and deals with people not normally seen or heard of, how long did it take you to put the story together?
Shaul: Well, we filmed for 2-3 years. I went back to Mexico after 2 years of working in still photography and reached out to my contacts, but they were pretty stern. It took time to get trust. Sometimes there were 10, 9 murders a day, but we couldn’t shoot, the press would get there and take over. I was were there not to see who was killed but how how did it make the people feel. How does it make the mother feel who has to explain it to her kids, what does she tell her kids? People are scared; they just don’t want to talk about it. But they don’t know who you are so they don’t talk. It was pretty much a patience game and eventually people started to open up because it hurts and it’s a constant in their life.
How did your family react after seeing the film and the places you go and things you do?
Edgar: The great thing is I’ve always had support from my family. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. My mom and dad always support me even though some of the things they don’t agree with, they’ve always supported me and reminded me to be careful. My family just said, “do what you gotta do and come back.” If i wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I came from a good home, a good family and even though my mom was a bit shocked, she still loves me and my passion for music.
Seeing as how music and how Narco culture affects it is a big part of the film, what is it that you’re trying to say with your music?
Edgar: I don’t know, but seeing the CSI agent, Richie, and his life, did make me sad. Seeing the deaths made me think I have to send a message to everybody, and my music lets me do just that. I want people to know that you have to do what you love; you can’t pretend you’re something you’re not.
One of the things mentioned was the concept of power and how people idolize those who are perceived to hold the most power, do you think narco culture is a reflection about who are the people in power, or what we perceive to be power?
Shaul:The thing is, most of the people feel very powerless and I understand my part in the system. I hate that the people called me a bullet collector, [that] we empower the bad guys and let them win by putting our head[s] in the sand and calling it a mexican drug war. How can these kids sing these songs while we in the US like to pretend that it’s their problem. Like Calderon said, it’s not easy to be the neighbor of the biggest drug user in the world. I also feel that if we saw the bad guys lose, it takes away from their power, but when they win constantly, it’s hard to shake that notion. The narco is buried in millions upon millions of dollars so I understand why people make those songs; we have to learn to change this Robin Hood identity that has been created.
Being so far removed from the violence and culture that has been created by the drug cartels in Mexico, I felt ashamed at the fact that I was unaware at the severity of the problem happening so close by. That’s not to broadly paint a bleak picture of life for those who live under those circumstances; as Narco Cultura shows that life, even in these places, is full of people who, like everyone else, just wants a chance at creating a life for themselves. I could not help but think that this issue is part of a larger problem with questions that perhaps we as a society are not ready or willing to face.
Narco Cultura opens in theaters nationwide Friday, December 6th. For more information, check out their website at: http://narcoculture.com/