Edgar Quintero is a rising narcocorrido star. He sings boastful lyrics about decapitation and kidnapping over oomph-oomph polka music. His band, BuKnas De Culiacán, is popular with drug cartel members and people who think that drug cartels are cool. He lives in a small, squat Los Angeles bungalow with his wife and kids, and reads blogs to get song ideas. “If there wasn’t so much violence in Mexico,” he says, “we wouldn’t have such badass corridos.”
If it weren’t for The Act Of Killing, Narco Cultura would be the year’s queasiest documentary. The film—which counterposes Quintero’s day-to-day life with that of Richi Soto, a crime-scene investigator in Juarez—is both an unflinching record of Mexico’s drug war and an investigation of how violence becomes unreal and glamorized. While Quintero performs for sold-out American crowds wearing a prop gun, Soto and his colleagues toil in the world’s busiest forensic unit, handling bodies and evidence for more than 3,000 cartel-related murders per year. Every day, they find decapitated and dismembered bodies in the street. Weak-stomached viewers—or strong-stomached viewers who’d rather not know what a child killed execution-style looks like—may find it difficult to watch.
By diving into the subcultures Quintero and Soto inhabit (the U.S.-based narcocorrido recording industry, the notoriously corrupt Juarez police), director/cinematographer Shaul Schwarz transcends shock and irony. Schwarz, a photojournalist who won a Robert Capa Gold Medal for his coverage of the violence that followed Kenya’s 2007 presidential election, has an eye for contextual composition, conveying personalities and worldviews through the ways in which people move around spaces, gatherings, and crime scenes. A late sequence where Quintero visits the Jardines Del Humaya graveyard—where cartel bigshots are buried, like pharaohs, in multi-story, house-sized mausoleums along with their prized SUVs and pick-ups—plays like a hall of mirrors. Quintero’s guide, a fan from the Sinaloa Cartel, tells him that, periodically, chopped-up bodies are left as tribute at the mausoleums. Quintero, who plays cartel toughs in direct-to-video movies, beams. This isn’t a real world, but the world of his imagination.
Soto serves as the movie’s troubled conscience. His reluctance to speak about police corruption on camera is telling, as is his palpable loneliness and defeated facial expression. Like Quintero, he is an observer, rather than a participant, of the drug war; people derisively call him a “bullet collector,” because he catalogs evidence for murders that are never investigated. He lives in perpetual fear; many of his colleagues have been murdered, and, over the course of filming, one is gunned down and another simply disappears. He’s a reminder that there’s a real world with real horror, as much as people like Quintero—who gets paid by cartel members to write and sing songs about them—would like their audiences to think that it’s just a fantasy that taps into their desire for wealth and empowerment.