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A Disturbing Film

Here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, we are in the middle of GIFF, the Guanajuato International Film Festival. San Miguel is in the state of Guanajuato, and the city of that name is the state capital. GIFF offers dozens of films, full length and shorts, and all for free, which is a plus. Two of the films I've taken in are worthy of comment. Both are documentaries. "Our Nixon" retells the story of Richard Nixon's rise and fall against the backdrop of home movies taken by H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin, central figures in the Watergate scandle that brought Nixon down. Nixon's three aides took 500 hours of these super-8 videos. The FBI seized them as part of the criminal prosecution, and they have been locked away for 40 years. Interspersed with clips from these movies is footage from the major TV networks (remember when there were only three?), so we see a young Dan Rather and faces familiar to anyone growing up in the 60's. And, because of Nixon's secret taping system in the Oval Office, we get conversations between him and the aides that, when combined with the footage, further personalizes the tragedy that Nixon inflicted on himself and on the country. As someone who lived and worked in Washington, D.C. during this era, I found the film informative, well done, and a window into a dark moment in US politics. But downright disturbing is a film entitled "Narco Cultura," and you don't even need to know Spanish to figure out what this one is about. It is largely set in Juarez, Mexico, ground zero for the drug wars that have plagued this country for a decade. For the past several years, Juarez has been the most violent city in the world, with something like 3600 murders in 2010 (don't hold me to that number--I'm going from memory and obviously couldn't take notes in the theater). Remarkably, in that same year, El Paso, Texas, fifty meters from Juarez across the "widest" river in the world, the Rio Grande, had five homicides, making it the safest city of its size in the U.S. I expected a documentary of this nature to show lots of blood, dismembered corpses, and grieving relatives, and all of that human misery was displayed in vivid color. What I did not expect was the shift in scene to Los Angeles, where a Mexican-American is making a living by composing songs that glorify the narco world. The lyrics sing the praises of drugs, guns, revenge, gangs, beheadings, dismemberment, murder. He compares what he does to hip-hop and rap, with their shared themes of big money, gold bling, and misogyny. If this guy were someone crooning in a ghetto karaoke bar he would be easy to ignore. But these songs are played on the radio, and live performances of his band are evidently in demand. Film footage shows a rock concert environment, with screaming fans who can't get enough of band members carrying AK-47s and a bazooka. And these "concerts" aren't just in California. Atlanta, Texas and North Carolina venues were also shown. Narco DVDs are making it into Walmart as back in Juarez the crime scene investigators examine more bodies and fear for their lives and their families. At the end of the film, the LA crooner decides that to beef up his lyrics and to get to the next level of his career, he needs to make a pilgrimage to the mecca of the Mexican drug cartels, the city of Culiacan in the state of Sinaloa. His hosts for this trip claim to "own" the city, and who can doubt they do? But it is here, in Culiacan, that we are shown a scene that for me was indelible. For ninety minutes, we have seen the squalor of Juarez; the dilapidated buildings, the ruined businesses, the uncollected garbage, the impassable streets. Suddenly, the screen fills with footage of Culiancan's grand buildings, beautifully designed and impressively constructed. We are tempted for a moment to believe this could be a municipal dividend reaped by drug money until we notice the crosses on top of virtually every "building," for this is not a city skyline but a cemetary where the drug lords build monuments and mausoleums to the glory of their brief but cash-rich lives. I don't think I've ever seen a sight to rival it. But let us remind ourselves of where the money that fuels this madness comes from: the United States of America.

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