To a growing number of Mexicans and Latinos in the Americas, narco-traffickers have become iconic outlaws, glorified by musicians who praise their new models of fame and success. They represent a pathway out of the ghetto, nurturing a new American dream fueled by an addiction to money, drugs, and violence. From war photographer Shaul Schwarz comes NARCO CULTURA, an explosive look at the drug cartels’ pop culture influence on both sides of the border as experienced by an LA narcocorrido singer dreaming of stardom and a Juarez crime scene investigator on the front line of Mexico’s Drug War.
Shaul Schwarz was born in Israel in 1974. He started his photographic career in the Israeli Air Force. After finishing his service he moved on to cover news in Israel and in the West Bank before relocating to New York in 1999.
Today he is still based in New York and works as a freelance photographer represented by Reportage/Getty Images. Schwarz’s work has appeared in major international publications such as National Geographic Magazine, Newsweek, Time, The New York Times Magazine, Geo, Paris Match, Stern, El Pais Magazine, GQ and Marie Claire among others. His coverage of the conflict in Haiti in 2004 received two World Press Awards. In 2005, Schwarz won the highly acclaimed Visa D’or in Perpignan for his work on settlers from the Gaza strip. Most recently he was honored with the 2008 Robert Capa Award given out by the Overseas Press Club.
In 2005, after countless short reports for different TV outlets, Schwarz completed his first feature length documentary, “The Block.” The film following the last months of Jewish settlers’ lives in the occupied Gaza Strip had a theatrical release in Israel. In 2009, Schwarz produced a series of shorts on celebrity look-alikes that was broadcasted by MSNBC. He is currently working on a short to be published by Mediastorm.org in 2010 and frequently publishes shorts on Time.com.
Bijan Tehrani: My first question is what originally motivated you to make NARCO CULTURA?
Shaul Schwarz: I have always been involved with Mexico both on a journalistic level and a personal level. Back in the day, I was married to a Mexican woman, and I have covered different stories on Mexico, so when things really got out of control in 2007 and 2008, a lot of people were telling me that I had to go to Juarez. The first time I went, I was so overwhelmed. The reality of taking a plane to El Paso—a super safe city—and walking across and landing in Juarez and spending the first couple of days there just blew my mind, to be honest. I initially got into that and that was in 2008. I am a photographer, a photo-journalist, so I started photographing that conflict and the violence and I started to go to other places as well in Mexico, but in 2010 I really decided that I could not tell this story in pictures and I decided to make a movie. I thought it was so complex and I thought that the story I really wanted to tell was not just the fighting and the violence and the drug war, but really how it influences all of us on a cultural level and how it is in our hearts and minds and that it was originally got me interested.
Bijan: How challenging was it to make NARCO CULTURA?
Shaul: It was challenging and dangerous, but that was known ahead of time. We looked at other films that were made, and there are so many films made on the drug war, but it was always experts talking behind a desk and we did not want talking-head experts. I wanted to make a film that was raw; a film that made you feel how it really is to be in the heart of it, so we chose these two characters that kind of lived in the shadow of the drug war and are so deeply affected, and it was very challenging. We followed a CSI worker in Juarez for three years. Four people in his unit were gunned down while we covered him, so it was scary and it was hard, but we pushed the edge and that was the goal: to bring the viewer closer and make him feel and not just educate him, but give him statistic and images to really feel what it is like to be in there.
Bijan: The main actor that you picked, Edgar Quintero, is very interesting and also kind of a controversial character. How did you work with him throughout the shoot and what was it like interacting with him?
Shaul: Well, Edgar is very controversial, and I think Edgar initially was happy to star in the film. I think he figured it would get him a little bit of press, he is a Marguerite singer and an artist, but he slowly understood that what I wanted was very different and I really wanted to document his life and be a fly on the wall; it took a lot of time to gain his confidence. In the beginning it was very important to show how he works, how he conducts interviews, and how he gets commissioned to write songs. As I spent the first and second year with Edgar, he really impressed me. We traveled all over the country together and I showed him that I am willing to protect him on many levels, and eventually the act became phenomenal and really opened up. It was on that level of showing how he interview and how he works and of course the last scene we did in the whole film in the heart of the Cartel was really kind of our crown in this film. Not only were we able to portray the reality of Juarez and get to the thick of things from there, but also through a band that is LA based to make it all the way inside the Cartel.
Bijan: As you said, a lot of films about this issue are saturated with interviews and stats, and after a while it just becomes noise. With your film, you have made this a very interesting subject that people are starting to listen to.
Shaul: I think that this documentary is not a very easy one to watch. It really shows how the drug war is influencing our culture. I think a lot of Americans like to think of this as Mexico’s drug war. That sounds really far away, but the music scene that we follow happens in LA and really all across the US. They really juxtapose how this is glorified and celebrated and how people dance to this music and almost play a Narco for a night, like a Halloween party or something. For me, having covered it, I was so angry with this. But as time went by and I spent time in the Narco culture, I also understood what it is that is appealing to these connects: why they feel that this is how they connect to their heritage, why they feel that this actually the real Mexican culture. To a lot of Mexican-Americans and really just Latinos in general, this is a scene that if you want to party on a Friday night, they used to go to a gangster rapper or a hip hop venue. Suddenly with all of this drug war stuff in the news, this whole new music scene was created and it became this very appealing thing. One thing to remember is that, although Edgar appears with a bazooka and a gun and sings lyrics that will really spin your head off, most of these kids going out to party, they are really just there almost as an act and the next day they are probably going back to college, back to school, back to working. But this is kind of the space that I was very interested in: much does it affect us? How do we tap into this? I think for a lot of people seeing this for the first time, like it was for me, it is a real jaw dropper—they feel shocked. But what the movie really strives to understand is how we got here, and I think that the political reality of this endless dark war has created this monster. That is what the film really looks at, is how it is all connected.
Bijan: When you started production on the film, did you have a guideline on what you were going to do or did things just start to happen as you were following the movie and shooting the sequences.
Shaul: I had a sort of guideline. For the first two years, I just took pictures, so the idea of a film just stuck in my head one day. I was working in Tijuana working for National Geographic magazine doing a story about the culture of the drug war and I followed two murder scenes in 2010 which were at that time on an average day in Tijuana, and then I drove across the border to Riverside and there I was after shooting these murder scenes without even changing clothes—with the smell of death on me, if you will—and suddenly found myself in a party with Edgar and a Bazooka and a gun and a crowd singing along. I was shocked and I was angry and I took the pictures and I thought this was incredible because to me there were even people who came that day from Tijuana just to see the show. I thought, “Oh my god, how could this be so…so different when we are all so close” and then this reality came together and when I went back to the magazine and showed the pictures, they didn’t get it because they said “Well, this is just entertainment. So what? He dresses up and he has this bazooka in hand…” But for me, this is all about the cycle and how it plays back and forth. That is when I understood that I can’t tell this story this way and then I understood how I wanted the story to feel like. This connection between something that is glorified North of the border and how the reality is South of the border and how they affect each other; that is really the theme of the movie. So I think I saw the theme and the feeling early-on, and that day was really very blunt, of course. The details of how the story would continue over the next three years came over time with the reality of change, but the general feeling of following Edgar and a CSI worker in Juarez and how they would juxtapose was very clear to me right off the bat.
Bijan: How has the reaction been to NARCO CULTURA?
Shaul: I think there has been a very strong reaction in terms of the festivals we came out to. We premiered at Sundance and we have played a lot of festivals all over the world: Latino festivals, Toronto, Guadalajara and more of Mexico. Even people who had heard about narcocorridos, they had never seen this kind of access, and I think that it touched a nerve—especially for Mexican-Americans—that is not easy to look at but is very intriguing and is done in a very different way than other films on the subject. To me, it really worked well! Going back to that same idea of what I felt that night crossing between Tijuana and Riverside in one day and feeling this stark reality, I think Americans just don’t know about this narcocorridos scene and how it ticks, and people who are from this side of the border don’t really understand what it feels like and what it smells like, what the texture is of Juarez at the height of the drug war; so this film really evokes both of those feeling and I think that it has been received well. I hope that it will be received well on November 22 when it goes out to theatres.
Bijan: Do you have any other projects lined up?
Shaul: I am just starting a new film! It is a very different film though. It is not about Mexico, it is actually a personal film about a story that happened inside my family. I am also the Executive Producer of TIME magazine’s new film body that is being created. It’s called Red Border Films, so I am involved in making a lot of shorts for TIME and just starting my new feature film, so there is definitely stuff in there that I am making, but different stuff. After five years of giving my heart and soul to this very hard story—it was such a long and hard ride to get the kind of access we got—I feel like it is a good time to wrap it up.