Kingdom of Shadows


The price of recreational drug use isn't always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

The price of recreational drug use isn’t always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

(2015) Documentary (Participant) Sister Consuelo Morales, Oscar Hagelseib, Don Henry Ford Jr., Nik Steinberg, Diego Alonso Salazar, Auden Cabello, Leah Ford, Virginia Buenrostro, Luz Maria Duran, Joshua Ford, Dina Hagelseib, Diana Martinez. Directed by Bernardo Ruiz

It is no secret that the drug cartels have turned northern Mexico into a war zone. Violence from the cartels has escalated and in the city of Monterrey, a beautiful municipality that is the center in a war between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel which has escalated so that innocent civilians who have no connection with the drug trade whatsoever are disappearing, murdered by one faction or the other which was unheard of just a decade ago.

Director Bernardo Ruiz looks at the problems created by this violence from three distinct viewpoints from three different people; Sister Consuelo Morales is an activist/nun who advocates for the families of those who have disappeared, acting as a liaison between the families and the police who are perceived to be (and actually are) corrupt – in fact, some of the kidnappings are performed by officers of the law, further deepening the mistrust the people of Mexico have for their own government and its institutions.

Don Henry Ford Jr. is a convicted drug smuggler from Belmont, Texas who worked on his own family farm, but deepening debt forced him into a need for quick cash and there are few instances of cash that are quicker than bringing drugs from Mexico to the United States. Although he was eventually caught and served time in prison, he was already disillusioned by what he saw as escalating violence by new players in the game who disregarded the rules and has since left the life to concentrate on his legitimate farm work.

Oscar Hagelseib grew up in Socorro, Texas, the son of illegal immigrants in a neighborhood that was infected by the drug trade. A cousin’s house was used as a stash location for the cartels and those who entered the trade were far more prosperous than those who didn’t. However, as it turned out, Oscar would go into law enforcement, first with the Border Patrol and later with the Homeland Security Agency. Once an undercover agent but now in charge of drug-related offenses in the El Paso office, he is unafraid to show his face in the media, arguing that he was in less danger than would a snitch or someone within the cartels who betrayed the cartels.

All three look at the disappearances primarily – those civilians who one day just aren’t there. More often than not they turn up in narco kitchens – mass graves. These disappearances haven’t been seen in Latin America since the days of Pinochet in Chile and those at the time were done by government military forces. The corruption is so rampant that nearly every candidate for office in Mexico has to include overhauling their local police force as part of their platform, but few ever get around to actually doing it.

The documentary suffers a little bit from a lack of focus; there is no coherent storyline here, more like a series of interviews entwined together. The statistics are sobering and so are the stories being told here, but because there really isn’t any kind of unification between those stories they are wasted somewhat, floating on the wind instead of being given a larger context. That does those stories a disservice, although they do remain powerful.

It is well-known that the cartels in Mexico are outrageously violent, but we don’t see much of the violence here except for some news footage of bodies being cut down from places where they will be seen as an example of what happens to those who cross the cartels, and one family member of a disappeared one recounts tearfully how her daughter had been raped for three days straight before being executed according to an eyewitness, although she prayed it wasn’t true – you can see in her eyes that she knows that it is.

It is in fact the faces that are the most haunting thing. The end of the movie is simply a montage of faces, faces of the victims and the faces of the families. Some can barely hold back the tears; others can barely contain their rage. Some are stoic, others expressive. Some are young, some old, some in-between. That last montage carries more meaning than almost the rest of the documentary put together; those faces connect the viewer to the story in a powerful way. If only the rest of the movie could be more like that. Still, this is the kind of story that the news agencies in the States isn’t likely to tell and when it does, only in a cursory way. This is the world these people live in, a world we are partially responsible for due to our insatiable consumption of illegal narcotics. If we want to win the war on drugs, that’s what we need to concentrate on.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and haunting. Uses news footage effectively.
REASONS TO STAY: Unfocused and lacks flow.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and depictions of violence, and brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The term “narco kitchen” refers to mass graves in which drug cartels bury those they’ve executed. Prior to burial the bodies are incinerated so that they cannot be positively identified.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cartel Land
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Shameless

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The Act of Killing


A surreal musical number from the movie within a movie.

A surreal musical number from the movie within a movie.

(2012) Documentary (Drafthouse) Anwars Congo, Herman Koto, Safit Pardede, Adi Zulkadry, Haji Anif, Jusuf Kalla, Ibrahim Sinik, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sakhyan Asmara, Soaduon Siregar, Syamsul Arfin, Yapto Soerjosoemano. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Some movies are meant to be light entertainment, a means of forgetting your troubles for a couple of hours. This isn’t one of those. THIS is a movie that isn’t meant to be enjoyed so much as experienced, one that will leave you struggling with the powerful emotions and concepts it brings out in you when the movie’s over.

Starting in 1965, assassinations of Indonesian generals in an attempt to destabilize the government led to General Suharto taking control of the government. This in turn led to almost a year of unbridled mass murder ostensibly to rid the country of communists who were blamed for the assassinations. In reality, the job was given to a large extent to members of organized crime and the definition of “communists” was broadened a bit to include those who in general disagreed with the military junta and all ethnic Chinese. Later it was essentially expanded to “anyone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

One of the more revered of the death squad leaders is Anwars Congo. Now a white-haired grandfatherly sort, he is one of the founding fathers of the paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila, or Pancasila Youth.  He, like the other death squad leaders, have never answered for their crimes of murdering civilians in cold blood. In fact, they are thought to be heroes and boast openly about being able to do whatever they wanted, including wanton rape and looting.

Congo tells us that the stink from the blood of the victims had grown so great that he chose to start using a wire garrote to kill his victims which required less cleaning up after. In an extraordinary move, director Oppenheimer gives Congo and a few of his cronies the opportunity to re-enact their atrocities on film in whatever style they liked.

Why would they want to, you may ask? Well, these were men heavily influenced by American b-movies (Congo had gotten his start scalping cinema tickets) and during those terrible months of late 1965 and early 1966, often used westerns and gangster movies as inspiration to carry out their heinous acts. So they do just that, filming in the style of noir, gangster movies and yes, even a musical number which concludes with the spirit of one of the victims thanking Congo for murdering him and sending him to heaven, after which he shakes the mass murderer’s hand and raises it in triumph like a prize fighter.

The cognitive dissonance depicted in this film is mind-blowing.  Gangsters are looked upon with admiration. They claim that the term gangster means “free men” (a misconception that is repeated often by the ex-criminals) and reveled in the complete freedom to do whatever they chose without regard to law or morality. The bullying and terrifying tactics are looked upon as national symbols of pride.

While most of the perpetrators have no outward remorse or guilt over their acts, cracks begin to show in Congo’s facade. He complains of nightmares that plague him nightly. Things begin to unravel when he portrays a victim being strangled in a police office. He wonders aloud if his victims felt what he did (the experience so unnerved him that he was unable to continue). Off-camera, Oppenheimer says gently but firmly that they felt much worse; they knew they were going to die while Congo knew that in his case, it was just a movie.

This leads to the denouement when Congo returns to the rooftop where he committed many of the savage acts. His growing realization over what he had done leads to one of the most compelling and literally gut-wrenching scenes in modern cinematic history.

In the viewer, there is an immediate instinct to go and comfort the grandfatherly Congo, but then we reach an epiphany of our own – does this man who committed so many monstrous acts (he claims to have killed about a thousand people personally) deserve comfort? Is there no forgiveness for him? That is a question I’m still wrestling with. How does one redeem oneself for mass murder? I honestly don’t know the answer to that one. I don’t think anybody does.

Leaving the Enzian afterwards, there was so much swirling around in my head and in my heart (as was occurring with my wife as well) that the normal discussion about the film was a bit muted. I can’t say that this movie is enjoyable – but I can say that it’s important. Given our own propensity for mass shootings these days and the genocidal events that occur to this day, it’s sometimes hard to accept that there is any goodness inside the human race at all and it makes one wonder if the universe wouldn’t be a better place if the entire planet were wiped out by a convenient meteor strike. However, watching he change that occurs in someone who was such a monster at one time gives me hope that there might actually be some humanity in the human race after all.

REASONS TO GO: Makes you think and feel. One of the most powerful and moving climaxes in recent cinematic history.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems stagnant and redundant in a few places although the film’s climax brings all the parts together.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language. The themes are extremely adult (dealing with mass murder) and there are some intimations of children endangered. Also, lots and lots of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two of the world’s most acclaimed documentarians, were so moved by this film that they came aboard as executive producers.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Year of Living Dangerously

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Family