In the United States, narcissistic musicians say all the time that music is a life-or-death matter.
In Mexico, some musicians say the same thing, but in a literal sense.
Shaul Schwarz is the director of “Narco Cultura,” screening in this year’s U.S. Documentary Competition in the Sundance Film Festival. An Israel native who has gained fame through photojournalism, Schwarz has dived in the deep end with his first feature.
Just as Americans once celebrated criminals such as Billy the Kid and Jesse James, Schwarz argues that some Mexicans glamorize the narco-traffickers as outlaws awash in fame and money.
Musicians are largely responsible for the image that obscures the life-and-death hazards of the Drug War, much the way many American rappers in the late 1980s and early ’90s sought to paint life as a “gangsta” on the mean streets as something to aspire to.
He chose two main figures to help tell his story: a Los Angeles narco-corrido singer and a Juárez crime-scene investigator.
Schwarz answered questions posed by The Salt Lake Tribune about his reactions to his film accepted at the festival, how he gained access and how photojournalism, while different, helped his foray into film.
What was your response to your film being accepted into Sundance?
I was in a cab with my girlfriend on the way to the JFK when I got a text from my producer Jay Van Hoy saying “on with Sundance now, congratulations, they were blown away.” When I read it, I choked up and covered my face with my hand. I was speechless and just handed my phone to my girlfriend. Then I suddenly got scared because the text didn’t clarify that I am actually in. “You are in,” my girlfriend said. “Of course that’s what he means.”
Why were you attracted to this subject matter?
I don’t think that my attraction to this subject is entirely a product of my Israeli background. Growing up in Israel did affect me deeply and it was what led me to the path of becoming a photojournalist. Growing up near conflict made me curious about how things look like from the other side, and the camera became the vehicle to get there. Since starting to photograph in Israel, I have been intrigued by how conflict rewrites culture in our societies. After moving to New York in 1999, I started covering Mexico frequently. I covered a variety of different issues from indigenous movements to transvestites to travel stories. When the drug war began to rage out of control in 2008, it seemed natural for me to cover it.
What were the main challenges in telling this story?
Getting access while staying safe was the biggest challenge in making this film. We were always pushing to get through the characters’ stories to the heart of the drug war, and for that we needed to win their full trust. After we did that, we needed to be with them in terrifying moments. Even more so, we had to figure out what we didn’t want to cover. It was clear that in order to stay safe and not endanger others we had to draw lines in the sand, and that would later become a reality in the editing room as well. There are many scenes that did not make the cut because we believed they might endanger someone.
How do you perceive the difference — or similarity — between photography and filmmaking?
Photojournalism is a very minimalistic art. It’s a one-man game, and once you press the shutter you are pretty much done. Film is a completely different beast, from the number of people you work with, to the editing process, to your need to shape a story’s progress over time. The two art forms are very different, and I learned a lot along the way in terms of filmmaking. Photojournalism is an amazing base from which to enter filmmaking. My experience being in the field, producing under fear and danger, my understanding of a story, how to work sources, how to get access, and of course my sense of visuals and lights, were all hugely beneficial in making “Narco Cultura.”
How do musicians profit by exploiting the cartels’ brand of violence and vanity?
They simply tap in to a community that wants this product. It’s big, it’s out there and to many Mexican-Americans these songs are the way to keep up with what’s going on down south. For these teenagers, this is how they tie back to their culture. Traditional cultural icons like Pancho Villa are outdated. There is a niche for this music. People understand this and take advantage of it.
Why did you decide to include a narco-corridos singer in the film?
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. I wanted to first expose this subculture, and then hopefully make the viewer ask how we have gotten to this grim reality.
Have you been to Utah?
I have never been, but I just Googled it and looked at the pictures. I expect [the festival] to be an extremely impactful event for me. It’s the first time I have had anything play at a film festival, and being in Park City with this film is definitely a dream come true.
What do you plan to do when you are in Park City?
Enjoy the moment, watch how people react to my film, see some other films and let my producers do the rest.
Shaul Schwarz’s “Narco Cultura”
Saturday, Jan. 26, 3:30 p.m. • Redstone Cinema 1, 6030 N. Market St., Park City
— David Burger