The breadth of director Shaul Schwarz's documentary Narco Cultura is staggering. A hybrid of hard investigative journalism and incisive cultural criticism, the film, at its core, is about definitions of success and power, and how today those terms are shaped by the shared forces of poverty and celebrity culture. Schwarz and his crew dot back and forth across the United States and Mexico to show how Mexico's war on drugs (fueled by both artillery easily scored in the U.S. and our insatiable appetite for drugs) has all but decimated the once-thriving city of Juárez, turning it into the murder capital of the world. Graphic crime-scene photos and videos illustrate the bloody reality, as everyone from ordinary citizens and beleaguered CSI workers (targets for assassination by cartels) to tatted inmates speak about the toll. It's harrowing stuff. At the same time, the entertainment subculture of narcocorridos (songs about, and commissioned by, Mexican drug runners, a sort of hybrid of gangsta rap, romanticized reportage and Old English ballads) has exploded in popularity in both countries, creating superstars who sell out arenas to fans who lustily sing along. Schwarz's juxtaposition of the human cost of the drug war with the glamorization of its henchmen and their brutality is sobering, even depressing, a point driven home by journalist Sandra Rodriguez, who says that the popularity of narcocorridos is "a symptom of how defeated we are as a society."
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