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Addictive rhythms: Documenting Mexican cartel-fueled music

Los Bukanas de Culiacan in Shaul Schwarz's Narco Cultura Shaul Schwarz (Courtesy of: Cinedigm)

A conflict photographer who has spent time in the war zones of Israel, Gaza and Afghanistan, Shaul Schwarz has devoted his life to putting himself in harm's way to tell compelling stories.

Narco Cultura is the Israeli journalist's second feature-length documentary and follows the narcocorridos or “narco” music movement that glorifies the violence and drugs of the Mexican cartels.

The genre is sweeping through Mexico and the U.S. — and is similar to the gangster rap movement in the ‘90s, Schwarz said.

Schwarz follows two main characters throughout the documentary. Riccardo “Richi” Soto serves as the film’s narrator while he tells his story of what it’s like to be a CSI investigator in one of the most dangerous cities in the world - Juarez, Mexico, Soto’s home town.

Edgar Quintero, the film’s protagonist, is one of the most successful narcocorrido songwriters and is the lead singer of the band Buknas de Culiacan. Quintero, a Los Angeles native, produces songs that detail the cartel’s recent hits or messages they want to send.

Narco Cultura is the end of a five-year long stint Schwarz spent documenting what he calls the Mexican-American drug war. Schwarz spoke with NBC News about the process of making the documentary and what he hopes people will learn from it.

Q: When did you decide that this story was going to be a long-form documentary instead of a series of photos?

A: The way it happened was I did a story for Newsweek, I did a story for Rolling Stone. I did a story for Time magazine. And then I got interested in this bigger cultural issue and I talked to National Geographic magazine about it.

I took the pictures, but Geographic would later say, "They’re cool, but they kind of look like Halloween." They didn’t completely see what I saw in them. And then I understood that maybe this is not the right medium because the complexity of the story. That’s when I was like, ‘Huh, this should be a film."

Q: What was the process like?

A: I spent two years taking pictures. And then I made the switch into film and I was pretty much totalitarian - I didn’t shoot that many pictures after I started filming. As a still photographer, I went with the CSI unit with Richie. I thought this was a great way to get to the crime scenes and maybe even more importantly, to get out of them in one piece.

I looked at what had been out there about the drug war and I saw a lot of good films that had experts and talking heads, but I never saw a film that did what I do, which went through the photojournalist angle and told the raw story of two people that actually, at the same time, made you think about a bigger-picture conflict.

Q: How did you get your subjects to trust you?

A: Slowly.

I did pay the dues with the CSI unit and Richie. They really appreciated that we spent the time. There were hits on people in the unit. We were in situations together. It’s kind of like a brother-soldier bond. If you stick with people through it, it’s more than words could do. And at the end of the day, when Richie drives home and he’s scared for his life and I’m in his car, I’m taking equal risks.

With Edgar’s side of life, it was a different process. The initial ‘let me have the camera on you for an artist’ is obvious. He wants to promote his music. But we’re very different than the one-hour interview with a Latino media outlet that just wants to have fun with him. It took him a while, but the trust grew so much.

Q: How did you stay safe?

A: I’ve done conflict photography for a while so it’s obviously a little bit in my DNA. This was a tricky one because some conflicts are very obvious. You go to Afghanistan – there’s a great deal of danger, but what’s comforting is when I sit with a bunch of soldiers, I completely trust them and bond with them within a day. I might get shot at, I might run over an IED, but at the end of the day, it’s not a mind game. I trust who I’m with.

This was different. This was a mind game. We traveled to Juarez 20 times. We never stayed longer than a week. We knew what the line was.

Q: What do your two main characters think of the film?

A: Richie is proud of the film. He comes across as who he is – somebody who loves his home and wants the best for it. It takes a second to understand how you could be proud as a CSI worker who at the end of the day gets so little achieved.

With Edgar, it’s a little bit different. Throughout the making of the film, I always wanted to find his conscience. I saw the good guy in him, too. He’s adorable. He fights to keep his family above water. His music, as much as I was shocked and hated him at the beginning, is his savior. If it wasn’t for his music, he’d probably be a thug on the streets or in jail.

When he finally did see the film and particularly when he saw the film a month and a half ago with his family at the Latino Film Festival, he had second thoughts.

— Narco Cultura opens in New York City and Miami on Nov. 22 and in Los Angeles on Dec. 6.

Junkies with a tattoos, some of La Santa Muerte, hanging out on the ridge of the Rio Grande River basin on the the Tijuana side of the San Diego border region. It is common to see junkies in "picaderos," or shooting galleries, shooting heroin along the border separating Mexico and the U.S., uninterrupted by nearby border patrol agents or Mexican police. Tijuana, a city of 1.3 million, has the highest prevalence of drug use in Mexico. Shaul Schwarz Reportage by Getty Images for National Geographic