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One of my more permanently retained study experiences in film school was in classes on documentaries, especially a class taught by Stephen Mamber. The subject is fascinating because it examines how movies and videos deliver information, how messages can be distorted and how film has inherent problems telling the truth. Starting with the camera angle, every filmic choice removes a docu further from any notion of factual objectivity. Deciding what to show and what to leave out clearly imposes an author's presence, in almost every case saying more about the filmmaker than the subject being studied.
El Sicario Room 164 is a 2010 film consistently reviewed as a documentary, even though it does not call itself one: it's "A Film by Gianfranco Rosi & Charles Bowden." The subject is frightening in the extreme. A 'sicario' is a hit man of the Mexican drug cartels, those enormous organized crime network that seemingly control the economy of Mexico and kill thousands of people every year. It's an all-enveloping evil nurtured and prolonged by our preposterously counterproductive War on Drugs. Journalist and author Charles Bowden has been writing about it for years; if anybody in power cared to do anything about the situation, he'd be appointed as a special advisor on the subject. As it is, the drug cartels are so powerful that nobody dares do anything. Bowden himself says that the Mexican economy would immediately collapse if the drug traffic were to stop. 1 Our network news covers stories of mass killings along the Mexican border through blinders, never daring to speak the obvious.
One therefore feels an immediate chill while watching El Sicario Room 164. The film is a feature length talk by an unnamed, hooded ex-Mexican hit man, videotaped in a hotel room on the Mexican border. He says that he once used the very same room to torture and murder victims of the cartel, people who owed money or cartel personnel that could no longer be trusted.
The movie apparently sprang from Charles Bowden's book El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, co-edited with Molly Molloy. Visually, it couldn't be simpler. We see a door with a number on it, 164. We see views of the inside of an ordinary traveler's hotel room. Several times during the show we see views of a city (Ciudad Juarez?) or a highway. The rest of the time we're focused exclusively on the unnamed 'witness'. He wears several layers of a veil-like cloth as a hood, and uses a pad of paper and a Sharpie pen to illustrate what is essentially an eighty-minute lecture.
The lecture is chilling. It's in Spanish language, so we're obliged to read the subtitles. It's an easy listen and read, and the simple device of the sketchpad helps keep us focused.
The narco hit man's lecture takes us through one awful revelation after another. The millions and millions of dollars that flow into the cartel allow for the construction of an enormous system of bribes and corruption that, we are told, reaches to the doorstep of the President of Mexico, if not into his actual office. Thousands of people are on the payroll, on both sides of the border. Informants and cartel personnel have infiltrated government and police at all levels, and have done the same on our side of the border as well. Drugs don't need to be carefully smuggled across the border in small amounts; the bribery allows it to roll into the U.S. by the truckload. Anything and anybody that interferes with this system is eliminated. The mass killings deter more interference.
Our witness/lecturer was recruited with some other teenage friends to drive carloads of drugs across the border. All of them took to the big money offered, as well as the free access to drugs and sex. He was then trained in the usual way, by the Mexican army itself. Although he didn't qualify to become a soldier, cartel connections wiped away those barriers. Once 'graduated' he was trained in various forms of weaponry, stealth, surveillance and tracking skills, all of which he would use as a sicario. The lecturer then spends most of the film describing in detail how kidnappings are carried out and how cartel victims would be held in hotel rooms. As a sicario, he often did not know the whys of what he was doing. If he handed off his victims dead or alive to other people, he'd not ask what became of them. Special squads are in charge of disposing of bodies. He claims to have killed hundreds of people. He doesn't dwell on the details, but we hear two or three torture murder scenarios that sound worse than anything done by the S.S. or the Spanish Inquisition.
Everything the man says is relevant and deeply affecting. The end of his lecture explains how the sicario found a way out through religion; previously his utter dedication in all things was to his patrón. We don't hear any details of how he possibly could have gotten his family to safety, and have stayed hidden all this time. A title card at the end claims that there's a price on his head worth a quarter of a million dollars.
El Sicario Room 164 is certainly arresting, and is an excellent way to disseminate a truth that desperately needs to be told. The DVD box touts prizes won for Best Documentary at five film festivals. Yet I wouldn't call the movie a documentary in the normal sense. It's a filmed lecture, and possibly a staged filmed lecture. We shouldn't assume that appearances equal fact. The filmmakers just launch into the picture without making any claims that the film is a documentary, or that the man we see conducting the lecture is the actual witness/hit man. Since we can't see his mouth move, we're not always sure that the figure we see is speaking the words we hear. He's a very professional speaker, articulate and audience-ready; he could easily be an actor. Perhaps our sicario is a natural storyteller. Given the importance of lying low, he can't have been practicing this speech many times.
Moreover, the movie has a writing credit, something that docus usually don't. Judging by what's on the video itself, there's every reason to believe that we could be watching an actor performing from a script put together from the original interviews. I actually hope that this is the case; I want the real sicario to be off somewhere, safe and anonymous, his skin bleached, his face altered and speaking a newly learned language.
El Sicario Room 164 is a valuable film document, even if it should prove to be a dramatic recreation of the 'real' sicario's interviews. It's too bad that our so-called Information Nation is cluttered with junk information to the point that something as vitally important as this to the continuance of law and order should remain marginalized with 'docus' about UFOs and celebrity scandals. Not a few months ago we read (briefly) about a pair of District Attorneys in Texas murdered on the job and at their own home. We Yankees scream about closing the border, but anybody who thinks we're any less susceptible to fat bribes than Mexicans are is an idiot. This bloody chaos can move North anytime it wants to, to strike anyone it wants to. And all because Americans spend untold millions on illegal narcotics.
Icarus' Films' DVD of El Sicario Room 164 is a very clean, handsome transfer of this shot-on-video show. The one lighting setup used for the entire lecture is easy on the eyes; just get ready to read a lot of subtitles. You'll be surprised how much added emotion and emphasis the Spanish-speaking lecturer adds. There are no extras.
I wish that Charles Bowden were in Washington, helping plan a real anti-drug strategy. Of course, our politicians seem to redirect the discussion to closing the border and restricting immigration... or this year's meaningless diversion, keeping medicinal pot dispensaries out of sight.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
El Sicario Room 164 rates:
1. The very rational-sounding Charles Bowden also says that closing the border is nonsense, because our own economy relies heavily on the flood of cheap labor that comes North from Mexico. A good interview with him is at this Buzzflash article.
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