Reality took over from the imagination of the film maker

Reality took over from the imagination of the film maker

By Valeria Perasso, BBC Mundo

Men from the drugs world were once the heroes of the big screen.

A poster from the film "operacion Marihuana" from 1985

“Operation Marijuana” was inspired by the arrest of a drug baron, says actor Mario Almada

Narco Mexico

Dressed in cowboy boots and wide brimmed hats, these heroes told stories about exploits on the fringes of the law. They were always accompanied by the cartel boss's girlfriend, fulfilling her dream of being an actress, albeit in a secondary role.

The Mexican "narcofilm" became a genre in its own right back in the 70s. Many of the stories transferred to the big screen were inspired by the corridos played day and night on the radio, with the main parts often being played in the films by the narcocorrido singers themselves - familiar faces and object of adoration for the popular audiences.

It was the golden age when Antonio Aguilar and the Almada brothers shone in films such as "Operation Marijuana" or "The Red Car Gang".

These tales, with their road scenes, explicit violence and tragic love storylines, took it upon themselves to disseminate the symbolism of the narco world to the cinema-going public and beyond.

Redundant projectors

When the violence of real life took over that of the cinema, the narcofilm became obsolete.

The drop in popularity of the genre relegated it to the video-club shelves, the "watch at home" circuit and to "B movie" theatres.

There are several stories which illustrate this downturn. In 2007, the actor Rumaldo Bucio - known in the industry by his pseudonym Agustín Bernal - retired from playing the lead in violent films in order to stand for mayor in his hometown, in Michoacán. For him, the narcofilm industry had become morally questionable.

And though not all films glorify the activities of the cartels - indeed, many make sure the "baddies" are put behind bars before "The End" - the violence does seem excessive to today´s average spectator.

Successful partnership

Two decades ago Mario Hernández was one of those successful directors and, in partnership with Antonio Aguilar, made his name in the industry with the narcocorrido genre.

"I made those corridos into a "visual format". They were very simple, but very successful films," remembers the 72 year old.

To find out more about the rise and fall of Mexican narcocinema, BBC Mundo talked in depth with Mario Hernández.

How did you first get into narcocinema?

I made around ten films with Antonio Aguilar about already existing corridos. As a singer he made the corridos popular, and when these songs became famous, they were turned into films.

At that time Mexican cinema was produced and distributed by the State and their films had a wide circulation.

There were some 2,000 picture houses throughout the country run by the National Theatre and Film Operating Company.

Amongst all the films on commercial release, it's hard to find one on "narcohistory" that has been produced in Mexico, whereas Hollywood produces films like "Traffic" or "Man on Fire". Is the subject banned in the Mexican film industry?

It's not that it's banned exactly, it's just that Hollywood covers the subject a lot. "Traffic" was a huge production, inspired by the reality here in Mexico.

But not so many are made nowadays although the corridos are as popular as ever with the public.

Until a few years ago the narcoheroes were perceived as exactly that - heroes - because they used to help their communities. But all that changed.

Why do you think that is?

Well the problem is that the storylines no longer reflect the reality because the actual situation has gone beyond any imagination a film maker might have ...

It's as if interest has died down because the problem has increased in real life ...

Absolutely. The public got tired of seeing in the films the same things they read in the newspapers. Reality took over.

Considering the spread of narcoviolence, do you, as a film maker, face a moral dilemma in depicting as a sort of exploit, this phenomenon which is affecting society as a whole?

The dilemma exists of course but the responsibility of an artist is to reflect the reality from all points of view. The thing is film makers don't have the whole story of what is really going on in the narco world, only what they read in the press. This forces you into the realms of fiction to make your film.

What could be told has now been told. What remains - corruption, filtering into areas - cannot be told because I don't think anyone really knows the truth firsthand. And if anyone does know, they are not telling.

Because they are scared of what might happen to them?

Probably, yes ...

And how do you decide how far to go? When do you say "no, not this story"?

Well, if the story is interesting then it's worth doing. It really depends how you approach it.

I remember one of my films, "The Son of Lamberto Quintero" (1990), it was a story of friendship ... that was the theme and I liked that. OK, they were drug traffickers, but they could have been milkmen or whatever ... the film's theme was something else.

You've worked behind the camera for twenty years, how has the narcocinema genre changed, apart from a reduction in the number of films made?

Fortunately, the storylines opened up. When I started out, there were aspects you just couldn't touch, or if you did, then only superficially, like the day-to-day life of the supposed traffickers.

So with this opening up, there were many more storylines and so films are more real, more authentic ... more honest.

So how do you get over the obstacle of accessing information about the narco world?

If the director is honest and cares about what's going on around him, he'll find a way of getting to the truth and disseminating it, in the same way as the press or a novel would do. But it's not easy.

Do you thinks these films have a Mexican "trademark", a distinctive feel to them that makes them recognisable as a Mexican cultural product for all kinds of audiences?

I think the music aspect helps ... the culture is born from that point of view.

The traffickers are great music fans, they even commission corridos which sing the praises of certain people who they think have transcended their environment.

These transcendent corridos are the starting point for cinema. It was always like that, because the corridos were the only source of information for the genre. Information and inspiration.

People say narco money is financing the music world, paying narcocorrido singers and commissioning tailor made corridos. Does this happen in film making?

Yes it does. They say - though I'm not exactly sure - that a lot of producers laundered narco money by making films. Or that the narcos themselves made films.

Have you had first hand experience of this?

Absolutely not ...

Or been threatened ... ?

No, not at all. When I used to make those films, I did so with someone who was adored by the public including the narcos. Aguilar was very well-liked, so there was respect.

The narcos knew they couldn't touch him, they wouldn't gain anything from trying. Because Antonio had more than enough financing. He never had the need to turn to them.

The genre enjoyed a boom in the 80s, mainly due to the video industry, so people watched at home. How did this affect the process of film production?

When the US flooded the market and the Mexican film industry lost its distribution monopoly, it was impossible for them to recover the investment. And the public hungered after this type of film.

And they wanted what they were used to, without any great changes.

But the producers, who didn't have the means anymore, started to make really low budget films which generated a sort of "sub-cinema".

This allowed the genre to keep going.

What impact does the Hispanic community in the US have on the consumption of narco films?

Well those videos which flooded the market until a few years ago were largely to satisfy that community, those who yearned for popular Mexican film from afar.

How did you use to choose your actors, the ones who were going to embody the narco characters?

They had to be convincing as heroes of the corridos and we always called upon popular personalities like Antonio Aguilar, Vicente Fernández and other corrido singers.

So the films were like made to measure for them.

More recently, some actors decided to withdraw from the genre because they found themselves having to represent criminal characters on the fringes of the law. What do you think about that?

Well it´s understandable in the circumstances. Many are persecuted or assassinated, they disappear ... We don´t really know what happens though we can guess. It happens a lot to the corrido bands, so their fear (the actors´) is understandable.

Given the current situation, no responsible person would make films which encourage admiration for the narcos.

A dilemma which does not affect Hollywood ...

No indeed. They are in the business to make money. They see the consumer society side of things and ignore the suffering brought on by drug trafficking.

Would you ever make another "narcofilm"?

No, no no ... it´s a terrible business.

They should make films that reflect the reality. Films need to be objective and try to help eradicate the problem. That's the dream of any self-respecting film-maker.

End of Section

Mario Hernández directed more than 40 films for the Mexican film industry. These include "El mexicano" (The Mexican 1976), "¡Que viva Tepito!" (Long live Tepito! 1980), "Noche de carnaval" (Night of the carnival 1981), "Zapata en Chimaneca" (1988) and "La sangre de un valiente" (Blood of a brave man 1992). His latest film is "Cementerio de papel" (Paper Cementery 2007), about the "dirty war" in 1970s Mexico.