Skip to main content

Once Upon a Time in Mexico: An American Film Showcase Report

By Steve James

Steve James with social work students at UANL in Monterrey

As part of a delegation of the American Film Showcase (AFS), under the auspices of the US State Department and the USC School of Cinematic Arts, I traveled to Mexico in mid-August with my film The Interrupters. The plan was to show the film in several cities in the north, which has seen an escalation of violence over the last few years. Prior to the trip, I joked with friends about how the US State Department was giving me a week to go down there and "solve the Mexican violence problem" with the film. But of course, it's no joke. 

When I got there, it became immediately evident that people there are terrified and feeling quite helpless about how to address the problem. Monterrey, our first stop, has seen a six-fold increase in murders over the last six years. This is a city that our hosts told us was the third wealthiest in Mexico, and it borders San Pedro, the wealthiest. To drive around Monterrey during the day, it's hard to reconcile that this is a city whose murder rate would be the equivalent of Chicago having 2,000 murders a year—or about four times its current rate. But when you talk to locals, they speak of drug cartel violence that has resulted in 32 decapitated bodies being put on "display" right in the middle of downtown by a gang wanting to send a message.

Part of the problem seems to be that some very powerful cartels are at war with each other in a way that we in the US haven't seen in at least 20 years. And it's also no accident that this violence is largely confined to the north near the border. The United States' partial culpability, either governmental or otherwise, cannot be ignored: We are the prime market for the drugs, and we are the primary provider of weapons. And I'm not talking about the "Operation Fast and Furious" debacle; tens of thousands of guns in Mexico were acquired from gun shops in the border states of Arizona, Texas and California. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that nearly 90 percent of guns seized by Mexican authorities there are traceable back to the US.

In Monterrey, we had perhaps our most poignant screening, with an NGO, Nacidos para Triunfar (Born to Triumph), that works with local gangs in much the same way that the violence interrupters from our film work in Chicago. The founder, Juan Pablo (JP) Garcia Aguinaga, is a former gangbanger who has bravely taken on the tasks of getting young people out of gangs and negotiating truces between gangs. At our screening were a number of such young people, who spoke movingly about how much impact JP and his small staff has had on their lives. Some had thought it impossible to walk away from the gang. But JP's credibility with gangs makes it possible. One woman stood up and tearfully talked about how for so long she thought her life would mean nothing, that thinking about the future was futile and pointless. But now, that's changed. 

In Monterrey, we also did a screening with social work majors at the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo Leon (UANL). Most of the 150-plus students were women — something that didn't surprise me, but the field could use more dedicated, qualified men. We also presented another screening for junior high school-aged kids from troubled neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Claire Aguilar, president of programming at the Independent Television Service (ITVS), who was also part of the AFS delegation,  conducted workshops with both college film majors and professionals from different broadcast and film backgrounds; I participated in both workshops. Not unexpectedly, the majority of  attendees  in the workshops saw themselves as narrative filmmakers, rather than documentarians. This was like it was when I was in school all those years ago. And I think in part it was a function of the percieved limited opportunities to fund and make documentaries. While terrific work comes out of Mexico, there doesn't appear to be the kind of documentary community we have in the major cities in the US—at least not in Monterrey.

Midweek, we moved on to Nuevo Laredo, across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas. But instead of driving the hour and a half it would take to get there, we had to fly two hours to Fort Worth, then an hour and a half to Laredo because of State Department policy. They'd had personnel killed on the highways outside Monterrey, so unless you're the Consul General traveling in a bullet-proof SUV accompanied by a security detail, you fly.

Our Consulate liaison in Nuevo Laredo, Mariana Barberena, had grown up there. When she gave us a tour of the city, she pointed out that in her youth, the city was a tourist destination because of its low-key charm. Traces of it remained, though it clearly had all the earmarks of a city in decline: boarded-up storefronts, peeling paint, graffiti everywhere. And then there was the violence. Recently, a drug cartel had hung nine bodies of a rival gang on the border bridge. And the city's murder rate had spiked like Monterrey's. One morning, I read in the Laredo paper of four murders the previous night, but the paper in Nuevo Laredo, where the murders had occured, made no mention of it. I was told the reason is the newspaper had been bombed and journalists had been murdered reporting on the gangs. Despite some continued brave reporting, many in the press had been terrorized into silence. Even the US Embassy in Nuevo Laredo had been bombed. Fortunately, no one was hurt. 

While there and in Piedras Negras, we mostly presented a series of screenings to middle-school kids, followed by a Q&A. While I was happy to get the film in front of such young audiences, it was hard to have a meaningful conversation with such a large group of self-conscious kids, especially on such a serious topic. But clearly, the kids could relate the world of The Interrupters to their own. Some commented that they thought the violence was worse for them. Probably true. And some expressed surprise that this goes on in Chicago. They had relatives who lived there who never spoke of it. They only talked about how beautiful the city is. Also true. Still other kids said that knowing that even cities in America struggle with these problems was somehow comforting. And more than one kid at a screening asked me if I would be willing to come to Mexico to make a documentary on this issue.

I was reminded of something that JP had told me over lunch in Monterrey: Hollywood films over the years that take place in the world of gangsters and gangs had had a powerful and negative influence on the growth of gang culture in Mexico. With every successful The Warriors or Colors or The Godfather, he claimed, there was a spike in kids joining gangs. His young guys confirmed this, and they had a remarkably complete command of the many gang-themed films from Hollywood, going all the way back to the original Godfather. I told them that, interestingly enough, Eddie Bocanegra from our film had talked about how seeing Colors as a young teen had totally hooked him on the allure of that lifestyle.

JP wants to bring Eddie down to Monterrey to talk with the young men and women he works with because he thinks they will be inspired by Eddie's example. I think he's right.  It was great to see that the film, made here in Chicago, could resonate so well with so many different audiences in Mexico.

The Interrupters won the 2012 Independent Spirit Award, among many others, and was recently awarded a DuPont-Columbia Journalism Award. Steve James' other films include Hoop Dreams, Stevie and the IDA Award-winning series The New Americans.