'Kingdom of Shadows' Interview

by Monica Maristaín/Sin Embargo

  Photo by Juan Luis Garcia. 

Photo by Juan Luis Garcia. 

Text originally published Nov. 10, 2015. Translated by Carlos Diaz de Leon and edited for length.

Mexico City -  If Reportero (2012), his film about the Semanario Zeta newspaper, tugged at our heartstrings, Ruiz—born in Mexico but raised from a young age in the U.S.—now hits us deep in the soul with a narrative that steers clear of the noise and gruesomeness with which other works have reveled in a drama that threatens to extinguish Mexico’s moral reserve.

Kingdom of Shadows weaves together the stories of three residents of the Texas-Nuevo Leon border region: A Mexican-American U.S. drug enforcement agent, a human rights activist in Monterrey, Mexico, and a former Texas smuggler who operated in the times of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and Miguel de la Madrid (1934-2012).

The screenplay, written by Ruiz himself in collaboration with Diego Enrique Osorno [Osorno served as a consultant], takes a risky approach, but one that works thanks to the power of a witness that does not pass judgement, but rather remains calm and expectant even as those interviewed speak of the most heinous crimes.

In contrast to Cartel Land, in which the director’s Manicheism absurdly equates the work of Arizona border vigilantes with that of the Michoacán self-defense forces in Mexico, Kingdom of Shadows humanizes the drama of the missing and zeroes in on the pain suffered by the victims’ families.

Poverty appears as the great spark plug behind a crime machine for which Mexico provides the dead bodies and the United States the weapons and consumption.

In light of the nearly imminent drug legalization, criminal enterprise makes its plans to replace it with meth and thus ensure business will go on.

Drug trafficking, which historically used to be a person-to-person business that did not involve guns, has now turned into a dark gearbox where a teenager could be tortured, murdered, and made to vanish merely because he refused to pay for some beers at a Monterrey bar that turned out to be protected by criminals.

The value of Kingdom of Shadows is that it provides a historical record and at the same time serves as a mirror to fulfill the sacred mission we are compelled to do: put an end to the tragedy of the missing, so that no one ever again can feel like they own someone else’s life outright.

We spoke about with Bernardo Ruiz about these and other things.

–The film keeps a calm, slow, even modest, pace… Didn’t what you saw and filmed make you want to scream?

–Well, that was one of the intentions of the film, to come at the story in a different way. In the U.S., where I live, I see quite a bit of drug trafficking and organized crime coverage, but tends towards the superficial, very alarmist. What I wanted was to delve deeper through the timing, the pace, and the voices of my three main characters.

­–How did these characters come to you?

–I think that every documentary filmmaker has a character in their pocket. In my case, that character was Don Henry Ford, the cowboy ex-smuggler, with whom I kept regular correspondence for 9 years. I met him through a radio interview, and ever since I kept in touch with him. I went to his ranch to meet him without knowing if that relationship would ever lead to a film. After wrapping up Reportero, which is basically a film about journalist Sergio Haro, I wanted to make a documentary with mosaics that included parts of what I had left from that project. Through some journalist friends, I learned of Sister Consuelo Morales, the director of the [Human Rights NGO] Ciudadanos en Apoyo a los Derechos Humanos, A.C. (CADHAC) in Monterrey, so I visited her to see if it would be possible to make a portrait and follow her. I realized that I needed a narrative bridge between the two characters, and felt that I needed to talk to a drug enforcement agent. It was through border-expert journalists Alfredo Corchado and Angela Korchega that I met U.S. Federal Agent Oscar Felipe Hagelsieb, who had done undercover work in Monterrey and whose story helped me weave the pieces of the film together.

–Did you have a theory on drug trafficking prior to beginning filming?

–No, because I only learn through the characters, through their stories. In the case of Sister Consuelo, her work is her life. That’s where things come together.

Cartel Land was another documentary that tried to bring the two sides of the border through drug trafficking…

–There has been no shortage of comparisons, but we have very different points of view. The topic of the Mexican self-defense groups is covered very well from a technical [photographic] standpoint, but I have a lot of questions about the narrative structure. For me, Cartel Land creates a false equivalency between border vigilantes in the U.S. and the self-defense forces in Michoacán. It’s great to turn our eyes to the self-defense groups, but my concern as a Mexican-born filmmaker, with Mexican roots and citizenship, is the dehumanizing of the characters. Slow or not, good or bad, my work is an attempt to humanize the issue, to understand the characters from their own logic.

–One of the strong tenets of your film has to do with what would happen, what would be the business of the complex organized crime structure should drugs be legalized.

–It’s a key point. At this very moment in the U.S. they are debating the possibility of decriminalizing several drugs. Marihuana has already been legalized in some states. But we cannot ignore strong financial ties created by the drug-trafficking business… we cannot look at this market fed by a consumer country like the U.S., without being aware of how it affects the supplier countries. And in this context, the craziest thing is that we are turning this criminal enterprise into entertainment, with TV shows and movies.

–Why do you think drug trafficking is glamorized?

–I don’t know whether it’s a sing of these times where information flies at breakneck speeds and erases borders, or whether we’ve become desensitized. It is strange to me to turn pain into entertainment. If we think about other conflicts, such as Syria, it would be madness to turn it into a TV series. I also think that to speak of it is also to speak of that dark side characterized by the racism and xenophobia felt in the U.S. towards Mexico. They look at this country very derogatorily and, in many place in the United States, a Mexican life is worth less. That is why I believe that we have to tell the story in a different way, looking back into the shadows that are the missing. When we start talking about this, it wipes all that Hollywood glitter away.

–Against all odds, you are an optimist; you pay a lot of mind to the children who do not want to repeat their parents’ criminal story

–I don’t know if I’d call it optimism. Hope, perhaps. I see in places where much harm has been done some possible roads out. I decided to close the film with the faces of the families because there I see the pain, but also the fact that they still standing, not giving up the fight. I also see that in Mexican NGOs.

-Why did you leave the victims in the background when they talk about their pain?

–I wanted to focus the camera on my three central characters, and keep it away from the rest, perhaps in part as a subconscious reflex motivated by respect and décor for those suffering.

–Were you being ironic when Sister Consuelo takes the hand of the mother of the missing children and tries to calm her down by saying that they are now with the power of God and he protects them?

–There I am merely observing. I am not a religious person, although I was raised in the Catholic Church. That scene intends on the one hand to show the engine driving Sister Consuelo, which is her faith, and on the other the impossibility of saying anything before so much pain, so much sadness, so much horror. I think that scene shows that conflict for people working in the trenches. What can you say? There are no words.

–Sister Consuelo is optimistic to the point of believing she can soften politicians.

–Yes, she is very optimistic. Diego Enrique Osorno says that she is the perfect combination between fury and tenderness. She is also very wise, politically. She even wanted to run the movie for me (laughs). She knows how to play the short nun card, but behind the façade there is a strategist’s mind. My characters defy stereotypes. The guy who looks like a gangbanger is a drug enforcement agent. The cowboy is a drug smuggler, or was.

Kingdom of Shadows also tells us: you may kill, you may make vanish, but the fight will never end.

-Yes, there is a human strength that goes beyond everything. The Monterrey mothers remind me of the mothers in Argentina and Chile. They will never stop looking for their children. In Argentina to this day they are still solving cases of the missing. The relatives of the missing have an unquestionable political power. They stand for hope. About four days ago, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power met with Sister Consuelo in Monterrey, Mexico. Her work is a symbol. This film is not going to resolve the conflict, but it will shine a light on people like her. And that is important.