Mexico is something of a documentary filmmaker’s paradise.
The country’s incredible wealth and crushing poverty, its rich indigenous heritage and its lively contemporary arts scene provide ample space for inspiration. Here are some must-see documentaries on Mexican subjects, all available to watch now on Netflix.
1. Cartel Land
U.S. director Matthew Heineman’s gritty Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land tells the parallel stories of two vigilantes on both sides of the border—in Arizona and the crime-ravaged Mexican state of Michoacan.
The director spent months living in Michoacan and obtained unprecedented access to the Mexican vigilantes, or autodefensas. Owing to this dedication, the film features extraordinary and highly disturbing scenes of shootouts and torture rooms.
Heineman also formed a close relationship with the film’s central subject, the vigilante leader Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles. Commanding, yet soft-spoken and sympathetic, the film traces the charismatic leader’s rise to power and influence, and his dramatic and sudden fall. An extraordinary and insightful documentary.
2. Narco Cultura
The film delves into the world of narcocorridos—drug ballads that combine upbeat rhythms with lyrics that celebrate the wealth and violence of Mexican drug cartels. Edgar Quintero is the lead singer of Buknas de Culiacan, a band that receives money from outlaws to glorify them in song. “We’ll chop off your head. We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill,” is the chorus to one number.
Yet the scenes focusing on Los Angeles native Quintero are skillfully interwoven with the story of Richi Soto, a crime scene investigator in Ciudad Juarez whose colleagues are routinely murdered. As Soto says, his is a world where “you always go out with a prayer on your lips.”
Director Shaul Schwarz cuts back and forth between his two subjects and in so doing exposes the connection between the music and the dark reality of the criminals it glorifies. “The youth have lost hope and now idealize the devil,” as Soto puts it.
3. Eco de la montaña (Echo of the Mountain)
This 2014 documentary film focuses on Wixárika (Huichol) artist Santos de la Torre. While his vast, multi-paneled mural “Huichol Thought and Art,” was deemed great enough to be displayed in the Paris metro, only a few meters from the Louvre Museum, the artist himself was not even invited to the inauguration. Instead, then-Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo opened the installation. “I wasn’t physically injured or crippled or anything like that,” the artist says. “But my soul was.”
The film follows Santos as he makes a pilgrimage to Wirikuta, where he will ask the gods’ permission to create a new painting, this one an epic account of the history and spirituality of the Wixárika people made of tiny, multi-colored beads.
4. Hecho en Mexico (Made in Mexico)
This exploration of Mexico’s rich cultural heritage is one of the most uplifting films ever made about the country. Breathtakingly shot, the film is more a feature length music video than a conventional documentary, and it provides a perfect introduction to the contemporary and folkloric Mexican music scene. Artists and groups such as Café Tacvba, Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Carla Morrison appear, along with some insightful talking heads, such as the novelists Elena Poniatowska and Juan Villoro.
While the film does not shy away from Mexico’s acute problems, the overall tone is that of a fiesta, celebrating the country’s people, music and cultural wisdom.
5. Gimme the Power
This 2012 film focuses on the Mexico City music group Molotov, but it is much more than a rockumentary. In fact, the band are not even mentioned until the 34th minute. Instead, the film provides an overview of Mexico’s political history and the historical role of rock music in its social protest movements.
Released to coincide with the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) return to power, the film reflects the deep sense of disconnection and injustice among swathes of the population. “You grow up listening to your grandparents killing themselves complaining about the PRI,” says bassist Micky Huidobro.
Yet there is also a celebratory and light-hearted tone to the film that is as uniquely Mexican as Molotov. The documentary makes clear that the band members are no ideological puritans. While they complain about corrupt politicians, they also sing homophobic and misogynist lyrics. “They live in a permanent contradiction,” says the director Olallo Rubio. “They’re into drinking beer and watching soccer, but the songs they write have an important message. It’s not that they’re anti-corporate… They once made a Pepsi commercial.”