Kingdom of Shadows Dir. Bernardo ruiz

[Participant Media; 2015]

Styles: documentary
Others: Reportero, Sicario Room 161, The House I Live In

Fiction has proven an unwieldy tool in relaying the violence of the Mexican drug war. Roberto Bolano’s final novel 2666 captured the innards strewn over dusty streets and splayed the gore over an expanse of pages centered on a fictive rendering of Ciudad Juárez. Villeneuve’s excellent Sicario found the director’s predilection for the needling unknown framing a bramble of criminals and agencies as they parse through their murky, horrifying existence. Both works convey affecting, visceral stories allowing a glimpse into a world ruled by a capacity for horror few can understand. The problem lies in the package delivered; these are only stories, and there are people living every day in a reality far worse than anything our imaginations can do.

Bernardo Ruiz’s Kingdom of Shadows brushes away the fictive layers surrounding the nearly mythic violence plaguing Mexico and delivers a documentary brimming with the lives embroiled in that violence. Constructed in a stratified filmic vehicle of three main individuals, the documentary follows the stories of Sister Consuelo Morales, a nun heading a human rights organization; Don Henry Ford Jr., a convicted and reformed smuggler; and Oscar Hagelsieb, a Homeland Security Agent. Semblant to Jarecki’s The House I Live In concerning prison reform in the United States, Kingdom of Shadows touches on the systemic failures which galvanized and now goad the drug war violence, but steeps itself in the personal accounts of those caught in the fray. The effect is no less harrowing.

Kingdom of Shadows is a natural continuation in Ruiz’s body of work. His previous film, Reportero, focused on journalists in Tijuana continuing their work investigating the cartels after the grisly murders of three of their colleagues, with great effect of translating grisly headlines from Washington Post into human experience. For American audiences, the immediacy of seeing someone recount the day their son went missing because he couldn’t pay for a six-pack at a cartel-extorted bar will be leagues more affecting than seeing a detailed prop body strung from a bridge in a blockbuster. Ruiz’s editing style intersperses these types of interviews with news footage, brief text relaying facts and the occasional violent image in a manner that trades distant anxiety with the horrific banality of a daily life where beheadings are as common as soccer games.

The three primary figures followed in the film all operate within different levels of society within the war, providing a more comprehensive picture than if only one societal group was examined (such as in Sicario or Room 161. Sister Consuela’s presence is one of constant optimism, bearing the phrase “You must keep your spirits up” to victims’ family members like a rosary never removed. The smuggler, Ford, brings a more dynamic element to the narrative. Conducting his interviews primarily from his pastoral farm in Texas, Ford recounts delivering hundreds of pounds of marijuana with a quiet, almost tired countenance. He only ebbs to anger when discussing the American prison system, and not his own experiences there (he received a five-year sentence before the minimum sentencing regulations were passed). Ford’s disgust with the prison system’s arbitrary and destructive failures (which are finally being addressed in popular discourse) echoes the indignation heard all throughout Kingdom of Shadows at the ineffectuality and willful ignorance of the policies which allowed — and still allow — this vicious machine to turn.

At one point while driving to her rights group’s headquarters, Sister Consuela says, with her face tilted from the camera making a turn, that she’s comforted by the knowledge that she is small. The complexity of the drug war is overwhelming, but through this film, the audience is allowed to see the people who want nothing more than for it to be over. While an end may not be in sight now, Kingdom of Shadows shows us the people likely to help find it.

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