By Naief Yehya
We are on the cusp of a new era of Mexican cinema in which the bitter reality imposed by the war on drug trafficking is finally being treated as a film-worthy subject, used both as entertainment and to invoke moral reflection. In the past, Mexican cinema has been characterized by decades of implicit censorship of any criticism of the governing PRI party or the military. This new wave of cinema, and the collapse of the archaic structures governing the content, budgets and distribution of movies, coincides with the intensification of a grand-scale conflict: the mutual bloodbath between cartels and the government that has made the civilians daily collateral damage. With so much violence, the Mexican population, confused and terrorized, has lost the ability to understand or act and culture has come to a virtual standstill.
The critical and economic triumphs that Mexican cinema has seen in recent years has help us transition from institutional revolutionary silence to a state of euphoria and complacency that has resulted in cultural standstill. While this moment of chaos could lead to a wave of grotesque narco-cinema that exploits the atrocious violence contaminating society, Gerardo Naranjo (Drama/Mex and Voy a explotar) has chosen a different approach with his latest film, Miss Bala. The movie was inspired by the case of Laura Zuñiga, Miss Sinaloa 208, who was arrested along with a number of members of the Juarez Cartel. The young Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) dreams of participating in the Miss Baja California pageant. She ends up surviving a shoot-out at a local club, but the friend who brought her there is missing. Instead of escaping, Laura tries to find her friend and winds up involved with the boss of the fictitious Star Cartel, who forces her to work as a driver and mule in exchange for not killing her father and her brother. This same boss later buys Laura first place in the pageant.
Naranjo didn’t intend to do a film that explores the complexities and strategies of organized crime, nor did he originally want to make a film about narco-trafficking. This fact has caused mixed reactions; while there are those who praise the film for its indirect and emotional approach to narco-trafficking, others have accused it of being cowardly, misleading or complacent (especially since the crew had to pay off a local cartel during the filming). Naranjo makes it implicit that the Star Cartel traffics narcotics, but “does not include images of drugs,” as Miriam Canales pointed out in an interview for the magazine, Replicante. What he did aim to show was the condition of the victim, an innocent young girl who finds herself tangled up in an incomprehensible web where power figures operate with criteria that she doesn’t understand, where her free will is irrelevant, and where she risks being sacrificed at any moment and for any reason without anyone to protect her. The only sure thing about Laura, who even loses her name, (baptized “Canelita” by the drug traffickers’ boss), is her vulnerability. Faced with the dilemma of how to tackle such a painful and difficult subject, Naranjo avoids the temptation of sensationalism and opts to show the emotional impact of war neither from the viewpoint of the corrupt authorities nor the criminals.
The main attribute of Miss Bala is not its realism but its almost dreamlike narrative flow in which Laura seems to float from situation to situation. Laura represents the condition of a society paralyzed with fear, shock and often involuntary complacency. There is no redemption and there is no consolatory justice, but there also isn’t a sense of exploitative desperation. What we see is a snapshot of the everyday tragedy that has turned these people into cannon fodder.
Naief Yehya (1963) Industrial engineer, journalist, writer and cultural critic. His work deals mainly with the impact of technology, mass media, propaganda and pornography in culture and society. His most recent book is Technoculture (Tusquets, 2008).