With “Kingdom of Shadows,” Mexican filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz says he wanted to give a platform to the families of more than 23,000 people who have disappeared in an often misunderstood conflict embroiling Mexico and the United States.
The documentary, which premiered this week at the South by Southwest Film Festival, follows the lives of three people from different walks of life, navigating the difficult landscape that has come with a rise in organized crime in Mexico, largely driven by a high U.S. demand for drugs.
In an interview with the American-Statesman on Wednesday, Ruiz said he sought to unpack complexities and defy stereotypes. And his film is as relevant as ever, airing at a time when international attention has homed in on the kidnappings of 43 students in the Mexican state of Guerrero.
“There are a lot of different films about the drug war and the U.S.-Mexico narco conflict, and unfortunately, I feel a lot of them are exploitative or they sensationalize the violence,” he said. “What I set out to do was look at how ordinary people had been impacted by the drug violence and how they have led their lives.”
Ruiz said he chose the people in his film carefully to solicit different perspectives. It captures a variety of voices, including an interview with an ex-Zetas gang member and the emotional testimonies of mothers whose loved ones have been taken.
But “Kingdom of Shadows” centers on the stories of a Oscar Hagelsieb, a U.S. drug enforcement agent working on the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border; Sister Consuelo Morales, an activist nun in the war-torn Mexican city of Monterrey; and Don Henry Ford Jr., a former drug smuggler who once wrote a novel about his experiences, “Contrabando: Confessions of a Drug-Smuggling Texas Cowboy.”
The characters are candid, giving viewers an intimate look into their lives, while chronicling the evolving nature of Mexican drug cartels, their bloody turf wars and the state corruption that allowed them to expand. At the heart of the film is the message of shared responsibility: People in both countries must stir dialogue and take action.
“It is all of our responsibility to make sure the violence stops,” Hagelsieb told the American-Statesman on Wednesday. It was partly out of that sense of duty that the law enforcement official wanted to share his story.
Hagelsieb, who was raised by undocumented parents in a drug-infested Socorro neighborhood outside El Paso, rose from an undercover agent to special agent in charge for Homeland Security in the area. But the film plays on viewers’ preconceived notions before slowly revealing his background, introducing the heavily tattooed officer riding down the highway in his motorcycle.
Prevalent throughout the film — on placards, fliers and heart-shaped signs — were the many faces of the missing. Similar images are likely to appear in Austin this week, as a caravan of advocates passes through the city to call attention to the 43 disappeared students of Guerrero, who many believe have been killed.
Organizers plan on Thursday to hold a news conference at City Hall and to protest in front of the Mexican Consulate. They are likely to echo a familiar chant: Because they took them alive, we want them back alive.