The intense world of El Salvador gangs is lensed with in-your-face style in docu helmer Christian Poveda’s problematically nonjudgmental “La vida loca.” Poveda spent one year with the ultra-violent, heavily tattooed members of the M-18s, and, though he shows the brutality, the helmer adopts a sympathetic tone that, if not quite glamorizing the life, conveys the sense of an enthralled anthropologist unsuccessfully struggling for objectivity. This glimpse into hell will likely find plenty of supporters, not just among fest programmers but also among urbanized arthouse denizens in Europe and the U.S.
When the civil wars quieted down in El Salvador, the U.S. expelled thousands of violent gang members who returned to their homeland without any social network except the street gang structure they learned in the Los Angeles ghettos. Now numbering around 14,000, they perpetuate a life of violence that owes no loyalty to biology or country, only to their particular faction. Few make it past their late 20s, with most, of both sexes, in their late teens.
Poveda focuses on a start-up bakery in the heart of the slums, meant to provide employment to people so covered in gang-related tattoos that work outside their territory simply isn’t an option. Docu employs a cyclical rhythm, following various members as they boast and briefly describe their lives, each segment ending with edited-in gunshots and yet another dead body on the street, and another funeral.
Presumably the helmer feels he’s de-glamorizing the gangs by repeatedly showing where the lifestyle leads, but he rarely demarcates the roads ending in splattered pavements. Part of the problem could be he simply shot too much material and didn’t edit it well enough; some subjects manage to convey an individual identity, but others remain permanently closed books, such as Janet, aka “La Wizard.” Poveda spends an inordinate amount of time with close-ups of her one hollow eye cavity as she’s fitted for a glass ball, but her story, and how she lost that eye, can only be found in the pressbook.
In addition, the bakery, touted as a way forward, appears by docu’s end to be little more than a front to tide over gang members between hits, or time in the slammer. Poveda is obviously anxious to humanize these people, to make auds see beyond the disfiguring facial tattoos, but their actions remain repulsive, and their barbaric social structure is more Mad Max than Claude Levi-Strauss.
Matching the bravado of the subjects, lensing is all hand-held, full of big close-ups designed to thrust the viewer into the very heart of the subject, but Poveda doesn’t always justify his choices. Music, judiciously utilized, expectedly tends to gangster rap and hip-hop.