Did anything happen in Mexico over the last few days except for the recapture of “El Chapo” and Sean Penn’s interview? If so, it was hardly getting much play late Sunday and early Monday from the Spanish-speaking media.
Mexican newspaper El Universal led with a special – “Kate, Sean, El Chapo Links – Documented” plus six Penn-hostile columns; Spain’s El Pais America edition dedicated all its top eight online stories to El Chapo’s detention and interview.
Meanwhile, however, members of Mexico’s film industry, like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Gael Garcia Bernal at the Golden Globes, preferred to take a step back, get their heads round the Chapo-Penn meeting and set it in a broader context.
“The fact that two actors had the chance to meet with El Chapo — the most wanted man in the world — only shows the incapacity of the Mexican government to do what it is supposed to do,” said Ozcar Ramirez, a Mexican producer.
Having scored a huge coup with El Chapo’s recapture, the Mexican government was on the defensive Sunday and Monday. El Universal’s Kate-Sean-El Chapo special, while its title seemed Hola coverage, in fact went on to claim that Mexican intelligence services had Kate del Castillo under surveillance from August 2014, 14 months before Sean Penn’s meeting with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, when the drug lord instructed his drug lords to contact the actress. As further proof, it showed pictures of Del Castillo and Penn on their trip to Mexico, Penn in one being introduced to a stranger by Del Castillo.
Then there’s the reality of cartel violence in Mexico which, one interview or not, will not go away.
“While the many surreal aspects of this make it such a media phenomenon, at the end of the day we are talking about very serious criminal activities that have brought on brutal violence in Mexico,” added a Mexican director, who preferred anonymity.
He added: “This is not a movie or a fun anecdote: Criminal organizations such as the one led by El Chapo represent some of the most dark and deadly aspects of Mexico.”
For Mexican filmmakers, who are ever more intertwined with Hollywood’s industry, the Chapo-Penn interview throws a huge curveball.
The new generation of Mexican filmmakers that broke through from early last decade – think Carlos Reygadas, Amat Escalante, Gerardo Naranjo, Diego Quemada-Diaz – have suffered like the rest of Mexico from drug-cartel related violence, which soared from nine-per-100,000 in 2007 to 300 violent deaths a month in Ciudad Juarez three years later.
“I grew up in one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in Mexico City. Of my friends at kindergarten, some are in jail, others sell drugs and others are just dead,” said Ramirez in Variety’s early 2013 special report on violence.
The bloodshed, cop-mob face-offs, or power-mob collusion, and above all the devastating impact on a civil population, has been the subject of some of the finest recent Mexican films to come out of Mexico: “Days of Grace,” produced by Ramirez, Naranjo’s “Miss Bala,” produced by Golden Globe winner Gael Garcia Bernal, plus Diego Luna and Pablo Cruz at Canana, and “Heli,” by Cannes director winner for Amat Escalante.
When grilled at Cannes about why he showed such graphic violence, Escalante argued that it was because this was happening in Mexico.
Penn’s meeting with Guzman can be seen as an attempt to understand a man whom many would take as the world’s moist heinous criminal. As an actor and director and social activist, Penn is largely admired by Mexico’s often left-leaning industry. Many of Mexico’s leading filmmakers would not argue very much with many of Penn’s observations: That the War on Drugs has failed; the American public – the insatiability of the American nose, as someone put it – is complicit in what it demonizes.
“The two worlds — show business and crime — have exercised a mutual attraction since cinema was born,” said Ramirez.
But the cartel war deaths remain.
“It’s better to tread lightly with the media light that is shed upon this. It is very dangerous and irresponsible, in my mind, to glamorize the criminal activity that has taken so many lives in my country,” the Mexican director said.
As Garcia Bernal put it more bluntly at the Golden Globes, saying he hadn’t read Penn’s article: “It’s so recent, and to me as a Mexican, it’s hard to talk about this subject because it’s a subject that’s very important to me and there are dead people involved.”