'Reportero': Journalists at Risk in Mexico

Reflecting on how young killers come to their choices, the film elucidates -- beautifully and painfully -- contexts as well as consequences.

POV: Reportero

Director: Bernardo Ruiz
Cast: Sergio Haro, Adela Navarra, Richard Marosi, René Blanco
Rated: NR
Studio: Quiet Pictures/ITVS
Year: 2012
US date: 2013-01-07 (PBS)

The Mexicali Valley is truly marginalized, they do not have basic cultural offerings such as a film theater, for example; there aren't many options. That, combined with insecurity and phenomena such as exploitation of the work force and child labor, has led to the youth getting involved in more drug related activity there.

--Sergio Haro

"It's important not to lose that human connection." Sergio Haro makes his way toward another crime scene in Tijuana, Mexico. He carries his cameras, as always, he nods briefly at milling policemen. The street corner is marked off by yellow tape, the body is crumpled and bloody. Again.

Sergio works for the independent newsweekly Semanario Zeta, renowned for its investigative journalism and focus on politics. Now, still, that focus means Sergio is covering the effects of the narco wars in Mexico and along the US border. These effects make headlines. As Sergio tells it in the documentary Reportero, most papers focus on the violence, vivid and alarming: "If we don’t publish… I don’t want to call it 'yellow journalism,' but sensationalist stories of corruption, drugs, and murders," he says, "someone else will. Unfortunately, it's what the readers are interested in." But if that angle is profitable ("If it were up to the vendors," he laments, "the papers would be dripping in blood"), it's also limited. And so Sergio pursues that "human connection," reporting on the lives that lead to such horrific ends, on the reasons individuals make their choices.

Bernardo Ruiz's remarkable film takes Sergio's interest as its own. After touring Mexico and the US via the Ambulante traveling documentary film festival last year, Reportero is currently airing on PBS and online through 6 February: while it provides a brief and useful history of Zeta, built on images of and archival interviews with its cofounders Jesús Blancornelas and Héctor “Gato” Félix Miranda, it maintains focus on what Sergip and his colleagues do now, the daily peril of reporting in the Mexicali region. Since the 2006 election of President Felipe Calderón (now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, after he left office in 2012; the current president is Enrique Peña Nieto), more than 50 journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico.

As the film shows, the Zeta reporters understand their risks all too well: the paper's co-publisher Adela Navarro recounts El Gato's 1988 execution, over images that appeared in the paper, the bloody floorboards of his car; the film cuts back to a TV interview with Miranda, insisting, "My work in Zeta is proof that freedom of expression exists in Mexico. That others don’t practice it, is their own fault. Everyone talks about what they know." What Miranda knew, and what the reporters at Zeta know, is that their lives are in jeopardy. Navarro's publishing partner and Blancornelas' son, René Blanco, recounts the 1996 assassination attempt against his father, a story illustrated with photos and footage of the shooting scene and Blancornelas in the hospital.

Navarro recounts that the paper published these pictures, with headlines indicating that Blancornelas was shot because of his reporting. Here Ruiz's camera takes up a position at the crime scene, now as before, a suburban four-way intersection: as the camera turns to show lawns and homes, you’re struck by the pervasiveness and immediacy of the violence, even all these years later. The film cuts to black and white stills from 1996 as Navarro tells the story, that the squad of hitmen fired from multiple directions, that the lead assassin emerged from his car to take the last, fatal shot, and he was struck by shrapnel in the eye: "He drops dead," she says, "They left him there." Here you see the image Zeta published of the assassin. "We don’t usually know what these hitmen look like," notes Sergio. "There he was dead, blood oozing from his eye, seven or eight liters, a shocking amount of blood. He lay curled on the ground, with his brand new shotgun, his glove, and his pistol in the back for the finishing shot. He still had his finger on the trigger, but his companions had killed him first."

It's a stunningly violent story, but as Reportero presents it, you're left to contemplate not just the familiar sensational effects, but also the effects for Blanco and Navarro, certainly, but also, in Sergio's careful verbal detail, for the young people (overwhelmingly male) who participate, who make choices out of perceived necessity, who live in poverty and without hope, who see narco gangsterism as a means to survive, not only to wreak havoc or get rich. As Sergio puts it, he hopes to explore "how drug trafficking becomes an attractive alternative to youth. Some become killers."

The film tells this story -- so wide-ranging and so devastating -- in a way that resembles Sergio's reporting. The images are contemplative: Sergio drives his white Nissan pickup for miles, to cover the many crime scenes across Mexicali. Sergio and his wife cook in their cramped kitchen, then sit to talk for the camera, her face increasingly taut as she hears him lay out his next assignment. Adela works in her office, with iPad and Starbucks coffee cup, as she describes her meetings as a young and eager political reporter, with El Gato.

The film also follows Sergio on scene, photographing young boys in a classroom at a youth center, piles of garbage and portraits of pickers, a row of newly dug graves at a cemetery. His images are lovely and horrific at once, glimpses of how fear and corruption might take hold. Rather than excoriate the evil cartels and market the mayhem, Reportero follows the lead provided by Sergio and the other reporters at Zeta (who now publish their investigative pieces under the collective byline "Investigaciones Zeta"). Reflecting on how young killers come to their choices, the film elucidates -- beautifully and painfully -- contexts as well as consequences.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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