Bernardo Ruiz is not a stranger to the borderlands of Mexico and the United States; his 2013 documentary, premiered in the U.S. on PBS, trained its lens on the difficult and dangerous lives of reporters in Tijuana.
Ruiz, who was born in Guanajuato and grew up in Brooklyn, has remained compelled by border dynamics, which are the subject of his new documentary, too. “Kingdom of Shadows,” looks at life on the border as it is experienced by three complex protagonists. We spoke with Ruiz via email about “Kingdom of Shadows” and about the need for more nuanced, contextualized reporting about border spaces.
Latin Correspondent: What makes any good documentary or narrative is a compelling protagonist, and you have not one, but several in “Kingdom of Shadows.” How did you met each of them?
Bernardo Ruiz: While I was in production on my last documentary, “Reportero,” I began to hear about the issue of “disappearance” or “forced disappearance”– that is, abductions or disappearances that involve security forces in Mexico. Both the fact that it was (and is) happening in so many regions in Mexico, as well as the language that activists are using, evoked the painful histories of Argentina and Chile, where thousands were “disappeared” during the dictatorships of those countries.
I began to hear and read about the difficult work Sister Consuelo was doing in Monterrey and felt if I could get access to her and the families she accompanies, that that would be a way into this complex story. On the other hand, I had maintained a correspondence with Don Henry Ford, Jr., the former smuggler and rancher (in the documentary) for about eight years, ever since the publication of his memoir, Contrabando. I had already visited Don on his ranch and was waiting for the right moment to tell his story in documentary.
Once I started to think about what it would look like, feel like, to have Sister Consuelo, a Catholic nun and human rights defender, and Don Ford, a former smuggler and sharp critic of the U.S.-led war on drugs, in one movie, I knew I needed a narrative bridge to connect these two stories.
I reached out to my friends and colleagues, Alfredo Corchado and Angela Kocherga, veteran border reporters who have covered the region and Mexico extensively. I told them I thought I needed to talk to someone from U.S. law enforcement with strong Mexico experience, and they nodded and told me to go to El Paso. There, I met U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Special Agent in Charge Oscar Hagelsieb.
I met him at a café in El Paso with Angela, (who) played a trick on me of sorts. She didn’t tell me what he looked like — and so when Oscar came into the cafe dressed like a biker, with tats up his arms and the goatee, I didn’t peg him for a federal agent. Where I got lucky, is that Oscar’s story is a natural bridge between Don Ford and Sister Consuelo.
Oscar’s childhood was marked by the rise of the Juárez cartel, who Don did business with, in the 1980s. His adult professional life was marked by the rise of the Zetas in Monterrey, where Sister Consuelo works. My work was then to respect the logic and perspective in these three stories or testimonies, in order to paint a bigger, more complex portrait of how the business of shadows has changed over the last few decades.
Latin Correspondent: What makes these protagonists so interesting is that each one really embodies the notion of duality fully. They’re not one-dimensional characters you’re using to advance a particular perspective or opinion. You respect and convey their complexities without any judgment. Are these protagonists representative of the kinds of complexities you’ve seen during your years doing work on the Mexico-U.S. border?
Ruiz: I think you’ve hit the core of why I was so drawn to these three people: duality. At times, when it comes to media(‘s treatment of) the narco conflict, people– and especially Latinos– are painted with one brush. We are inundated by one-dimensional portraits. In both fiction and documentary, people at the center of this conflict are drawn as only victims or as ruthless savages. In addition to being inaccurate, it is also lazy storytelling.
What I loved about these three people is that each one of them challenges and defies a stereotype in fascinating ways. To many, Oscar looks like the typical biker gang member, but is in fact a Homeland Security investigator. Don Ford looks like the classic American cowboy and rancher, but once smuggled and did business with one of the most dangerous organized crime groups of the “Just Say No” era. To many, Sister Consuelo looks like a diminutive, passive nun, but in fact she is arguably the most assertive and brave person in the film. She pushes public officials to investigate why so many people disappeared at the height of Monterrey’s violence. That work– getting institutions to do their jobs– can be a radical proposition in parts of Mexico.
Latin Correspondent: When you made this documentary, who was the audience you intended it for or that you anticipated would engage with it meaningfully?
Ruiz: I have now screened the film in both the U.S. and Mexico. In Mexico, the film has been released in five cities and at least 18 Cineplexes throughout the country. In the U.S., the film is being released in select theaters (and Video on Demand) on November 20. What I wanted to do from the beginning was to create a film that could play in both countries– which have such different perspectives about this issue. As I’v esaid many times, the two countries can’t even agree on the name of the river that separate them (Rio Bravo in Mexico, Rio Grande in U.S.) so obviously audiences come armed with different information and expecting different things.
In Mexico, I have had people come up to me and explain how fascinated they are by Don’s and Oscar’s stories— these are stories that aren’t as common in Mexico, while the issue of disappearance is unfortunately headline news now, thanks to a number of very high-profile cases, including the horrific disappearance of 43 students from the state of Guerrero a little over a year ago.
In the U.S., I have had many people be moved to tears by the stories of the families Sister Consuelo accompanies and fights for. When it comes down to it, I think my audience is make up of people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border who are tired of the lazy tropes and sensationalized stories about this ongoing conflict.
Latin Correspondent: Has the actual audience differed from the one you had in mind? If so, how?
Ruiz: I have been blown away by the press response in Mexico. We have been featured on Aristegui’s CNN show [Carmen Aristegui is a prominent Mexican journalist] and a number of the major papers. A lot of the press has focused on the fact that this is a fresh, more human take on the conflict at a time when Mexican audiences have been inundated by both fiction and other work about the conflict—much of it avoiding any context whatsoever.
In the U.S., as we gear up for the U.S. release on the 20th, the film has been generating long conversations, centering in particular on the role Americans play in what is often erroneously referred to as a “Mexican conflict.” In El Paso, we had a screening where the audience included both U.S. federal agents as well as progressive activists from the border. There was a serious debate afterwards —a good one. But the film got both sides talking, and it was a compelling discussion.
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