Documentary film ‘Kingdom of Shadows’ tries to shine a light on the drug trade

The crosses mourning those who were "disappeared" in 'Kingdom of Shadows'.
The crosses mourning those who were “disappeared” in ‘Kingdom of Shadows’.

Documentary films that run less than 85 minutes raise an immediate question.  Would this have been better as a PBS special stretched out to two hours with pledge breaks, rather than as a feature project?  It is a valid question for Kingdom of Shadows, from writer/director Bernardo Ruiz.  Don’t take this to mean this is a “bad” film, because it isn’t.  It attempts to look at the utter failure of the so-called War on Drugs, through the lives of three very different individuals.  Drugs and the attempt to stop them from being imported into the U. S. across the border with Mexico has had major impact upon all of their lives.

Sister Consuelo Morales is a nun in Monterrey, Mexico.  She spends almost all of her time trying to assist the families of those who have been “disappeared” by the drug cartels.  This work is endless and almost always unsuccessful.  The cartels do their utmost to prevent identification of their victims, often dismembering and/or burning the corpses.  Mass graves have been found in multiple locations.  An article published by the Los Angeles Times in October of 2015 claims that the Mexican government says the official number of people who have been disappeared since 2006 is in excess of 25,000.  Journalists covering the story and those working to find the missing believe the actual number to be much higher.

Don Henry Ford, Jr., is a convicted marijuana smuggler.  He was the perfect choice to tell the history of smuggling pot across the border prior to the development of high-tech surveillance equipment that could be used to make such smuggling more difficult.  He told his story in a book, Contrabando: Confessions of a Drug-Smuggling Texas Cowboy, which was published in 2006.

Sister Consuelo Morales in ‘Kingdom of Shadows’

Oscar Hagelsieb is a Homeland Security Agent who had worked in a number of undercover drug operations designed to catch cartel smugglers.  He certainly looks the part, riding a big motorcycle and with a number of tattoos.  But he is actually a high ranking officer who head the unit he is assigned it.  It’s interesting that he allows his face to be shown, something he wouldn’t do if he were worried about being discovered to have been a snitch rather than as a cop.

But we do get to see someone who isn’t willing to show his face.  A member of Los Zetas, a particularly brutal cartel that has a number of former Mexican military members among its forces, appears with his face obscured by a mask.  Like all of those who take part in this documentary, he describes what’s gone on rather than being able to actually show what happened.

Oscar Hagelsieb is a Homeland Security Agent appearing in 'King of Shadows'
Oscar Hagelsieb is a Homeland Security Agent appearing in ‘King of Shadows’

This is the film’s fatal flaw that took what could have been excellent documentary filmmaking and lowered it down to a more ordinary level.  We know that the violence and brutality have been going on for decades, and have worsened significantly since the turn of the century, but we don’t see that on the screen.  This is more like a bunch of people who are sitting around a campfire, telling us the stories of what they have seen and experienced, rather than recreating those experiences.  It just doesn’t communicate the story with nearly the effectiveness of recreating or at least giving us some more satisfying visual imagery of what really happened.

After seeing Sicario earlier this year, I really wanted this to be a more in-depth examination of what’s gone on for so long and was disappointed it wasn’t what I’d hoped for.  That doesn’t mean it should be ignored.  It’s interesting.  It is informative.  In talking about those who were taken alive and never seen again, it is quite compelling.

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