Movies

in focus

Casting light on ‘Shadows’

Don Henry Ford Jr. (top) in a scene from the documentary “Kingdom of Shadows.”
Antonio Cisnero/Participant Media
Don Henry Ford Jr. (top) in a scene from the documentary “Kingdom of Shadows.”

In his documentary about the Mexican drug cartels, “Kingdom of Shadows,” Bernardo Ruiz introduces three people: Don Henry Ford Jr., a Texas rancher with weathered features and an easy drawl; Oscar Hagelsieb, a tough-looking guy with tattoos and a Harley; and Consuelo Morales, a grandmotherly type who looks frail and helpless.

Many would assume that Ford is an honest American worried about the danger across the border. They’d guess that Hagelsieb is a drug dealer and Morales is a victim of the violence that has left over 164,000 dead and 23,000 missing since 2007.

But appearances can be deceiving, as Ruiz points out over the phone from his home in NYC.

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Kingdom of Shadows” screens on Monday at 7 p.m. in the DocYard series at the Brattle Theatre. The director will be present to answer questions after the screening.

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Q. I wasn’t so surprised that Morales was a nun organizing demonstrations against the cartels, but I was fooled by Ford and Hagelsieb. Do you think films like this can help change minds in this era of xenophobia?

A. It can challenge stereotypes. There’s a reason why the smuggler is an Anglo cowboy and the guy who looks like a gangster is a high-ranking federal agent. Reality is more complex than caricatures. But US-Mexico relationships have been neglected by reporters and storytellers. To stick to one limited narrative is to miss some of the bigger issues. We need to address the stories about regional journalists and human rights defenders like Sister Consuelo. Instead, the media hangs on Sean Penn chartering a private jet and lobbing a bunch of softballs at one of Mexico’s biggest crime bosses.

Q. What about feature films on the subject? I read a review that compared “Kingdom of Shadows” unfavorably to “Traffic.”

A. We’re at a moment when a reviewer feels comfortable comparing a small budget documentary like mine with a big budget Hollywood feature by Steven Soderbergh. That says something about how documentaries are taking a bigger place in the culture. When I started, the genre was treated as a backwater by the business. Now with Netflix and Amazon and all these other players, there’s a market. So you’re getting the general media talking about films without an understanding of the history of documentaries and reviewers making leaps between “Kingdom of Shadows” and “Traffic.”

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Q. Overall this is a good thing, though, right?

A. Documentaries are ramping up and competing with fiction, so I think we’ll be seeing higher octane docs. But then it may be difficult for the quieter films to survive. I’m glad there are more opportunities. The downside is that there are more market pressures. In terms of style and substance, there’s a big push for more style.

Q. I guess a major difference in making “Traffic” and “Kingdom of Shadows” is that while making your film the narcos might actually kill you.

A. There is always a sense in Mexico that something like that could happen. Wrongly or rightly, I feel I have protection there because I’m a US citizen. But a shadow of dread has descended on the place. I wanted to communicate that feeling.

Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.