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Doc of the Day: El Velador

See the cost of the Drug War through the eyes of a man who works where the bodies end up.

Dir. Natalia Almada, 2011, 52 min, Viewed via POV website

Over fifty thousand people have died in the Mexican Drug War in the almost six years that it has been raging. Police officers, cartel members, and civilians alike have died in horrific circumstances. But there are no images of violence in El Velador (“The Night Watchman”). The doc looks at this conflict through a rather unique prism: Martin, a man whose job it is to watch over the place where all these people are interred after they’ve fallen to the war.

All night long, Martin stands guard in Jardines Del Humaya, a cemetery in Culiacán, capital of the state of Sinaloa, the busiest center of drug-related activity in the country. The cemetery’s population has thrived ever since the Drug War was declared. Some of the most notorious criminals have been laid to rest here, decomposing in opulent mausoleums. These garish monstrosities sit side by side with normal graves. Every night, as he sweeps the area, Martin listens to radio and TV reports about the latest day’s killings. And every day, there’s a new funeral procession coming in.

There have been great documentaries made that utilize the most shocking, graphically explicit aspects of the Mexican Drug War to their full effect, but this film has its own, possibly greater power. It concentrates on the ultimate (literally, the ultimate) result of this ugliness. In the stark quiet of the graveyard, you have no other choice but to reflect on the cost of misaimed policies and wrongheaded thinking. This is what you get when you declare war on a concept. Everyone loses.

What the movie does especially well is strip away the differences between the various people interred in the cemetery. Widows rich and poor alike come to clean their husbands markers or tombs. Their children play among the structures, while a dog lazily watches. It speaks to the commonality which makes any kind of conflict so absurd.

More than anything else, El Velador reminds me of Restrepo, another documentary about a never-ending, utterly pointless cycle of violence. It’s draining and dispiriting, and it makes you want to throw up your hands in surrender. The fact that it does so while being only two-thirds as long as Restrepo, while containing no violence, is quite remarkable. Gorgeously shot, rapturously evocative, and indelible, El Velador is a great, overlooked gem from the past few years.

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