There are moments in El Velador (The Night Watchman)—the eerie, brooding new documentary by Natalia Almada— that are genuinely gripping. Those moments, however, make up less than four minutes of the exhausting, wordless hour and ten minute runtime.
Stumbling onto those moments – the moments where the filmmaker deftly thrusts the viewer into the unforgiving no man’s land that has become Culiacan, Mexico – is as rare and exhilarating a feeling as wandering into a grove of healthy four-leaf clovers in the middle of the Himalayas. It’s not a thing that happens very often, or that you should expect to happen, but when it does, it’s baffling. Which is a shame, because the film tries to explore a situation that is ripe for compelling drama – the shocking escalation of Mexico’s drug cartel conflicts into all out warfare. The film tells the story of the rise in drug-related crime in Mexico by following the daily routines of the workers of “El Jardin”, a notorious Mexican cemetery (named in the film a narco-cemetery) that is known for being populated almost entirely by the graves and cathedral-like mausoleums of drug lords.
At her best, Ms. Almada paints an uncompromising portrait of the scarred and socially numb psyche of Mexico’s working class men and women who water, cut, sculpt, and maintain the cemetery. They are perpetually digging, as the street that leads to their workplace is never free of cadaver-filled hearses. A grim picture, one that quietly addresses the glaring economic inequity that separates the workers of the cemetery from the syndicate families who shovel out money in order to lay their children to rest in tombs so lavish they rival churches.
The workers are silent - they know who these people are, and what they have done. The film’s most powerful moment is a transition from the workers sitting in their quarters to a wide perspective of the town of Culiacan – the lights of the town burn without disruption, but every few seconds the unmistakable pops and flares of gunfire blink across the skyline. The workers chuckle and gossip, discussing the death of one of Mexico’s principal drug lords the way teenagers might discuss the arrest of a Hollywood starlet. This is the film at its best, and had it maintained that tone, what a film it would have been. Instead, it drifts away into the perilous territory of wordless documentary filmmaking – a dangerous place where, unless navigated with a practiced hand, images intended to inform and shock fall unimpressively flat. And this is precisely what happens: instead of harnessing the inherent power of documentary filmmaking as a vehicle for exposing governmental negligence and wrongdoing, El Velador lingers where it shouldn’t, and skips too quickly over what matters.
To this extent, Ms. Almada loses sight of what compels and grips – the examination of the effects of the cartel wars on the collective psychological make-up of Mexico’s civilians - and falls back on a simplistic narrative device – the following of the daily routines of the workers. While the imagery of the workers designing and building the monstrous tombs of drug lords is fascinating, it can only hold one’s attention for so long. Eventually, images of men and women silently watering lawns stops being interesting. And, unfortunately, those are the sequences that dominate the film. There is something to be said for a film that functions as a visual poem about the casualties of a war, and that screams for strides to be taken against the rampant bloodshed that is a casual factor of daily life in north-western Mexico. However, El Velador doesn’t live up to that ideal. It doesn’t scream, it stays silent.