Going by the latest trailer for Sicario, you’d think that Ciudad Juárez is synonymous with hell. Promo materials for the film have used the slogan “Welcome to Juárez”, a greeting that not only establishes the story’s setting, but also dryly plays up to the infamy of the bordertown. The latter is nothing new; Juárez and the Mexican-American border itself have been prime storytelling fodder for many years.
From Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil to Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, the U.S.-Mexico border has been the backdrop for many a crime drama. But in the last fifteen years, Ciudad Juárez specifically has taken up this role for stories of serial killers and drug cartels. This all stems from the (real) events of the “femicides”, a string of serial killings and disappearances where the victims were all young women.
In the year 2000, while these killings were taking place and gaining international media attention, Steven Soderbergh released Traffic, which would prove to be highly influential in how the border would come to be represented on film. Soderbergh’s employment of yellow filters in the scenes set in Mexico has been imitated in other American films that take place in Mexican cities or landscapes – one such movie being Gregory Nava’s Bordertown, which delves straight into the Juárez femicides.
However, a yellow filter isn’t the only cliché that Nava’s film or others like The Virgin of Juárez must include when it comes to portraying in Juárez – they also have a habit of showing the worst, most run-down parts of the city, playing up its nastier aspects. Shots of crawling traffic, rampant prostitution, and brazen drug pushing continually paint the downtown as a hellish red light district. Although there is some basis in reality for this portrayal, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Save for establishing shots and the like, none of the films like Bordertown and The Virgin of Juárez were actually shot in Juárez.
In 2009, Carlos Carrera’s Backyard broke this mold. This thriller was the first non-local, mainstream film to focus on the topic and shoot in the actual city, allowing for a complex (albeit imperfect) portrayal of a complex issue. The movie starts out by typically showing us the most downtrodden and poorest sectors of Juárez, but as it develops, we learn just how expansive and complex Juárez is through its many contrasts. By employing documentary-style handheld camerawork and naturalistic colors and lighting, Carrera’s film diverges from Bordertown’s stylization or the simple, melodramatic direction of The Virgin of Juárez.
This distinction comes from Carlos Carrera’s attempts to match screenwriter Sabina Berman’s intentions for her screenplay. In an interview given for this article, Berman said that she wished for the film to be a docudrama, especially since it would be based on true stories she knew from the Juárez femicides, such as the case of an indigenous girl who immigrated from the south of Mexico to the border, and a woman from the Public Ministry that aided in the resolution of some of said cases. Berman’s original screenplay included real-life figures such as then-Chihuahua governor Francisco Barrio, activist Esther Chávez Cano and serial killer Abdel Sharif Latif, also known as “The Egyptian.” The final film opts to omit the real names of these figures (partly because Cano herself did not wish to be aggrandized in the movie). But, at the very least, the telling wardrobe and make-up of the respective actors in the film helps make savvy viewers aware of who’s really being portrayed.
Compared to The Virgin of Juárez and Bordertown, Backyard makes criminal activity in the downtown more subtle and again, more complex, by mere fact of how much it is intermixed with the mundanity of day-to-day activities. When Juanita (Asur Zagada) and her cousin Margara (Amorita Rasgado) are verbally harassed by two men, it’s during daylight hours. We see cars commuting in the background to El Paso, with women and their children nonchalantly carrying shopping bags. By contrast, Bordertown is far more explicit in its portrayal of the dark aspects of the city. When Lauren (Jennifer Lopez) is sexually harassed downtown, the streets are rife with chaos, traffic, and prostitutes.
Where Backyard truly stands out in its representation of the Juárez femicides is in its ending. While the likes of Bordertown and The Virgin of Juárez zero in on the femicide problem as something exclusive to Juárez, Backyard instead chooses to show that the femicides are symptomatic of the much larger problem of abusive sexism that continues to recur globally. The movie ends with statistics that not only show the femicide rate in Juárez, but also in other cities in Mexico and all over the world.
Carrera’s use of real-life locations, a documentary style and finally, a twist on the femicide argument makes Backyard a (mostly) accurate and complex portrayal of one of the most disturbing and alarming serial killings in the world. Although one can see that the choices made in movies like Bordertown are to establish an overtly dark setting, these choices doubly break suspension of disbelief, particularly for viewers familiar with the killings and settings. The problems depicted are not taken seriously, and the film does a disservice to its own important content.
As shows like The Bridge and films like Sicario continue choosing Juárez as their setting, the city remains an important entity to explore and depict cinematically. Here’s hoping that the next filmmaker headed to Juárez will take some notes from Carrera.