MEXICO CITY -- A new documentary on drug-war violence in Mexico is perhaps most remarkable for what it does not portray.
There are no shootouts, no decapitated bodies hanging from highway overpasses.
Instead, award-winning filmmaker Natalia Almada takes her audience into the quiet, busy world of the Humaya Gardens cemetery in Culiacan, the Sinaloa capital considered the historic center of Mexican drug trafficking.
Here death is relentless. With its garish mausoleums and extravagant crypts, the cemetery is the final resting place for numerous drug cartel capos and their legions of mostly young henchmen.
The film, "El Velador" ("The Night Watchman"), follows Martin, who works the graveyard shift, so to speak, at Humaya Gardens. He arrives at sunset, sits or dozes through the night (it is too dangerous to actually patrol the grounds after dark, he says, because of partying, trigger-happy drug goons) and tidies up in the morning, picking up beer bottles and sweeping before walking off in the yellow daylight.
"I fell in love with him as a character," Almada said, citing Martin's "quiet, stoic presence."
"He asks us to live with him, in the cemetery, at his pace," she said. "He is the clock of the cemetery."
Almada said her goal in making "El Velador" was to offer a "more contemplative" view of the violence that dominates Mexico today, not the sensationalistic portrait too common in the daily media.
"I wanted to humanize it, to put it on a more human scale," she said in a telephone interview from the U.S., where the documentary has been screening this week.
Almada's film is stark and sparse. There is virtually no dialogue. Martin occasionally offers a comment; we hear a single conversation among gravediggers about whether the latest kingpin has really been slain, as authorities claim.
What we do hear are the sounds of daily life amid the dead: a shovel hitting earth, a priest's intonations, a child playing hopscotch on tombs. And, from the radio in Martin's beat-up truck and his wavy black-and-white TV set, we hear the litany of drug-war mayhem as broadcasters read the "nota roja," the crime news. Bodies dumped roadside, young men kidnapped; "Culiacan has become a warzone," the broadcaster says.
And at times it seems the cemetery can barely keep up. In one sequence, the builders are finishing a gravesite even as a body waits in a hearse and a woman is heard wailing for her son; the concrete crypt is drying as mourning wreathes are being gathered.
"It's also the futility of it all," Almada said. The death toll rises and rises. Martin waters the dirt. A widow mops her husband's mausoleum, over and over again.
Almada filmed in Humaya Gardens off and on for several months in 2009-2010."El Velador" is a co-production of Altamura Films, Latino Public Broadcasting and American Documentary/POV. It begins airing in the Los Angeles area Friday on PBS affiliates. Check local listings.
-- Tracy Wilkinson
Video: A trailer from the documentary "El Velador." Credit: Altamura Films