This trailer for Miss Bala makes the movie look pretty good, and also helps me put my finger on another thing that irritated me about Colombiana that I couldn’t articulate at the time:
Colombiana, despite ostensibly being a drug war movie, has absolutely nothing new to say about the relationship of American governmental organizations to drug trafficking, and nothing at all to say about the roles of cartels in day-to-day life in the countries where they operate. Miss Bala, by contrast, is set in Tijuana, and appears to have some sense (even if it is not journalism) of what it’s like to be in a place where the integrity of governmental organizations is not assured.
William Finnegan’s done amazing reporting for the New Yorker over the last couple of years in particular about things like the efforts to reclaim control of and reform Tijuana’s police force (its radio frequencies were hijacked by narcotraficantes, among other things) and by extension, the city’s streets; and the infiltration of cartels into a wide range of aspects of life and institutions, both in government and business, in Michoacán, and I’ve always wondered why we don’t have more good action movies that reflect and explore that reality, or more movies about the state of Mexico at all. The movies Mexico’s sent to the Academy Awards to compete in the Foreign Language Film category in recent year have a tendency to be either personal stories, or set in Spain: Silent Light and El crimen del padre Amaro fall into the first category; Biutiful, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Aro Tolbukhin; Al otro lado is the only one of these movies to address immigration. I’m not saying Mexican filmmakers have to make movies about the state of Mexican society, or that Mexico is obligated to put such movies in Oscar contention, but I do think it would be good for Americans to see movies that give them a sense of what’s going on one country over.
If our war on terror is abstract, Mexico’s war on drugs is dreadfully concrete, and much closer to our borders than our fights in Iraq and Afghanistan: between 2006 and 2010, it killed 23,000 people. Our movies about why people might want to come here and why we should let them haven’t done particularly well recently. Chris Weitz may be pushing his immigration movie A Better Life hard for Academy Awards contention, but it only made $1.8 million at the box office. Spanglish‘s $42 million domestic gross in 2004 almost certainly had more to do with Adam Sandler’s presence in the movie than any interest in the heartwarming immigration story. If filmmakers want Americans to be sympathetic to immigrants to the United States, illegal and otherwise, maybe they need to tell more stories about what people are coming from, rather than what they’re coming to.