By Ali Hassan, Contributing Writer
“Kingdom of Shadows” is frustrating. Bernardo Ruiz’s documentary about the Mexican drug war is well intentioned, attempting to make viewers emotionally connect with the conflict’s victims, but it does not succeed in doing so. Instead, the result is a hodgepodge of different accounts that fail to cohere.
The accounts themselves are interesting and provide valuable information. The film contains three principal perspectives. The first belongs to Sister Consuelo Morales, who lives in Monterrey, Mexico, where at least 23,000 people have “disappeared” since 2007. She runs an organization that acts as both a support group for families whose members are missing and as a liaison between those families and the city’s law enforcement. Her exercise is futile; hardly any missing persons are ever recovered, either because they are killed by cartels or are alive but will not be found by a police force whose members are complicit in their disappearance. It is admiring to see Morales so determined despite not being likely to recover anyone. Unfortunately, her portions in the film are so interspersed with portions of other people that it is difficult to stay in tune with her.
This lack of continuity is the film’s biggest problem, as it creates a barrier between the audience and the principal points of interest. The second perspective comes from a former drug mule residing in Belmont, Texas named Don Henry Ford, Jr. He is even more difficult to connect to, in part because of the previously stated issue and also because he’s robotic. He provides useful insights into the ascension of the Mexican cartels, and his opinions on the unfairness of arresting people for selling marijuana (which come about through his own experiences on the matter) may get a conversation going in the public sphere, but Ruiz’s attempt to show that his actions had consequences (his son grew up without a father at home) seem hollow.
It’s a good thing that Oscar Hagelsieb, the film’s third main subject, is fascinating. Born to illegal immigrants in Socorro, Texas, he grows up in an environment of drug peddlers but resists getting enveloped by it. Once of age, he joins the Border Patrol, and eventually rises to become the head of his own Homeland Security unit. The circumstances of his birth and upbringing seem to have instilled in him a sense of obligation towards his community in particular and people in general. He wants to help end drug trafficking and the violence that accompanies it, but has measured expectations and knows that he is being idealistic at best. His experience means he can provide viewers with inside information on the cartels, such as Los Zetas, which is apparently distinct from other cartels in that it doesn’t follow a code of behavior, thus explaining its notorious savagery.
Ruiz also gives screen time to small characters that provide information but don’t assist the principal perspectives. One such character of note is a cartel member who describes “las cocinas” (the kitchens), landfills where cartels burn victims’ bodies beyond recognition. This is useful, but takes away time from the principal subjects and creates a discontinuity in their stories.
What we’re left with is a collection of accounts that, while illuminating and heartfelt, isn’t emotionally gripping in the way Ruiz seemingly wants it to be.