Kingdom of Shadows

PBS Premiere: Sept. 19, 2016Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Statement

Over the last few years, in thinking about how the ongoing narco conflict has impacted the lives of my relatives, friends and sources, I have often returned to an idea in Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor. "Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick," Sontag writes. "Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place." The people we meet in Kingdom of Shadows are citizens of that other place. Despite living in different regions and intersecting at different points within the narco history of the last three decades, they live within the boundaries of loss and tragedy.

For this film, I wanted the viewer to inhabit their perspectives as a way to understand how the U.S.-Mexico drug business shifted from the more centralized trade of the mid 1980s to the hyper-violent expressions we know from sensationalized headlines and beheading videos of today. The film's narrators, de-facto residents of a separate "kingdom," are credible witnesses to that shift. Some would consider them smaller players in a bigger drama. But in this film, they are the primary narrators, occupying center stage.

Don Henry Ford, Jr. is an Anglo Texan rancher who participated in the drug business as a smuggler during the mid 1980s, at a time when a transaction--at least a marijuana one--could be conducted with a handshake. Oscar Hagelsieb, the son of undocumented parents from Mexico, rose quickly through the Border Patrol in order to become a Homeland Security Investigator. On his way, he witnessed firsthand how organized crime in Mexico and the borderlands went from the more centralized "old-school" model to the splintered and highly violent version of the last decade. Sister Consuelo Morales, dubbed "a combination of tenderness and fury" by journalist Diego Osorno (one of the consultants on the film), began picking up the pieces of this new hyper-violent and militaristic conflict in 2009. In work that continues to this day, she and her staff organize and support family members, mostly mothers, who are fighting for very basic rights long denied them: the right to truth and the right to justice.

Taken together, these three individual stories and their surrounding contexts tell a bigger story -- of the terrible harm that has been unequally apportioned to all of those whose lives have been touched by the illegal drug business.

Yet this isn't exclusively a film about the poorly named "drug war." It is as much a story about the U.S.-Mexico relationship as it is a film about the narco. Despite the very deep demographic, cultural and economic ties between the two countries, stories about this relationship -- whether in journalism or fiction -- tend toward the reductive or frequently slip into lazy tropes. It is an especially astonishing fact when you consider that over 10% of the U.S. population, roughly 34 million people, can trace their heritage to Mexico. With so many ties, one has to wonder why many prominent outlets have a blindspot when it comes to Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

In Kingdom of Shadows, as in most of my work, I have sought to fill in the gaps in reporting on these issues by larger outlets, often attempting to make space for the nuance and complexity that I believe independent documentary film is uniquely able to capture. Increasingly, I have sought collaborations with journalists and on this film, I worked with three reporters who not only have deep experience reporting on the U.S., Mexico and organized crime, but who also have deep personal ties to the regions they are covering: Mr. Osorno, Angela Kocherga and Alfredo Corchado.

Kingdom of Shadows is the fruit of this collaboration. It is also part of an ongoing journalistic and artistic examination of the ties that bind two countries often locked into a love/hate relationship. Ultimately, this story is about people coping with the harm that an illicit trade, and the policies constructed to stop it, created. It is about how people are connected by the experience of that harm, granting them a kind of status in another country or "kingdom" -- one habitually covered by shadow.

Bernardo Ruiz, Director/Producer/Writer