“Out of poverty,
poetry; out of
suffering, song.”

This old Mexican saying, pulled from the book Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa, has proven its merit throughout history—from the soulful hymns sung in tobacco fields by African slaves, to the tortured punk rock anthems belted onstage by contemporary musicians. World-renowned photojournalist and filmmaker Shaul Schwarz came across this cultural connection in one of the most controversial yet underground conflicts currently marring our continent: the drug war. Schwarz makes his Sundance debut this January with Narco Cultura, a unique and engrossing film documenting the plague of cartel-related murders that infect the border city of Juarez, Mexico, and the subculture that has sprouted from the bloodbath, making its way onto U.S. stages and airwaves.

Born in Israel, Schwarz has spent two decades as a photojournalist, covering war and disaster in places like Haiti and Gaza for Time, National Geographic, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine and more. In early 2008, Schwarz found himself on a still photography assignment that lasted almost two years, covering the increase in violence and murders across the border due to conflicts between Mexican drug cartels. Schwarz describes Juarez as a haunting city with a different set of rules than war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan. “The bodies would just drop and drop,” he says. “You never see where the bad guys are, you just see the pain it leaves and the shock on the society.” The never-ending conflict (which has claimed nearly 100,000 lives), has led to the rise of a pustule of pop culture: narcocorridos, or drug ballads. Backed by a band comprised of tubas, trumpets and accordions playing danceable polka rhythms, the vocalists of these groups sing lyrics glorifying the violent lives and conquests of Mexican drug lords, such as these lines by BuKnas de Culiacan in their popular hit, “Los Sanguinarios del M1”:  “With an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder/Cross my path and I’ll chop your head off/We’re bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill!/We are the best at kidnapping/Our gang always travels in a caravan/With bulletproof vests, ready to execute!”

Much like their watered-down cousin, gangsta rap, narcocorridos have infiltrated the club scenes and even the radio waves from coast to coast and border to border. Sometimes commissioned by the cartel members they’re about, the corridos idolize the violent and extravagant lifestyles of narcos and cater to a fast-growing fanbase that includes everyone from Mexican-American cowboys in North Carolina to the narcos themselves. Schwarz came across this phenomenon on a photo assignment for Time Magazine that focused on the narcocorrido culture specifically, but soon realized that photos wouldn’t suffice. “Sometimes photography is the most powerful tool in the world,” says Schwarz. “ … But when you do this for 20 years as I’ve been doing, you understand, sometimes, that’s not true. Sometimes … [a] picture isn’t really telling the full story.” Already an experienced filmmaker, shooting shorts for various publications and a feature-length documentary, The Block, back in 2005, Schwarz’s transition was seamless as he began to film for Time before deciding to make Narco Cultura a feature in early 2010. For the next two years, Schwarz retraced his steps with a Canon 5D, Spanish sound man Juan Bertrán, and a new focus: characters.

Narco Cultura zeroes in on two seemingly divergent perspectives: That of Edgar Quintero, the LA-based, Mexican-American narcocorrido singer of BuKnas de Culiacan; and Richi Olguin, a crime scene investigator who has lived his entire life in Juarez. The film swings back and forth between Olguin cleaning up the aftermath of gruesome cartel executions, and Quintero singing praise of the bad guys to sold-out crowds on tour in the U.S. Schwarz initially met both men while on his photo assignment. Olguin was entrusted by his department to guide Schwarz through the crime scenes and in the film, he becomes an unfortunate representation of the failing system. “These guys work so hard, but it’s all for show, because everyone in Juarez knows that nothing gets done about this,” says Schwarz. At the same time, Olguin’s love for Juarez and his dedication to a thankless and dangerous job also make him a small beacon of hope. “He’s a believer … That’s what the film wanted to show,” says Schwarz. Olguin leads the audience through some of the most graphic portions of the film—bloody scenes of death and violence—with somber and introspective voice-overs that provide a narrative throughout the film, setting it apart from the usual talking-heads documentary. “You always go out with a prayer on your lips, you don’t know when things will happen,” says Olguin at one point in the film.

Quintero didn’t become a character in Narco Cultura until almost a year after the project began. Schwarz met the singer when BuKnas played a club in Riverside, Calif., but initially followed El Komander, another popular narcocorrido singer, whom Schwarz hoped would open more doors through his fame and connections. “It took me a little bit of time to see that Quintero was my guy, both because he was willing to open up, and I thought that his story of not being the star and being the American-born Mexican was way more interesting to me,” says Schwarz. Quintero ended up being an invaluable key to coverage, providing Schwarz with access to phone calls with cartel members who would commission corridos from Quintero like a royal minstrel. He also allowed Schwarz to accompany him on a trip to Sinaloa, the home base of the world’s largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization—the Sinaloan Cartel run by “El Chapo” Guzman, the most wanted man in Mexico. “Initially, we didn’t even think we’d get that deep through the song side,” says Schwarz. “We were like, ‘All right, we’re gonna see some heavy shit in Juarez.’ A lot of the actual rubbing with the bad guys came through the access of BuKnas, of Edgar.”

Though the lives of Olguin and Quintero are starkly different, they run parallel to each other, and their juxtaposition is a product of Schwarz’s vision as a filmmaker. “People tend to simplify and say it’s just the criminals killing each other, and it’s not. Beyond that, they kill a lot of other people, and beyond that, everybody and everything is kind of dancing around this monster,” says Schwarz. “I thought that was something that was a completely different take, to show this bigger picture. It’s something that a lot of us are involved in and that creates culture and is all part of that same cycle.” The irony prevails from the very opening shot of the giant fence separating Juarez, one of the murder capitals of the world, from El Paso, Texas, ranked one of the safest cities in the United States. A little boy sticks his fingers through the wire and looks across to the other side, saying, “They say that it’s safe on the other side. That people don’t kill over there. But the narcos are over here.” It’s in this liminal space that narco culture has rooted and branched out.

“When I saw this culture at first, I was kind of angry. I couldn’t understand it, but as I spent time there, although I don’t see eye to eye with it, I understood where it was coming from,” says Schwarz. “It’s a way for people to relate. To them, it’s culture. To Quintero … he doesn’t want to sing about Pancho Villa. This is how he finds his Mexicanhood.” Narcocorridos tell the story of the heroes, the winners, the people with power—and in Mexico, there is no one more successful than the lords of the drug cartels. Though the most shocking footage was shot at the crime scenes in Juarez, the most dangerous moments for Schwarz and Bertrán were in Sinaloa. Schwarz tells me that while filming at a private narco party, they got an unsettling feeling and decided to leave. Speeding away, they were unexpectedly stopped by federal cops. They had no choice but to tell the truth about being at a narco party. The cops let them go, and when Schwarz recounted the story to the narcos, they laughed and told him the cops are there at every party, serving as a checkpoint to protect them. “I was like, OK, I don’t even know who I’m afraid of anymore,” says Schwarz.

Schwarz often worked with the help of local journalists, through which he came across footage shot by another photographer, who contributes one of the most powerful scenes in the film. After her son is found chopped up in 16 different pieces, a woman is seen banging a newspaper against a table, screaming and crying over and over in Spanish, “Nobody shouts! Why do all the mothers stay silent?!” Schwarz remembers the moment he saw this clip, tearing up as Bertrán fell to his knees, and knowing it needed to be included in the film. “It had such a strong impact on me and I knew why: Nobody talks in Juarez—nobody lets this out. That’s what’s so frustrating. It’s all there, but it’s all this thing under the table and nobody would dare speak,” he says. “I think this woman, in her crazy grief, she really actually nailed the words. She says all of what you want to scream about that place.” The intensity of this moment would go unnoticed without Schwarz’s buildup, however, and he says that including the culture side to the drug war is key. “I knew that in the end, I wanted a story that was driven by characters and a story that feels … almost fictional. A story that, through people and through feelings, you get the bigger picture,” he says.

So what is the solution? Schwarz says there is no simple fix. Narco Cultura’s reoccurring question is “Will this change?” but its filmmaker isn’t optimistic—his goal is simply to create awareness. “I’m a journalist at heart: The less I say, the less you know,” says Schwarz. “It’s so big and powerful, this monster. Maybe [the film] will put in the tiniest dent.”

For his first time at Sundance, Schwarz hopes the film’s screenings will gain excitement for the project, providing venues for distribution. “People tend to look at this subject and say, ‘I don’t want to deal with this,’” he says. “I think that [Narco Cultura] is really different, and I hope that’s what we can portray, that this film is important and strong and documentary, but it’s also entertaining.”

Watch the trailer, read Schwarz’s coverage and look through a gallery of his provocative images at narcoculture.com. Schwarz will be present for a Q&A at four of the film’s screenings:

Jan. 21, 8:30 p.m., Library Center Theatre, Park City
Jan. 23, 11:45 a.m., MARC, Park City
Jan. 24, 9:15 p.m., Broadway Theatre, SLC
Jan. 25, 9:00 a.m., Temple Theatre, Park City
Jan. 26, 3:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1, Park City

The Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 17-27. Go to sundance.org for details.