Betzabe Garcia on Filming Her First Doc in an Idyllic Sinaloa Town In the Middle of the Drug War

Betzabé García’s first documentary feature Los reyes del pueblo que no existe (Kings of Nowhere) is about San Marcos. Located in the Sinaloa region of Mexico, the town is currently flooded, the result of the Picachos dam which was built in 2009. Having grown up not too far from San Marcos, García was taken with the idea of crafting a documentary that would tell the story of the displaced people in the area, and the environmental disaster that has all but destroyed the town. Her first stab at telling that story was her 2011 short film Venecia, Sinaloa. But the more she talked to the people who’d stayed behind, she realized that the documentary she’d envisioned — one which would frame the inhabitants of San Marcos as victims of the Picacho dam — wouldn’t be true to what was happening.

So, with a scrapped script and no real plan, but a solid belief that this story was worth telling, García spent the next couple of years shooting what would become Kings of Nowhere. Spending time in the Sinaloa region, which continues to be defined by the drug cartel of the area, proved to be a dangerous gamble, but the final result is well worth it. The film, which premiered at SXSW last year, surveys with long takes the submerged roads and houses of San Marcos, a town whose lush greenery suggest a civilization forgotten by time and taken over by nature. And yet, García fills the screen with moments of gaiety (a couple dancing, a local band performing, a man feeding his stranded cow) that really bring out the spirit of resilience and survival that mark the town.

Ahead of the film’s New York premiere as part of The Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight 2016, we talked to García about the long journey of getting the film made and finding the beauty in a mostly deserted town. Read the highlights of our chat below.

Kings of Nowhere screens at the MoMA on February 24 and 25, 2016.

On San Marcos’s Post-Apocalyptic Vibe

Well, I’m from Mazatlán, which is like 45 minutes away from San Marcos, this town that was flooded after the building of the Picacho dam. And when I learnt that the town had been submerged like this, I went to visit the town. And what I found was this, almost post-apocalyptic town. Out of over 400 families that lived there before, only three were left. There’s still power and electricity in the town, which made it all the stranger. So arriving there, with the fog, seeing the dilapidated houses, seeing animals basically having taken over the place, it looked very abandoned.

“We wanted to capture the beauty of it. There are moments in the film when you look at this town and it feels like some sort of paradise.”

One of the things I had talked about with my D.P. is that we wanted to capture the desolation of the town, that kind of eerie feeling it has, that anything could happen at any time, that looming stillness all around. But we also wanted to capture the beauty of it. There are moments in the film when you look at this town and it feels like some sort of paradise. There’s a tortilleria, there’s a church that remains intact, there’s this family who’s rebuilding, re-paving the streets, wholly unconcerned with the fact that the flooding will return a mere six months later. So to understand all of those feelings, to get a sense of all these micro-stories as it were, took me close to to five years. That’s why the first sequence in the film is that shot of arriving at the town on a boat and you come across this pole propping up power lines and you’re just baffled that this town would still be standing like this.

On The Film’s Striking Visual Style

That’s why I chose those wide open shots, and used the soundscape of the town as a tool to give a fuller sense of how nature had really taken over — there are so many animals all around. And also those wider shots allow you to really get a sense of how empty this town really is. With danger lurking just on the outside. That danger being, of course, the violence. But one of the main things you’ll notice about the film is that we don’t really tell the story of whose violence or what’s going on. You’re left with just an uneasy feeling of not knowing much. You start noticing the people here are afraid but it comes up naturally throughout. Like when we hear distant gunshots. It’s a film that basically puts you there; it asks you to look closely, listen carefully, and ask the questions we were asking ourselves, “Where are those gunshots coming from?”

On Idealism vs. Realism

“Like when we hear distant gunshots. It’s a film that basically puts you there; it asks you to look closely, listen carefully, and ask the questions we were asking ourselves, ‘Where are those gunshots coming from?’”

These three families live alongside this flood in a way that is truly inspiring. There’s the tortilleria family — they’re the ones who I call the idealists of the group. They want to rebuild the town and believe San Marcos will one day again be what it used to be. Then there’s Miro who’s the one whose cow is trapped in a plot of land that’s now an island onto itself. And every day he goes and feed her tortillas. But from the very first day we met, he told me that he feels trapped. He truly believes the town will eventually drown itself. Which is fascinating to hear when his next door neighbor is set on rebuilding. And then there’s the third family, who to me are the realists. They’re the family that used to live in this wooden shack they’d built themselves and who moved to the biggest, most lavish house in town. They’re the ones who have really taken this situation in a well-grounded way; they’re the ones who dance the nights away even as gunshots echo in the distance.

On Filming in Sinaloa

Sinaloa is, we could say, where the drug trade began. It’s an area that’s very dangerous. So right as I was heading there to shoot (I was just 19 at the time), is when the war on drugs really exploded. And all of a sudden, all these communities who are part of that world found themselves at war. It was very difficult to get around there. But to get to meet these people, these families, and to see how they were helping us out, and supporting us throughout — like, “Sure, stay with us!” or, “Actually, you shouldn’t come right now, it’s more dangerous than usual.” They really protected us and it was based on this compromise, this mutual understanding. That’s why Diego Tenorio, my D.P., and I, stayed there, feeling quite safe. It was also the moment I really realized that this is what I wanted to do.

Well, my family and friends were all very concerned. They knew it was dangerous and risky, but San Marcos is also an oasis-like place. You can see that in the film where I tried to capture those idyllic moments, like seeing people just playing out in the water. Moments where you get a sense that these people may be enjoying life more than you are.

This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by the author.