01.21.12

“Miss Bala” Is Mexico’s Drug War Thriller

A hit Mexican film, Miss Bala, is set in violent Tijuana with a beauty contestant lead. Stephen Farber talks to the filmmakers, Gerardo Naranjo and Diego Luna.

Not many movies these days can be said to be truly “ripped from the headlines.” It takes so long to get most movies made that it’s a risk to attempt anything topical. But the Mexican film Miss Bala has that kind of urgency. Already a controversial hit in Mexico and a mainstay of festivals all around the world, the film opened in New York and Los Angeles on Friday before rolling out to other cities throughout February. The film focuses on the drug wars in Mexico, particularly in Tijuana and its environs, and it is sure to discourage already gun-shy Americans from traveling south of the border. 

Other Mexican films have addressed the epidemic of violence throughout the northern provinces, but Miss Bala may be the most critically acclaimed of all of them. Partly this is because it takes an unusual, personal approach to the subject. It follows the misadventures of Laura (Stephanie Sigman), a beauty contest participant, who gets dragged into a gang war that puts her and her family in jeopardy. Director Gerardo Naranjo shoots the entire movie from the perspective of Laura, plunging us into a world where absolutely no one can be trusted. We don’t see anything that she doesn’t witness or experience, so we can’t always tell the good guys from the bad guys, and this reflects the filmmakers’ own conviction about the chaos engulfing their country. “It’s not just a piece of news,” says Diego Luna, one of the producers of the film. “It’s a more intimate journey, and that’s because the sensibility of the director makes it special.”

The story, however, was actually inspired by news reports of a beauty queen arrested in a narcotics bust. Naranjo says he had been searching for a fresh approach to the subject of violence in his country when he read the newspaper article and felt this might be a way to tell the story without glamorizing or sensationalizing it. “I thought this might capture the absurdity of the situation,” Naranjo says. “It’s completely nihilistic.  There is no hint of justice. We didn’t want to focus on the criminals or on a good guy who turns to crime because he needs medicine for his son. Most movies like Scarface show drug dealers in glamorous settings, with all these women around them. In reality it’s a very pathetic world, and that’s what we wanted to portray.”

To help insure authenticity, Naranjo cast Sigman, who had never acted in a feature film. He thought about using more established Mexican actresses, but he says bluntly, “We are infected by the spirit of melodrama in my country. Actors who have been around the Mexican industry have generally worked in soap operas, and I think someone with that experience would have been overacting, on the floor sobbing. I wanted to show Laura’s utter bewilderment and fear.”

Naranjo was determined to call attention to what he sees as an escalating crisis in Mexico. “My country is going through this right now,” he says. “People I love are in danger. And our country is not addressing the problem. The government is not handling it. But there is a big movement of ordinary people rebelling against the violence. The victims have started this movement.”

Naranjo cites the acclaimed Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, whose teenage son was killed by drug dealers. “He’s no longer writing poetry,” Naranjo says, “because he is focusing on this problem. It is a huge problem, and I don’t think it will be fixed in this generation. But I wanted to take part in the conversation. We organized a lot of screenings at universities in Mexico to get young people more involved.”

The film has been a big success at the box office in Mexico, but Naranjo admits that many of those who saw Miss Bala disliked it. “Some people accused us of betraying our country, of scaring tourists away,” he notes. “I’m pleased that we are making some of those people angry.”

Because of the controversial nature of the film, Naranjo could not do much filming in Tijuana itself. Most of the movie had to be filmed in Aguascalientes, one of the central provinces of Mexico, far from the heart of the drug wars. Even there, however, the film was shot under the deliberately bland title of Beautiful Maria, to keep some locals from realizing what the film was about. “The movie attacks our society,” Naranjo says. “What kind of society are we creating when this can happen to young people?”

Luna, however, insists that Mexico should not shoulder all the blame for this crisis. “I don’t think this is an issue that just belongs to Mexico,” he says. “It is a responsibility that is shared with the United States. The market for drugs is here in the States. And a huge number of weapons come from the States, which we show in the film. All of it is connected.”

Naranjo adds that one of the underlying causes of the problem in Mexico is a problem shared with the United States: growing income inequality. “In Mexico we have the richest people in the world as well as the poorest people in the world,” Naranjo points out. “People who join drug cartels think they can improve their lives. They’re born without possibilities, and it’s easy for them to turn to violence.”

“It is a huge problem, and I don’t think it will be fixed in this generation,” says Naranjo.

Canana Films, which produced Miss Bala, was launched by Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal (along with Pablo Cruz) after the success of Y Tu Mama Tambien. Their company also produced Naranjo’s two earlier features, Drama/Mex and I’m Gonna Explode. “Cinema tends to break relationships,” Luna observes. “But we’ve had the exact opposite experience with Gerardo. Our friendship has only deepened over the years we’ve worked together.”

Luna, who has appeared in a number of American movies like Milk and the current box office hit, Contraband, now divides his time between Los Angeles and Mexico. Naranjo also has an American connection. He studied at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, and producers in Hollywood have courted him since seeing his mastery of suspense filmmaking in Miss Bala. “I would love to work with great American actors,” Naranjo says. “But I can’t see myself doing a lot of movies that they make in Hollywood. What scares me more than anything is the idea of making a shallow film.”