Nothing can help you understand a country like visiting (really visiting), but a well-put together documentary can certainly help paint a picture of a place. It’s no different when it comes to Mexico. From lucha libre to the drug wars that have taken their toll on much of everyday Mexican life over the years, there’s a filmmaker (and crew) that have taken an in-depth look. Here are the best documentaries about Mexico that you must watch.
El Maíz en Tiempos de Guerra (Maize in Times of War) takes a deeper look at the life cycle of both ancestral corn and the indigenous communities which continue to nurture this staple of both Mexican cuisine and culture. Told mostly through indigenous languages with Spanish subtitles and featuring families hailing from Chiapas, Oaxaca and Jalisco, this documentary is masterfully paced, beautifully shot and fascinating, clearly demonstrating why these are traditions which need preserving.
Hecho en México (Made in Mexico) does just what it says on the tin, exploring some of the most renowned and accomplished musicians hailing from Mexico, including the incomparable Café Tacuba and folksy pop singer Carla Morrison. It gives the viewer an upbeat and vibrant peek into the culture of a country perhaps best-known musically for mariachi and banda, showing that when it comes to Mexico, there’s always more left to discover.
It doesn’t do to dwell on drugs when it comes to Mexico, mainly because the mainstream media does a good enough job of that as it is; however, Matthew Heineman’s fantastically compelling documentary Cartel Land is too noteworthy not to mention. Focusing its attention principally on the state of Michoacán (as well as Arizona), Cartel Land hones in on the local vigilantes fighting against rising drug-related violence, ultimately demonstrating that neither questionable decisions nor corruption discriminate when it comes to the drug war.
Gimme The Power may well centre on Mexican rock band Molotov (who have a song by the same name) but pegging it as just a ‘rockumentary’ makes for a glaringly superficial take. Rather, Gimme The Power—released in 2012 to coincide with Mexico’s general election—casts a critical eye over the history of Mexican politics in general, and the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) in particular, in turn discussing the way rock music has often provided the soundtrack to widespread protest and disillusionment in Mexico.
Translating to ‘Brilliant Soil’, Tierra Brillante documents a darker side to the typically cheerful world of Mexican artesanías and handicrafts. In fact, this documentary exposes the continued and customary use of lead-based glazes in the creation of traditional Mexican pottery centering the narrative on an indigenous potter named Helinda. Unlike many others in her community, she uses an alternative lead-free glaze but is struggling to find a market for her non-traditional products.
Working as a journalist in Mexico is a risk, especially for women, and especially if you’re reporting on that which the powers that be would rather you didn’t. Los Demonios del Edén, developed from Mexican reporter Lydia Cacho’s 2005 book of the same name, takes an unflinching look at that reality, exploring the child pornography and paedophilia industry in Mexico, naming those involved with this prolific, yet underground, world.
Another documentary which doesn’t shy away from the very real level of corruption and impunity in so much of Mexican society is Presunto Culpable. While it sparked much debate when it was released in 2008, the way it shines a light on blatant issues with the Mexican justice system makes it a must-watch for those who want to scratch below the surface of daily Mexican life.
Las Patronas are a group of Mexican women who have worked for over twenty years providing food and water to the predominantly Central American immigrants travelling the length of Mexico atop La Bestia, a treacherous freight train whose name translates to ‘The Beast’. Llévate Mis Amores brings the tireless, selfless work of these women to the fore, shining a light on humanity and love in their purest forms.
The lucha libre is so inextricably tied into Mexican culture that it was about time someone made a documentary charting this mildly homoerotic, spectacle of a sport… or is it merely light entertainment? Lucha Mexico answers many such questions over its run time, providing an introduction into the spandex-clad, sequin-spangled world of Mexican wrestling through the eyes of those most intimately involved. Expect appearances from plenty of famed Mexican lucha stars.
One documentary on this guide has already touched upon the dangers of being an investigative journalist in Mexico, but 2012’s brief yet powerful documentary Silencio Forzado arguably communicates this tragic reality even more explicitly. Made to accompany a revealing document which detailed the deaths of Mexican reporters, this documentary pulls no punches.