Reportero, the first full-length feature by award-winning documentary filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz, pries a vantage point into the chaotic and sometimes lethal milieu of Mexican journalism amid the plague of cartel violence by recounting the history of the famed Tijuana-published, San Diego-based, newsweekly Zeta along with a few of its editors and reporters. (Zeta, dating back to 1980, should not be confused with the über violent criminal organization Los Zetas, formed in 1999 as the armed enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel.) The film weaves fascinating archival footage into a narrative hitched primarily to veteran newshound Sergio Haro, who doggedly pursues his mission despite the perennial assassinations of his colleagues.
Ruiz attempts in this work to look beyond Haro to alternately herald the raw guts of Mexico crime journalism and shed light on the self-censorship of the Mexican press. Zeta, a leading independent news source in the 1980s, cut its teeth by exposing time and again the endemic venality of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional party. Long before the tidal rise of narco-violence in Tijuana, principal founder and editor Jesús Blancornelas was forced to work in exile in California. Columnist and co-founder Héctor Félix Miranda was slain in 1988 by gunmen linked to political scion and business tycoon Jorge Hank Rhon. But Blancornelas only worked with greater zeal, and the paper thus already had its fangs in the flesh by the 1990s when the Tijuana Cartel cultivated official jobbery for impunity.
Blancornelas' aggressive leadership in the paper's second decade capitalized on its independence to pioneer a role for journalism in unmasking government collusion with drug smuggling.
Unfortunately, this wider lens proves to be one of the documentary's main weaknesses: It eschews nuance and instead leafs through more than three decades of history with only vague contextualization. The cursory treatment of radical shifts in Mexican counternarcotics policy, the sea surge of narcoviolence, and the watershed changes in its politics spanning the period ultimately creates more confusion than clarity. Mexico-born Ruiz, immersed in this information, has glossed over what he may take for granted; viewers who are wholly unfamiliar with our southern neighbor, or, worse yet, whose opaque familiarity derives only from mainstream English-language media, will be left nonplussed.
Moreover, a meandering narratage makes it hard to gain a foothold in the story. The filmmaker seems torn between an effort to personalize the compelling story through the protagonism of Haro, and the impulse to pay tribute to the important roles played by a number of Haro's colleagues, primarily the towering figure of Blancornelas. The latter, who miraculously survived a harrowing 1997 ambush in Tijuana that killed his driver and left four bullets in his own body, has been lionized by journalists worldwide. Indeed, at times Haro seems to be a surrogate subject for Blancornelas, who died of stomach cancer in 2006 before the documentary was conceived.
Nevertheless, Ruiz documents Zeta's incredible three-decade odyssey with solid research, piecing together grainy and at times ghastly video and newspaper coverage with riveting interviews of its key players, including both old tapes of Blanconelas and the notorious Hank Rhon, as well as with Haro and others who carry the Zeta torch forward.
The vital publication has lurched through so many wrenching tragedies and explosive scandals that lacing together the chronology and principal actors must have been daunting, especially given both the paucity of media coverage during the time period and the grim reality that some crucial characters in the story are dead. On this count Ruiz excels, and the final product is a film both engaging and worthwhile.
Reportero aired 9pm Mon, Jan 7 on KLRN as part of the PBS documentary series POV (Point of View). It will screen at CineFestival tonight, February 26. $8, 8:30pm, Guadalupe Theater, 1301 Guadalupe, guadalupeculturalarts.org.
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