Americans are surely familiar with the names of El Chapo and Pablo Escobar, drug kingpins known for their exorbitant wealth and power. But they also both ran cartels responsible for an uncountable number of murders and kidnappings. In Mexico, the influence of the cartels has led to the disappearance of thousands. Seldom do we get to hear the stories of the victims. Director Julien Elie sets out to find these stories in his documentary Dark Suns.
The doc tells the story of some of these disappearances over the past few decades. Shot in black and white, the film is Elie’s effort to shine a light on victims in a country riddled with extreme violence at the hands of drug traffickers and even government officials.
The film is divided into six chapters, with the first two focusing on the kidnappings and murders of countless women in the Mexican cities of Juarez and Ecatepec. These femicides have plagued Mexico since the 1990s, but no answers or even concrete motives have been found. From there, the film reveals that these abductions go beyond women. Journalists, union leaders, social justice activists and even priests are among the victims of cartel-related violence. The most damning parts of the documentary come when the federal and state governments’ involvement in these atrocities is revealed.
Dark Suns is an epic. It is two-and-a-half hours of bleak testimony from the friends and families of those who vanished. It spans the entire country, from the north in Chihuahua and Tamaulipas to the south in Guerrero and Veracruz. There is no singular focus but rather a broad account of the epidemic coming from assorted individuals. Through each of the six chapters, the viewer meets different people who are connected to the dead or the disappeared. Their testimonies are damning and horrifying. One scene in particular is difficult to forget as a mother recounts the time she found her daughter’s skull and feet in a tied-up plastic bag.
There is a lot to parse in this film, but if you’re looking for answers or happy endings, you will likely be disappointed. It is not easy for a viewer to process all the information in this film because, for the most part, the subjects of the film haven’t figured it out themselves. They, too, are trying to explain the inexplicable, and more importantly, are trying to process the senseless violence being committed all around them.
It wouldn’t be appropriate to call the film hopeful. In fact, it is the absence of hope that defines most of the film. However, the subjects of this film — the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the journalists and the activists — show remarkable resilience despite how difficult their lives have been. As we journey through the brutal reality they face, we follow those people on their journeys, both external and internal. And though there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of hope on the horizon, these individuals haven’t seemed to give up yet.
Dark Suns will play again Saturday, March 2 at 10 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. at Big Ragtag.