Al Otro Lado

Natalie Almada's documentary explores the world of narcocorridos: up-tempo Mexican and Mexican-American ballads about poverty, street life and the poisonous allure of the narcotics trade. Her wide-eyed focus is Magdiel Rubio Burgos, a fisherman's son from a tiny town called La Reforma in Mexico's Sinaloan region, which is notorious for breeding hard men...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Natalie Almada's documentary explores the world of narcocorridos: up-tempo Mexican and Mexican-American ballads about poverty, street life and the poisonous allure of the narcotics trade. Her wide-eyed focus is Magdiel Rubio Burgos, a fisherman's son from a tiny town called La Reforma in Mexico's Sinaloan region, which is notorious for breeding hard men and being the birthplace of Mexico's drug-trafficking industry. Magdiel says he will have nothing to do with dealers, out of respect for his hardworking and upright parents. But he writes and performs corridos — songs about men who pull themselves up from nothing to achieve fame and/or notoriety. Corridos are often based on the escapades of real people — from Pancho Villa to the Robin Hood-like bandit Jesus Malverde — including drug traffickers. Magdiel sees music as a way out of grinding rural poverty; even his parents agree that there's no future for young people in Sinaloa. But as fundamentally optimistic as Magdiel is, he's also practical enough to know that no one is going to come looking for him in Sinaloa. If he wants to be a professional musician, his best bet is to cross over to "the other side" — the United States — following narcocorrido trailblazers like the legendary Chalino Sanchez, who left Mexico in the late 1970s as a migrant worker, wrote mesmerizing songs for and about gangsters, and was murdered in a revenge killing in 1992. His outlaw style and spirit live on in self-proclaimed modern-day "Chalinos" like Jenni River ("Jenni from El Barrio," she wryly remarks) and Jessie Morales, who adds rap to his musical mix. Almada simultaneously charts the history of the corridor and follows the restless Magdiel as he convinces himself and his family that he has to take his chances on a border crossing if he's ever going to make anything of himself: Will he become a small-town success story or wind up suffocated in a locked boxcar like doomed would-be migrant worker Jose Perez Leon, immortalized in a sad, angry corrido by Los Tigres del Norte? She sometimes loses focus, spending too much time on border-patrol guards and citizen vigilantes convinced that ferreting out illegal fruit pickers puts them on the front line of the war against terrorism; they're part of the larger context that fuels modern-day corridos, but they take up more screen time than they merit. The film's heart is Magdiel and the modest dreams that get him through the day but may also be the death of him. (In subtitled Spanish and English)

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