In 2009, an essay by Charles Bowden ran in Harper’s called The Sicario. It was the story of a Mexican hitman’s confession of his life and crimes–an unbiased account of someone caught in a dangerous career–a profession unthinkable in the states, but hardly uncommon south of the border. The explosive nature of the essay found extension in El Sicario: Room 164, a feature-length film, co-authored (though scriptless) by the director Gianfranco Rosi, the journalist Molly Molloy, and Bowden himself. The film is a static document of the Sicario’s confession, as he sits in an anonymous Mexican hotel room, his features obscured by a black camera net, illustrating his crimes and misdemeanors for the camera with no other tools at his disposal but a notebook and a brown sharpie. The result is unsettling, unreal, and a glimpse into the reality of a world unfamiliar to anyone who has ever felt safe even for a moment.
We sat down with Charles Bowden and Gianfranco Rosi to discuss the film in further detail, as well as the involvement of the Sicario himself.
BULLETT: El Sicario runs on an interesting premise…
Charles Bowden: Offhand it sounds like inviting somebody to watch paint dry. “Here, sit down! We’re going to have you listen to a guy wearing a veil, sitting in a fucking chair.”
What’s the difference between writing the nonfiction piece and making the documentary—do journalism and documentary have different functions in terms of making people aware?
Obviously you can get far more texture, explanation in writing because there’s more time. If you took every word in that documentary and typed it out it would be about 20 pages. That’s just a fact. Here’s the deal: it’s like music. When you write lyrics for music what you do is you realize all the adjutants are going to be the instrument and when you do a documentary, the visual effect is going to be the adjutant. And when you work with photographers, you never try to describe a photo. What you do is create a word where photographers can exist.When I write, I can or I try to convey somebody like the Sicario but when he’s standing there in front of the camera speaking in front of it, he’s doing it. A film can convey more faster. It’s like the entire gestalt’s there. The other thing is, for me to describe the Sicario breaking down and weeping is not the same thing as actually witnessing another human being disintegrate. Mark Twain famously said the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. So when you watch it, you actually believe it, because when I broke down, that was without warning. I had known him by that time eight months or longer. I didn’t anticipate this. Actually what wasn’t in the film was we had to shut down and try to hold him. It was like anybody else that break down—when you break down you lose control. For a man of his nature, in his career, losing control for most of his life would have been a fatal thing to do. That’s one of the differences.
I used to cover sex crimes as a daily reporter. And I’ve done things where you spend three days listening to one woman describe her rape. It’s like peeling an onion, you keep revisiting the same facts. And when it’s over, you’re poisoned and she feels suddenly okay since the first time when she was attacked. Because she finally said it. That’s what I mean by exorcism. She finally killed it. That’s what I think the Sicario did. Once he started talking, he couldn’t stop. He had a need to get this out of him, that he hadn’t acknowledged. People like him are human beings, they don’t have two horns. All this terrible stuff in World War Two actually was done by good Germans. You don’t need monsters. This is something that’s inside all of us.
BULLETT: Were the stylistic choices–the decision to cover his face with a veil, and to film him in one room, illustrating his crimes with a brown sharpie–made by the Sicario or yourself?
GIANFRANCO ROSI: When he came to the room—it was really scary—he already had the black suit when he came—he came with this ski mask. It was kind of this stereotype, something you wear when you’re about to rob a bank. It was so hot in that room. I had this net that I carry with me for my camera. I asked him if I could put it on, and he accepted. And reading Charles’ article I knew he was a graphomaniac. I always bring this notebook with me for when I wake up at night—I can write something very big that makes sense the next morning. I said, I’m going to use this and ask him to write everything that comes into his mind. And being a filmmaker, Sharpies have always been essential. So I bought five to ten brown sharpies. The interesting thing was that when he started, I pretended I knew what I was doing but I didn’t. We just filmed without asking questions. We gave him this element where he was working. After awhile it’s like, what am I doing here? I’m filming someone writing upside down, in this room, and I always keep thinking if CNN would have sent me to film a Sicario and I brought back this footage they would fire me. But then I thought, the world he’s describing is upside down. The justice of it. So it works. I had to find the distance. Because suddenly I said, ‘where’s my truth’? The truth is in the distance between him and the camera. That’s the only truth. And what I told him is, I will try not to judge you, not with my mind, but with my camera.
El Sicario: Room 164 ran at Film Forum from December 28th-January 3rd.