We meet the Mara members grieving their murdered friends and relatives, and follow them at birthday celebrations, funerals, hospital and court. The driving force is the somewhat perverse juxtaposition of semi-war reality, thug attitude and cruelty, with almost overly endearing loyalty, friendship and solidarity.
Mara gang culture is frequently described as a product of the civil war in El Salvador in the late 1980s, when approximately 100, 000 people were killed. Large contingents fled the country, mainly to major cities in the US, including, most notably for Mara genealogy, Los Angeles, California. Seeking work and cheap housing in the Rampart area of LA, the Salvadorian refugees’ stories of assimilation (or lack thereof) resembles those of so many immigrant minorities before them, be they Mexican, Puerto Rican, Irish or Italian.
The gang called “MS 13” started here in the early nineties, in response to hostility from resident Mexican gangs. Joining forces was a necessity, although their initial goals were often as innocuous as “just hang[ing] out, maybe going to an Ozzie Osbourne concert”, as a veteran of the Mara’s founder generation once put it.
However innocent their beginning was, the Mara’s rapid development and infamous brutality owes much to the fact that many of their members were trained in guerilla warfare, thus giving them the upper hand in local turf wars.
The gang’s full name, Mara Salvatrucha 13, it is believed, was created by combining “La Mara”, a violent street gang in El Salvador, with “Salvatruchas”, to denote members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a group of Salvadorian peasants trained as guerilla fighters. The 13 was added as a homage to the California Prison Gang, the Mexican Mafia.
Poveda wasn’t interested in aestheticism
While convicted Mara members were expelled and deported back to El Salvador, resulting in a flourishing gang culture in Salvadorian prisons, the Mara continued to grow in the USA, rapidly branching off into major American cities, as well as other countries in Central America. Their omnipresence has provoked a counter-phenomenon known as Sombra Negra: anonymous vigilante troops, believed to be police or military officers, walking the extra mile off duty, or just ordinary citizens who have quite simply had enough.
“Mara 18” (Mara dieciocho), are seen as the rival offspring of the MS 13. The documentary The Crazy Life (La Vida Loca) observed the daily life of the Mara 18 in the La Campanera district of San Salvador over a period of three years.
Apart from the Mara’s complacency regarding human life, what immediately sets them apart are their striking tattoos, intricate patterns adorning most of their bodies, including the face, and in many cases the entire skull – a subcultural expression known from prisons all over the world, here taken a step further.
The Crazy Life presents a few members of the Mara 18, each of them alternating as the subject of Poveda’s focus – a technique employed due to more than just narratological considerations. The participants were available for limited amounts of time, for three main reasons, according to director Poveda: they quickly got impatient and bored with being filmed (who’d have thought it?), they were put in jail, or, as some of the protagonists depicted here, they were shot dead.
We meet the Mara members grieving their murdered friends and relatives, we follow them at birthday celebrations, funerals, hospital and court; we’re also introduced to a bakery led by a local NGO devoted to rehabilitating young people.
Poveda’s perspective seems quite sober at first glance: the greed of a vigilant camera is (mostly) balanced with the piety required not to come across as an impostor. Considering that the director’s career looks like a case of professional thrill-seeking, The Crazy Life is surprisingly unspectacular in form.
Nick Fraser, Poveda’s partner on the documentary Journey to the Far Right, reminisces about Poveda’s earlier career as a photojournalist in a Guardian obituary: “A Poveda image was instantly recognizable for its stark, formal qualities, but like Robert Capa (photographer), on whose life he modelled his own, Poveda wasn’t interested in aestheticism. He cared about the people he photographed, and he did become involved in their lives, keeping in touch long after the images appeared in magazines throughout the rich world”.
The statement rings true, also for The Crazy Life as well as for Poveda’s relationships with some of the Mara, whom he considered his personal friends.
Poveda let the proverbial facts and events speak their own, blunt language. Quotidian goings-on play themselves out alongside the more carnal events without too much emphasis, and even though some of these moments could be described as private or intimate, there’s never the sense of anything being shoved down anyone’s throat, whether its the film’s subjects or its audience. As with so many “real life, real people” documentaries, there’s always the pitfall of slipping into freak show territory.
In hindsight, one could always argue that Poveda indulges in sensationalism in the sequences where we follow the mourning girlfriends or relatives of newly killed members.
It seems honest enough as it plays out, and there’s no reason to question Poveda’s compassion, but there’s always the suspicion that the poor girl should have been left alone in her time of grief. It would have suited Poveda’s otherwise neutral, low-key observations of a reality that is vital enough, without being devastating.
Some of these images will undoubtedly stay with the viewer for a while.
Obviously, this is a documentary that creates an immediate suspense: the footage has been obtained within the kind of a setting where you never know what might happen – or when you do, you’d rather not. With that notion factored in, the driving force is the somewhat perverse juxtaposition of semi-war reality, thug attitudes and cruelty on the one hand, with the almost overly endearing loyalty, friendship and solidarity on the other – such as when a couple of lads go door to door rattling a bucket, trying to raise money for the relatives of a newly dead member. The scene is pretty close to an imaginative ad for the socialist mantra saying that everyone should contribute according to their means for those in need (the relatives).
This sense of community and solidarity in practice is crucial in understanding what entices these children to join the Mara – or the family substitute that it embodies. Children are known to be versatile and quick to adapt in times of crisis, but they are nevertheless children – and a 12-year old boy attending the ritual beating initiation is still a child, however roughed up by his surroundings.
Having once joined a gang “The street gives him the love”, we’re told. Counter that with the crude realities evoked by one of the Mara’s heartfelt regrets: “Our whole condition pushes us towards evil”, and the viewer ends up with the same split fascination as when watching the blood-stained faces of ever so cute and cuddly lion cubs feeding on a slain zebra; beauty and beast all in one.
But there’s a flipside to this freak appeal, and there’s more at stake than the spectator feeling guilty for gloating.
The Crazy Life’s themes have been served countless times before in news stories and fiction: the fighting, the heinous crime and the flamboyantly anti-social “freedom” upfront, the tribal workings of brotherhood, the rules and rituals, the die-hard loyalty, be they Hell’s Angels, the Jets of West Side Story, or the endlessly mediated business of the mafia.
Your average movie gangster comes across as a case of arrested development, of grown men behaving like a juvenile delinquent’s idea of what a big, bad guy should act and look like, or, to quote the connoisseur Scorsese himself: “A travesty of the American Dream of the selfmade man”. The Mara lot could, in their turn, be seen as a double travesty, or an implosion of the same. These people are more of a teenage sub-cultural phenomenon, the main difference being their dismissal of any bourgeois pretensions – even the slightest remnants of universal ”success”-markers seem long since abandoned. We’re left with something out of Lord of the Flies after dark, or after the naval officer, as saviour “ex-machina”, has been decapitated and thrown back in the sea.
Describing the Mara as a generation without parents might be bending the facts a little, but there’s certainly a striking absence of what one normally refers to as responsible adults in this environment. The few we meet, merely as passers-by or neighbours, appear to be, mostly, grandparent-age. It would seem that the few who actually survive their teens and live to grow up here without going to jail, age rather quickly.
Although the requirements for terms like “lost generation” are in place, it would be a wooly understatement, all things considered, to align the Mara youngsters’ harsh reality with petty, middleclass identity problems from the last century. The aforementioned gang loyalty is of a more imperative than benevolent character, not so much an exasperating sense of commitment as a prerequisite to stay alive.
we’re left with something out of Lord of the Flies after dark
Ponder the following options: join the mara, and you’re stuck for life; try to leave, and you’re shot on sight. Speaking of rocks and hard places: this is it. Not to mention the chances for a non-member growing up in the barrio. These are the conditions under which the young members decide to join.
The fact that Poveda himself was born in Algeria to Spanish parents fleeing the civil war is a tempting explanation for his affinity to the Mara – a congeniality of sorts, between expats from different wars in different countries, but nevertheless the descendants of refugees. Even though some of these kids are too young to possibly have any memory of the civil war in a strictly historical sense, their everyday life is nothing short of one, in terms of social instability, danger, and flying bullets.
Be that as it may, there’s no denying the notion of affinity and empathy running through Poveda’s everyday portrayal of The Crazy Life’s main characters. He lived with them for extended periods, and considered some of them his friends. The suffering girl with the ongoing eye-operation, the progress and the hurtful, occasional setback, stand out as poignant tokens of the director’s compassion.
Judging by the intimacy/ privacy of what they confide in him, the uninhibited expressions of joy or shrill shrieks of grief, his admittance to their happiest occasions as well as their most devastating moments, one could easily be persuaded that his affinity was requited.
Poveda’s dismal fate, while tragic and horrifying, also shines a dubious light on the perpetual questions connected to the dilemma of any conscientious documentarian: the usage of human lives as commodities, as the director’s raw material.
No matter how welcome he may have been at the time, Poveda may still have stretched his subjects’ hospitality a little too far. Copies of The Crazy Life have been circulating locally for roughly one Euro a copy. Someone might easily have had second thoughts about being fed to Poveda’s lens. There’s no reinstating their privacy or undoing the broadcasting of their less than flattering sides now, and who’s to blame?
Having taken his footage from an environment in which human beings are frequently scattered like loose change in the gutter, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see Poveda as a director who had to pay the full price – and then some – for the lives spent in his movie.
Born 12 January 1955 in Algiers, his Spanish parents having fled their country after General Franco’s victory in the civil war. The family left for France when Algiers gained independence in 1962. Poveda started selling photos at the age of 19, and worked several years as a photo-journalist for publications like Paris Match, Newsweek and Time magazine, covering conflicts in places like Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. He documented the downfall of military regimes in both Argentina and Chile, and also worked in El Salvador during the civil war. He turned to documentary films in the early 80s, with portraits of young people in the French suburbs, such as boxers and wrestlers. Titles like Les bannis (The Damned, 2000), dealing with the double penalty that ex-convicts without a French passport have to endure, and Journey to the Far Right (Voyage au bout de la droite, 1998), about Europe’s far right movements, are indicative of his social commitment. Strip de velours from 2005 shows the revitalizing of the almost lost and forgotten burlesque genre. He made a name for himself with The Crazy Life, and undeniably, alas, with the symptomatically dramatic circumstances under which he met his fate – he was shot in his car on September 2 2009, as he was leaving the area in which The Crazy Life was made.