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Review: A Wolfpack Called Ernesto


- Mexican filmmaker Everardo González returns with another documentary about gangs and cartels, but focuses on young kids and employs an unnerving, immersive and original approach

Review: A Wolfpack Called Ernesto

Everardo González is best known for 2017's Devil's Freedom and other films about the brutal consequences of gang and cartel warfare in Latin America. With his new documentary A Wolfpack Called Ernesto, which has just world-premiered at Hot Docs, he covers similar ground, but comes up with an approach that manages to be both unnerving and immersive.

The approach in question refers to a scorpion-tail device to which iPhones were attached onto the backs of the protagonists, a group of young-teenage Mexico City gangsters who collectively call themselves "Ernesto". This means that we are following them from a very short distance, but we only see the backs of their heads, the camera bobbing up and down as they move, while the focus is very shallow, so everything in front of them remains mostly a blur. With such a set-up, it is difficult to exactly recognise each of them, but in a way, that is the point: their testimonies and actions merge into one bumpy, uncomfortable collective experience.

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This point of view inevitably harks back to first-person shooter games, which might have also been the inspiration behind Gus van Sant's Elephant. But kids in Mexico don't need video games or violent movies as a motivation to get into crime (not that this connection has ever been proven); instead, it surrounds them in everyday life. We can identify three different individuals, as they have a neck tattoo, glasses and a characteristic haircut, respectively.

Their stories, told in voice-over, are hardly new, but some of the happenings are still shocking. González forms them into a free-flowing, clear structure. First comes motivation: as young as nine or ten, they see things happening on the street that they cannot explain, which makes them curious. They explore and soon realise that there are people who are rich and respected, unlike their poor parents, and this is intoxicating.

They quickly enter this violent world as rookies who have a chance to rise up the ranks. First, they will buy a gun. Often, these are sold by the police, and their origin is the US government – a huge majority of weapons in Mexico come from their northern neighbour. As they go into action, they discover adrenaline and the feeling of power that comes with killing another human being. And soon enough, this becomes a new normal, and they turn cold and emotionless. Still, these are kids who are not yet emotionally fully developed, which is bound to bring them serious psychological problems, even for the rare ones who manage to get out of the vicious circle.

At first, the film makes for a somewhat frustrating viewing experience. One keeps expecting the filming device to be just an inventive introduction to a more straightforward documentary, but it stubbornly remains the same. Still, the viewer soon gets immersed in this world, and the approach keeps them on their toes. The story is made coherent and exciting through an undoubtedly complicated editing process taken care of by Paloma López Carrillo, who has compiled these pieces into several long segments. In between them, the screen remains black and only the sound design remains – at one point, after the story of a shooting, we hear screams and police sirens.

The kinetic, percussion-heavy, dirty electronic score really pushes the proceedings forwards. It was composed by three youngsters from the Mexico City neighbourhood of Tepito, Haxah, Konk and Andrés Sánchez, who were also the ones who found the protagonists and equipped them with scorpion tails, even if the cinematography is credited to the experienced María Secco.

A Wolfpack Called Ernesto is a co-production between Mexican companies Animal del luz films and Artegios, Switzerland's Bord Cadre Films, the UK's Sovereign Films and France’s Films Boutique Production. Films Boutique has the international rights.

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