Director: Julien Elie
Words – Rhiannon Topham
Sometimes you watch a documentary and it leaves such a profound imprint on your mind, you kick yourself for having been so ignorant to the subject matter before viewing. Dark Suns, director Julien Elie’s first film in 15 years, is one of those documentaries. A haunting exploration of the thousands of men and women murdered at the hands of Mexican cartels since the 1970’s and the desiccated government turning a blind eye to (or, at the most extreme, supporting) such violent and alarmingly widespread activity, it is emotionally, psychologically and spiritually shattering to watch – made all the more harrowing by the film’s striking monochromatic palette.
An unrelenting investigation into the mass disappearances of women, journalists and activists across various Mexican states, from the populous city of Ciudad Juárez just south of Texas, the location of a torrent of appalling femicides, to the port city of Veracruz on the Gulf where journalists have been – and continue to live in fear of being – kidnapped, tortured and murdered for their pursuit of justice and the truth, it is a daring piece of filmmaking which balances the anger and consternation felt by those affected with the constant need to understand why their pursuits for justice have been deterred and their questions unanswered.
It’s difficult and uncomfortable, because it needs to be. Thousands of people are missing, never to be seen again. Some are thought to have been forced to join cartels or military forces, others vanished without a trace. The most moving element of Dark Suns is the devoted activists and family members of missing relatives who continue to scour the countryside for a morsel of proof of their loved ones’ whereabouts many years after their disappearance, often finding human bones of people long gone. There’s a warped sense of quiescence watching a distraught brother talk of the “crazy” experience of searching for his missing sibling, for which “time is the worst enemy” because the determination to find them never wanes but government support quickly evaporates, from the distant comfort of a cinema seat or similarly safe space.
It can be hard to write about a documentary’s subject matter when you have no experience of it, outside the act of watching events unfold on screen. Dark Suns isn’t a narrative-led film, in the sense that it doesn’t reach a conclusion or resolution at the end – and this is precisely why it is such intense and painful viewing. In most cases, the families featured will never know what happened to their missing relatives because the criminals responsible are allowed to act with impunity. Indeed, we learn from one interviewee working in the law industry that, over the years, he and his team have heard of 50 or 60 femicides, but only one or two cases ended in a conviction. These are the facts driving the documentary, but it’s the moral integrity of the interviews that reach out and grab you, as if shaking you by the shoulders and urging you to pay attention.
Details and tickets for screenings of Dark Suns at Sheffield Doc/Fest are available here: