Rosi on filming the real-life confessions of a drug hitman in the Mexican police

by Stephen Hewitt | Published 20 Oct 2017 | Last updated 25 April 2020

Two men and a woman sitting at front of cinema auditorium, one holding a microphone
21 May 2017 Film-maker Gianfranco Rosi answers questions after a screening of El Sicario Room 164 in Cambridge. The session was chaired by Dr John David Rhodes (centre), university lecturer in film.

On Sunday 21 May 2017 film-maker Gianfranco Rosi answered questions after a showing of his 2010 film El Sicario Room 164 at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on Regent Street.

The film is a monologue - the confessions of a multiple murderer, a man paid to torture and kill, who is the ‘sicario’ of the title, who worked for the ‘narcos’ (drug gangsters) in Mexico while he also worked as a commander in a Mexico police force. He says that he has now left this life, fallen out with the drug gangsters, and the film says that there is a US$250,000 price on his head.

This man's confessions reveal deep and systemic involvement of the Mexican police forces in drug trafficking, kidnap, torture, and murder. And he divulges operational details of these crimes, including repeated references to ‘safe houses’, guarded by police cars, where victims are tortured, murdered and buried.

Rosi confirmed that the film is documentary and that the ‘sicario’ in the film is real. He explained how the film came to be made and he also revealed that he had paid the self-confessed former killer US$4,000 to shoot the film.

Rosi said that people in Venice thought that the man was an actor. (The film won several prizes at the 67th Venice International Film Festival in 2010.)

A man facing the camera with a black hood completely covering his face sitting in an armchair in a motel room
‘El Sicario Room 164’ - a scene from the film by Gianfranco Rosi and Charles Bowden. The face of the real-life killer remains hidden throughout

This doubt about whether the film's intent is fiction or documentary is not removed by the film's own credit titles, which include “This film is based on the article The Sicario written by Charles Bowden and published in Harper's Magazine”. The same ambiguity is echoed in some reviews, The New York Times having the film “inspired by a 2009 article in Harper’s Magazine”.

In fact the film is actually a completely new interview with the same killer who Bowden had interviewed for the article. (In October 2017 this article is on the web without a paywall. A link is below)

The opening credits include “a film by Gianfranco Rosi and Charles Bowden” and in Cambridge Rosi explained how he met Bowden and through him this ‘sicario’.

Rosi said that while he was in the USA he heard Bowden on the radio and later researched him and decided to call him, having to ask directory enquiries for his number. Later they were working together in Louisiana on something to do with “corrupt cops” and Bowden came in and dropped the Harper's Magazine down containing his article about the ‘sicario’ and Rosi's immediate reaction was that they had got to film this.

Rosi initially filmed for two days in the motel. Some months later he decided he needed more from the killer. Eventually Bowden told him that the ‘sicario’ will meet you again but the bad news is that he wants money. Rosi's initial reaction was that he did not pay money to put people in front of the camera. But the ‘sicario’ said he wanted to be paid to be shot what he would have been paid to shoot Rosi, which was US$4,000.

In relation to the Venice International Film Festival, Rosi said that the film was online and there were a large number of viewings from Mexico - hundreds of thousands of views in a few days. He said that it has never been shown in a theatre there because people are afraid.

“This film in Mexico was considered a pillar of truth”, said Rosi.

Rosi was in Cambridge for a two week period as ‘filmmaker-in-residence’ at Cambridge University’s Centre for Film and Screen.


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