When recently asked by Time ‘what are the best and worst things about being one of the US’s nearest neighbours’, Mexican President Felipe Calderon was clear regarding the negatives. ‘The biggest problem is drugs,’ Calderon stated. ‘We live in a building in which my neighbour is the largest consumer of drugs in the world and everybody wants to sell him drugs through my window. At the same time, he is the largest exporter of weapons in the world. It's very difficult to live with such a neighbour.” In Calderon’s analogy, Tijuana is one such window: lying close to the border, the state capital of Baja California (Miss Bala is a pun on the Spanish word for ‘bullet’) has long suffered at the hands of powerful drug cartels. In 2008 alone, 844 people were murdered.
This sort of ‘big-picture’ information is deliberately absent from Miss Bala, with director Gerardo Naranjo choosing to focus on the fear, tension and paranoia of daily life amidst such vice. Naranjo based the script partly on Laura Zúñiga, stripped of her Miss Sinaloa title following her 2008 arrest; the SUVs in which she and several known gang members were travelling contained large amounts of US bank notes and a small arsenal of weapons. The beauty-and-the-beast contrast between demure pageant queen and base criminality had obvious tabloid appeal, but for Naranjo it also exemplifies the extent to which violence and corruption can infiltrate even the most incongruous of arenas. Miss Bala’s protagonist is also called Laura (played with deliberate passivity by Stephanie Sigman in her feature film debut), but rather than adapt Zúñiga’s story directly, Naranjo uses it as a starting point for something broader: ‘In the film I wanted to show the point of view of common citizens, explaining how they are shocked by the violence and their lives suffocated by it.’ By turns naïve and resourceful, Laura is the film’s common-citizen delegate; in this sense, her express dream to ‘represent the beautiful women of my state’ acquires a dual meaning.
Following a brutal club shoot-out that counts her friend amongst its victims, Laura is coerced into acting as mule and driver for the narco-gang responsible, presenting a sympathetic point of entry to Tijuana’s criminal underbelly. The gunfight is terrifying and disorientating, with the camera’s perspective tethered tightly to Laura’s point of view. The assault is also an early indicator of the sheer scale on which the gangs operate: it resembles a full-on military assault, with automatic weapons and walkie-talkie coordination. Their frighteningly-wide sphere of influence is brought into startling focus when Laura subsequently approaches a traffic cop for help, only to be driven straight back to the gang (though the corrupt policeman’s hesitation suggests that he is a somewhat reluctant participant). Their influence extends to fixing the results of the pageant so as to ensure Laura’s coronation, their strong-arm manipulation of the beauty contest producing a striking dichotomy between the primped contestants’ express wish for peace and harmony, and the uncontainable carnage erupting on the streets. At one point, splattered blood is dabbed from Laura’s face by attendant hair and make-up artists, a beautification that does little to address the underlying trauma. Elsewhere, the duality is literally represented by a folded newspaper reporting her pageant win on one side, and the grisly aftermath of the club shooting on the other.
The close alignment with Laura’s point of view is achieved via lengthy takes that map her movements in near real-time, and a mobile camera that is responsive to her actions; when gang leader Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez) orders Laura to duck down in the back seat of a car so as to obscure her field of vision, the camera (and therefore the audience’s line of sight) stays down with her. We are deprived of information: while sounds and shifts in weight make it apparent that something is being loaded into the car’s boot, we only learn the true nature of her cargo much later through a television news report. ‘We decided to betray the thriller,’ says Naranjo of this restriction, ‘in the sense that the audience wouldn’t have more information than the character. The power of the movie has to come from the ignorance of the character and the ignorance of the audience. Even if there’s a logic behind it all, I hope people don’t understand it very well. I had the ambition of leaving people as confused as I am as a Mexican reading the news.’ This aim is borne out in the plot’s breathless twists and turns, all filtered through Laura’s personal experience: a subsequent street-based fire-fight appears to explode out of nowhere, Laura’s panic accentuated by its suddenness and incoherence; later still, an assassination attempt in a hotel bedroom is filmed from beneath the bed where Laura cowers, the bloodshed taking place predominantly off-screen. The only time our perspective is distanced from Laura is when she is raped by Valdez in the front seat of his car; the camera recoils behind the glass, a subjectively-realist retreat that seems to echo Laura’s own mental withdrawal from the attack.
Miss Bala’s most crucial contribution to the debate surrounding Mexico’s drug wars is ensuring the staggering statistics don’t overwhelm an awareness of individual suffering. As the closing credits begin – arranged like names on a memorial – we are told the twin costs of the drug trade between the US and Mexico ($20 billion and 36,000 dead), but it is the haunted and abandoned Laura who supplies the data with its visceral punch.
Dr. Christopher Buckle
Researcher and freelance writer
 Belinda Luscombe (2011), ’10 Questions: Felipe Calderón’ Time 178.15, p. 60
 Lizbeth Diaz (2011), ‘Tijuana violence slows as one cartel takes control’, Reuters, accessed at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/09/05/us-mexico-drugs-tijuana-idUSTRE7844EX20110905
 Ioan Grillo (2011) ‘Mexico’s drug war shoots to silver screen’, Tucson Sentinel, accessed at: http://www.tucsonsentinel.com/arts/report/100211_mexico_drugwar_movies/mexicos-drug-war-shoots-silver-screen/
 Dennis Lim (2011) ‘Cannes Q. and A.: Gerardo Naranjo and Mexico’s State of Fear’, The New York Times, accessed at: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/21/cannes-q-and-a-gerardo-naranjo-and-mexicos-state-of-fear/