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SXSW: Documenting The Search For El Chapo

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AUSTIN – A documentary at this week’s South by Southwest Film Conference attempts to find the Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin Guzman – better known as El Chapo. But just as the filmmakers were closing in on him, Mexican and U.S. authorities arrested him last month. We talked with the director of The Legend of Shorty to find out what it’s like to suddenly have the end of your film rewritten for you:

KERA Radio interview:

Online version:

Art&Seek: Your mission in The Legend of Shorty was to track down El Chapo Guzman and talk to him. What were you hoping to show in documenting that search for him?

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Angus MacQueen

Angus MacQueen: When we set out, Chapo Guzman was the head of the Sinaloa Cartel – in our view the most powerful drugs organization in history. And we were just pretty skeptical. We thought we knew probably where he was. And so it was a sort of proposition: If we could find him, why couldn’t they? And if that then followed that they weren’t looking for him what’s going on?

A&S: So about two weeks before the film was debut at South by Southwest, news comes down that El Chapo had been captured in Mexico. What was your first thought when you heard that news?

A.M.: My first response was probably a word I can’t use on radio. But actually, when we were making the film we were always conscious that he might get caught, he might get killed. He might get killed not by the authorities, but by a rival cartel, who, in some ways, for much of the period I suspect he was far more worried about the rival cartels than he was the Mexican or American authorities. But the end of the version that we finished first was a question that went: Do you think they’ll get him? And the lawyer in the film replied, “When he’s no longer of use.” And that, for me, summed – and sums – up the story and what the film is trying to get at. So once I got around the expense that we had to do of reversioning, in a way the film now has a full stop. Before it had a question mark at the end.

A&S: If you had been able to talk to him, what’s the question you wanted to ask him the most?

A.M.: That’s a great question, that. We had quite a lot of discussion about this, because we had various levels. Which is if he looks as if he’s in a good mood and he likes us, to, oh my God – “we’re a bit scared of him” level questions. So, the base-level ones were – I was interested in him as a businessman, to be honest. Drugs as a business.

A&S: So just to wrap up, he’s been in prison before and managed to get out. Do you think this is the last we’ll see of El Chapo in the free world?

A.M.: Do I think he’ll escape again, no? But the fundamental question you need to ask is: Chapo gets caught – did the price of drugs go up in the United States? If they didn’t, what’s going on? The evidence of the past 40 years is: You can arrest Chapo, you can arrest Escobar, you can arrest all the other less-well-known people. The demand is there, the supply is there and, critically, so is the money.

A&S: So it sounds like one guy’s gone, but the machine continues to work.

A.M.: The last line of the film is, “The king is dead, long live the king.”