In Olancho, a rural province of Honduras, the drug trade has taken its toll in human lives and economic damage. But to some musicians, the cartels provide an opportunity, by playing private parties and glorifying the dealers in song.
When Ted Griswold and Chris Valdes arrived in Olancho, the two English teachers heard one group, Los Plebes de Olancho, everywhere they went.
"We heard about this band the entire time we were down there. This infamous group of musicians who would go and play for the cartels," Griswold said. "You'd hear their music everywhere – if you go to the barbershop, if you're in a taxi, but no one really knew where they were or where they were performing."
The two returned to the United States after two years and became determined to return and shoot a documentary. After raising money, they headed back to Honduras with enough leads to assume they could track the group down.
They spent a full month with no luck finding the band. Not too long ago, they had angered a narco and people were afraid to talk about them with two white Americans.
"We were actually at the gas station brainstorming for a new documentary, and a friend of a friend told us that people who knew the musicians are out front filling up their tank and if we wanted to go, we'd just have to jump in their car but we had to go right then," he said.
After a two-hour drive out of the city, they arrived in a village with no electricity or running water, where two brothers in the group lived.
"They were cleaning up after a day of picking corn and coffee and polishing their guns on their porch, and we just said 'Are you Le Plebes de Olancho?' and they pulled out guitars and started playing," he said.
After explaining their project, the group spent some four months shooting the band.
Their film, "Olancho," introduces the band members and life in their rural area. The scenes of their live shows and everyday life are captured with a rich palette by cinematographer Shlomo Godder.
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Manuel, the lead singer and guitarist, grew up on the farm with a hard-working musician father. His brother, the bassist, handles the money. Their accordion player, Orlin, makes money on the side by playing 10 or 11 hours straight for narcos. (The filmmakers were allowed to tag along for one such party, which is guarded by men with machine guns.)
"To be honest, there are a couple of shots from that scene, that once the film gets distribution outside of the film festivals, we're definitely going to have to blur some faces so as not to get anyone in trouble in Honduras or in the states," he said.
Griswold said the group's music was ubiquitous but banned from the radio – the narco-corrido songs, often commissioned by drug dealers who thrive by using the landlocked country as a smuggling corridor, moving product north.
Manuel speaks at length about the dangers of playing for narcos. If a rival becomes jealous of a popular song, he'll demand one of his own. After he angers a drug dealer, it raises difficult choices about his future and immigration issues in the U.S.
For readers whose interest in documentary filmmaking outweighs spoilers, read ahead.
The team originally focused on Orlin, who provided them great access to his life. Several months after they'd returned to the U.S., they learned that Manuel had been threatened by a narco and fled to the United States, first to Chicago and then to North Carolina.
"We realized we could expand the whole story to include story of his life as an undocumented immigrant or refugee," Griswold said.
They tracked him down and shot interviews on his new life in the U.S., where he works as an electrician and tries to find ways to get back into music, all while trying not to get deported. Griswold said they've been working with a nonprofit to determine if he can stay legally, or if he'll have to return to his home country.