How often do you watch a movie and wonder how many times the filmmaker’s life was actually in danger while making it? Probably not very often, right? Well, tune in to Netflix and watch director Matt Heineman’s Cartel Land, and that’ll be the very first thing you think.
The film about how the drug cartels control the Michoacán region of Mexico, the effort to combat their despotic rule and the impotent Mexican government, while also looking at the efforts of a band of American vigilantes patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border in southern Arizona, is an engrossing, harrowing tale of a modern, real life horror story. It certainly impressed the DGA, which just awarded Heineman the Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary documentary this past weekend, as well the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which gave him his first Oscar nomination for Documentary Feature.
“There’s been a lot of coverage of the drug war in the media, and it’s been glorified in movies and TV shows,” he explains, “and my goal was to put a face to this violence. I didn’t want to talk about this from the outside, I wanted to put myself in the middle of the action and see how this violence affects every day people. The response of every day people rising up to fight back, and the ramifications when citizens take the law into their own hands.”
That violence was something that, as you can see while watching the movie, the director got a chance to experience first hand. He’ll be the first to tell you, being in a gunfight isn’t as much fun as it might appear. The movie makes Sicario, a fictional story about a lot of the same issues, look like a kid’s film.
“It was a genuinely terrifying film to make,” he says thoughtfully. “I’m not a war reporter. I’ve never been in any situation like this before, but the film obviously led me to some dangerous places. Shoot-outs between the cartels and the vigilantes, meth labs in the dark of night, places of torture, and that’s just what happened on camera. There are so many other things that happened off camera that made it even scarier.”
Things like secretive trips to a meth lab in the middle of nowhere, careful negotiations with masked drug dealers and “freedom fighters” who had no interest in being filmed, being surrounded and threatened by men with guns, and the generally spectacular level of paranoia and mistrust of a gringo with a camera.
The primary focus of the Mexican part of the film is on Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as “El Doctor” in Michoacán, who leads the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the violent Knights Templar drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Over the course of the film — which was shot from June of 2013 through August of 2014 — the Autodefensas gain more and more ground against the cartel, but not without cost, both physical and moral.
Mireles becomes the mouthpiece of the movement, but even as he tries to do the right thing, he doesn’t always succeed, and to Heineman’s credit, the director never whitewashes anything and refuses to turn the man into some kind of superhero. On the contrary, he shows Mireles for who he is: well-intentioned, but human and deeply flawed.
“So many documentaries go out of their way, and I think many audiences expect it now, to give a very clear answer about a certain issue, or a certain problem or a certain character,” Heineman says, “and for me, that’s not what life is. Especially this world, which is so murky and so complicated and so gray and messy. I really wanted to revel in the complexity of humanity and vigilantism and not put these people, or this movement, into nice, neat little boxes. I really wanted to show both the good and the bad of what’s happening.”
That includes his time in southern Arizona, where he hooked up with border vigilante Tim “Nailer” Foley, who leads a group of trained militiamen as they patrol the border for illegal aliens and drug smugglers bringing their wares across national lines. Heineman was first clued into Nailer and his fellow diehards after reading about them in Rolling Stone magazine. It took him months to earn Nailer’s trust, then shot for another four months once Nailer finally gave the go ahead. That, Heineman thought, was going to be that, until his father sent him another article about what was happening in Michoacán, and that opened up a whole new angle to the project.
Heineman headed south, then spent at least one to two weeks each month for the next nine months shadowing Mireles and others, gaining the access he needed to tell a story that covered both sides of what has become one of today’s defining issues, and a controversy that has become a major facet of the upcoming presidential election.
With everything he has put into the project, and as close as he has come to all the mayhem, chaos and corruption involved, Heineman is the first to admit he has no easy answers. Well, other than the obvious one, of course.
“Get Americans to stop doing drugs,” he says, without the slightest trace of irony. “Until that stops, this violence, the cyclical nature of cartel warfare will not stop, either. Obviously, it’s a deeply complex issue, with decades of failed policy on both sides, as well as ineffective and corrupt government, especially in Mexico, that allows this cycle to perpetuate. At the end of the day, it comes down to our voracious appetite for drugs.”
Cartel Land is not a policy film, like Heineman’s previous project, Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare, but it does still shine a light on an ongoing tragedy that should, by any stretch of the imagination, be something we can actually combat.
“We spend a lot of time focusing on fighting ISIS, and rightly so,” Heineman says, “but there’s this conflict that’s happening right on our doorstep, in a country we share so much history with, a country we share a border with, and a conflict that we’re responsible for and we’re connected to. I just hope that focus can be paid to the right things.”