"Cartel Land" is not for the faint of heart, nor mind.
Journalists, documentary filmmakers and other storytellers fight and scratch for access. For his border-hopping film about Mexican drug cartels and the vigilantes on both sides of the Southern border who fight them, director Matthew Heineman might have gotten more than he bargained for.
Along the way he films a midnight meth-cooking session; gunfights in the streets of Michoacan, Mexico; and records, surreptitiously, men being tortured. "It was a frightening film to make," he said in a recent interview with Roll Call.
Heineman is not, or at least he wasn't before this movie, a gonzo journalist. His last film, "Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare," is focused on health policy. He hadn't thought about getting into filmmaking until after college and failing to secure a position with Teach for America. "People ask me: I didn't know you could get rejected by Teach for America," he said.
But on a trip to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina, he had a revelation, a "spiritual event," and since then has been focused on this vocation. He hadn't planned on putting himself into so much danger when he started documenting the dual-track stories of vigilantes in Mexico and Arizona who were striking back against the cartels: Autodefensas in Michoacan and Arizona Border Recon in the Altar Valley area of the Grand Canyon State.
But, in a theme echoed in the movie, things got complicated. The charismatic head of the Autodefensas, physician Jose Mireles, is horrifically injured, compromised by his own weaknesses and eventually loses out in a power struggle over the direction of Autodefensas.
He is currently in prison in Mexico, although he has not been formally charged. Autodefensas, meanwhile, was infiltrated by the cartels and eventually absorbed into the government.
In Arizona, Tim "Nailer" Foley, head of Arizona Border Recon, moves beyond stereotypes many hold about vigilantes by actually disrupting drug activity and treating people caught in the act humanely.
It gets tough to keep track of who is aligned with whom, particularly in Mexico; who is in more danger, and who even is a hero or villain in the way we want our movies to spell such things out, particularly when it comes to things like the drug war. "Those moments when I felt the rug pulled out under me," Heineman told a screening audience at June's AFI Docs, "I want that to happen for the audience, too."
"It's really, really complicated," he continued. "We always joked that the perfect ending would be Nailer going down and breaking the doctor out of jail," he added.
No such luck. Instead, the ending brings into focus the root cause of the drug war: supply and demand. "We're feeding this war. We're funding this war," he said. That's one of the few things everyone agrees on.
"Cartel Land" opened Friday at Landmark's E Street Cinema at 555 11th Street NW.
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