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’sCartel 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.”
Source: Filmmaker Matt Heineman Dives Deep into Action on ‘Cartel Land’ – “Things That Happened Off Camera Made It Even Scarier” | SSN Insider