To see this woman sitting in front of me, it was as though her soul had been sucked out of her body. And the sadism with which her punishment was delivered...

Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land opens with what looks like an outtake from Breaking Bad: a torchlit scene of masked men cooking crystal meth, on about chemistry and local poverty and how they’ll keep doing this “as long as God allows,” come what may. Enter a uniformed man whose chilling allegiances blur the lines between good and evil—drug prevention and creation—so thoroughly that, were this fiction, the scribe would be stripped of his tools for overplaying the Nietzschean parallels. But this isn’t fiction. It’s an alarming account of a crisis so labyrinthine that it’s hard to see how anyone can escape its elastic web of extortion, corruption and violence.

Cartel Land paints a parallel portrait of vigilantes policing two different fronts of the drug war. Tim “Nailer” Foley, an addict-turned-proactive spearhead living in Arizona’s Alter Valley—a desert corridor otherwise known as Cocaine Alley—leads a small paramilitary group to stop the drug war from bleeding across the border. In the Mexican state of Michoacán, small-town physician José “El Doctor” Mireles shepherds the Autodefensas, a civilian coalition waging its own war against the Knights Templar, a drug cartel operating with impunity, and perhaps with governmental complicity.

Heineman admits he’s no traditional war reporter, yet Cartel Land is unmistakable boots-on-the-ground film journalism, made at evident risk of his life—with no less than three running machine gun battles—to capture moments of brutality and lost morals. Many masks are worn, by both criminals and the vigilantes who claim to protect innocent citizens alike. Even when the masks come off, it’s all but impossible to tell the good guys apart from the bad. Both sides are corrupt. Both sides wreak havoc. Despite occasionally oversimplifying things, Cartel Land is a persuasive look at decades-long combat that respects no boundaries and holds no prospect of surcease.

Cartel Land, Oscar-tipped for Best Documentary Feature this month, is now available on iTunes.

You’ve been on this very long promotional trail since the film premiered at Sundance last year. Has your perception about what you witnessed and experienced during the shoot changed at all? Also, crucially, what’s been happening in Michoacán since you’ve been back?

No, I wouldn’t say that my perception has changed. I think the reality on the ground has changed, which has sort of provided further context for the film. What everyone feared when this movie started, and when the Autodefensas froze up in Mexico—fear and anarchy—has in fact taken place. Unfortunately, the cycle of violence has repeated itself. Kidnappings and murders are on the rise, and without giving away the end of the movie, we’re worse off than when we started.

It’s a crisis that’s so labyrinthine. The movie raises questions and addresses concerns, but offers no practical solutions. What do you hope the casual viewer will take away from it?

This is not a traditional “cause” film. You don’t walk out of the film and sign a petition. My goal was to provide a window into a world that you never get to see, to put a face to this cartel alliance that’s resulted in 100,000-plus people being killed and 20,000-plus people disappearing since 2007. My goal with the film was to provide a human face—an emotional and personal look—to how this violence was affecting everyday people. The response being everyday people rising up to fight back, and examining the ramifications when citizens decide to take the law into their own hands.

A brief background so you don’t have to: you grew up in Connecticut, studied at Dartmouth, and aspired to become a teacher. You’re big on American history. Needless to say, you’re abundantly curious and a classic truth seeker. How did filmmaking find its way into this life?

You obviously know most of my background. I thought I wanted be a teacher. [Laughs] I got rejected from Teach For America and scratched my head trying to figure out what to do with my life. During my senior year in college, three friends and I hatched up this idea to drive around the U.S. for three months, interviewing kids from all walks of life, from Mark Zuckerberg to drug dealers to cancer researchers—a kaleidoscopic look at youth in America today. I bought a video camera and taught myself as I went along. Through that journey, I fell in love with filmmaking. There’s a moment I’ll never forget: We went into the Ninth Ward of New Orleans three months after Hurricane Katrina hit and I was going to see this man’s house for the first time. That was a very dramatic moment on a very dramatic day, being with this guy and see him go through this extremely emotional experience through the camera lens. It was almost that day that I looked in the mirror and told myself, “I think this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

You’re of course referring to the documentary Our Time. So leading up to that moment you just brought up, the thought of becoming a filmmaker wasn’t even on your radar.

No. I have absolutely no formal training or background in it. I had no idea I’d become a filmmaker.

That rejection from Teach For America quite literally set you on this path. I can only assume that your trajectory would’ve been quite different had things gone your way.

Who knows, you know? Who knows? [Laughs] We are who we are. Maybe I would’ve found filmmaking in some roundabout way, but who knows?

So you read about the Arizona Border Recon in Rolling Stone magazine, and your father sends you the Wall Street Journal piece on José Mireles and the Autodefensas. What was it about this particular subject that called out for a documentary in your mind?

There’s been so much coverage of drug wars in articles, books, and other films that tackled the subject from a policy angle. What I really wanted to do was to put myself right in the middle of the action to examine the effects and the struggle of everyday people. This world of vigilantism was fascinating to me. What motivated people to take up arms was fascinating. It’s a deeply complex endeavor as we see so vividly in the film. Intellectually, that really drove me, especially in Mexico. I was constantly asking myself, “What would I do? What would I do if my sister was raped or if my brother was hanging from a bridge? Would I take up arms? Is that right? Is that just? Is vigilantism sustainable?” These things plagued me, pushed me, and drew me into the story.

As is true with narrative features, those “based on” and “inspired by” included, documentaries are only as compelling as its protagonists, if you will. Would Cartel Land work without Tim Foley and José Mireles, these insanely interesting people at the film’s center?

That’s like you asking me, “If you met your girlfriend and she wasn’t interesting, would you still date her?” [Laughs] No. Of course not. I knew all along that I wanted to make a character-driven film. I wanted “El Doctor” [José Mireles] and “Nailer” [Tim Foley] to be the protagonists. It’s obviously not just about them, it’s about their movements and all the people around them, too. But at the heart of this film are these two men, two utterly fascinating and complex men, both 55 years old, both failed by their governments in their minds, and both “taking the law into their own hands” to fight for what they believe in. So the parallels between the two characters fascinated me. If I didn’t have them, I’m sure that I would’ve found others. And, obviously, the circumstances are different. In Mexico, the violence is real and visceral. In Arizona, that level of violence isn’t happening and it’s more a fear that these Mexican drug wars will seep across the border.

There’s a lot going on in role your as the director, co-cameraman and, really, a boots-on-the-ground reporter in the thick of it. You’re chasing an open-ended narrative, and I can only assume you’re trying to get as much as you can. You’re putting your crew and yourself at great risk in certain situations. You’re coaxing information and stories out of your subjects throughout. What was the game plan here? Is there anything you can possibly pre-plan?

No. I ended up with a completely different story than what I thought I was telling. I don’t think anything could’ve necessarily prepared me for what I was about to embark upon, especially on the Mexican side. I thought I was going to be down there for one or two weeks and that turned into nine months. During that time, the story evolved, shifted and morphed in so many different ways. What I originally thought was a story about good versus evil—guys in white hats versus guys in black hats in the classic Western sense—changed and evolved. The lines between good and evil became ever more blurry. I became obsessed with it and that drove me to keep going down there again and again, until I thought I understood what was really happening. A mentor of mine in the film world, Albert Maysles, once said, “If you end up with the story you started with, you weren’t listening along the way.” I think that’s good advice for life and good advice for filmmaking. That’s something I held true to my heart at almost every step along the way.

How did you find the overall experience engaging with “El Doctor” and “Nailer”? I’m talking about knowing when to push a little harder to squeeze that gem out of somebody versus knowing when to pull back if a situation doesn’t seem particularly inviting.

That’s the dance you do, especially on documentaries like this. You have this push-pull around the access. To me, access was everything. I think you’re talking specifically about the interviews and information, but the questions for me had more to do with scenes, access, places, and “Can we join you on this mission and be with you during this key moment?” Those are the conversations we had every day, trying to make sure we pushed and pushed and pushed to be able to see everything and not just end up with this PR, six o’clock news establishing shot of what was happening. We had to dig deep. We were embedded with these guys. We were living with them at certain times, depending on where we were. We slept out on mountainsides with them. We slept on the floors of houses that they took over from the cartel. It was a very immersive experience, which also made it scarier as things went down. Allegiances shifted. You didn’t necessarily know who you were with.

Did you at any point wish you had hired another DP to shoot in your place?

No, because so much of the intimacy of the footage I was able to get was oftentimes by me alone. There were so many dicey moments like the shoot-out, the torture and the witch hunt through town in the third act that, if it was anyone else but me filming, it would’ve been impossible to get. Not to mention, having to worry about sending that other person in, being alongside someone who’s in potential danger as much as you are, and having to take care of that person.

It’s often talked about how stories truly materialize in the editing room, be it narrative, documentary or something more experimental. Did you find this to be true on Cartel Land?

Sort of. I really knew what story I wanted to tell, but there were definitely moments and scenes that were discovered in the editing room, especially because my Spanish is pretty bad. [Laughs]

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I think it’s fairly easy to ascertain which moments in the film might’ve been the scariest for you guys at the time. Did you ever come close to abandoning the project?

There were definitely times when I thought what I was doing was crazy. My family, my girlfriend, and the people around me thought what I was doing crazy. But, ultimately, I wanted to tell this story. So many of these moments, especially the ones I just described, weren’t filmed to get gratuitous violence or to get some really dramatic, action movie footage. These moments were incredibly important to the narrative I was telling, to the complexity of vigilantism, and to the reality of what was happening on the ground. At every moment, even in that first shoot-out and despite how crazy it felt—I’d never experienced anything like that in my life before—I knew it was an important thing to capture because this is actually happening. They were really happening in the middle of the cities and small towns. To not capture it would be not telling the truth.

Right. It’s not like you’re there to egg someone on to make something more interesting.

I don’t quite know how, but there are these Q&As where people ask me things like, “What was it like to work with actors during those shoot-outs?” I wish they were actors, I guess?

What movie was he watching? So where does your curiosity stop when you’re engaged in dangerous situations like this? I’m talking about the movie, by the way.

That’s the thing. You’re constantly pushing that line of what you think is okay and what you think is in too deep. That line eventually got pushed further and further into dangerous places. The places I pushed myself into, the footage that I was able to get, and the positions that I found myself in by the ninth month was a lot different than the situations I would’ve felt comfortable pushing myself into the first month. For better or worse, I think that’s one of the scariest things about reporting on something like this. You’re constantly balancing the fact that you’re becoming more and more used to being in these situations while acknowledging that this complacency is what leads to bad decisions. Even though I became more and more comfortable filming in dicey situations, even though I pushed myself further and further as the film went on, you still have to have your antennas up at all times, especially in this dark and murky world of vigilantism.

I’m not insinuating that you did this on Cartel Land, but is it ever okay to ask one of your subjects something like, “Can I have you do that one more time?” Is that ever ethical? Is anything ever so critical to the story that it’s justified from a filmmaker’s standpoint?

It depends on what you mean. If you’re doing an interview and what someone says doesn’t make sense, or the way they worded it doesn’t make sense, it’s perfectly okay to ask them to clarify. If there’s a key scene, like when “El Doctor” meets up with his girlfriend, and I say, “I wasn’t pressing record. Can you go meet her again?” that’s wrong, obviously. It’s hard to define exactly what that is, but there are certain things that are okay to do. For the most part, from the sort of background that I come from, it’s really about letting the action unfold before you. The more you interject, the less real it becomes. You have to stay disciplined and not fall victim to that instinct to sometimes want to redo something. You’ll always find a way to make it work in the editing room.

What’s the update on your two protagonists? Is José Mireles still behind bars?

He’s still in prison. His lawyers, family, and friends believe he’s a political prisoner. There’s been no due process, no due trial. They believe the only reason he’s in jail is because the government doesn’t want to hear from him. It’s sad, you know? He’s been inside for maybe a year and a half.

He obviously hasn’t seen the movie yet.


What about Tim Foley?


What was his reaction?

I think it’s always hard to see yourself on film. He was a little shocked to see himself, but he very much felt like it was an honest and truthful portrait of what he was going through and the situations he found himself in. He obviously didn’t know the intricacies of what was going on with “El Doctor” so I think that also fascinated him. He’s been very supportive of the film.

What scares you most in life?

Honestly, I get more scared going to see these big, theatrical horror movies. I’d much rather be in a shoot-out or real life danger than surreal danger.

Well, I wasn’t expecting you to say that.

For some reason, that stuff scares me a lot. As it pertains to this film, I think one of the scarier moments for me wasn’t actually the shoot-outs or some adrenaline-filled moment like that. It was the interview I did with the young woman who had been kidnapped by the cartel, then forced to watch her husband being chopped to pieces and burned to death. To see this woman sitting in front of me, it was as though her soul had been sucked out of her body. She had these deep, hollow eyes. And the sadism with which her punishment was delivered, her punishment being that she has to live with the madness of what she saw that day. To hear her describe the horrors of what the cartel did to her, and to think that we all come from the same species, that frightens me. Those bullet-riddled, adrenaline-filled moments come and go. You’re in it, your heart is pumping, sweat is dripping down your forehead, it’s absolutely terrifying, but when you’re out of it, you’re out of it.

What’s next? Maybe something lighter?

Not necessarily. There are a few different things I’m working on, but nothing I can talk about. I’m excited to keep making films and keep doing what I’m doing. I feel so lucky to be a storyteller.

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