Director Matthew Heineman has spent nearly a year with vigilante groups on both sides of the US-Mexican border taking on the violent drug cartels for his new film Cartel Land, which was exec-produced by director Kathryn Bigelow (of Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty fame).
"I originally thought I was making this really simple hero-villain story," Heineman tells me at Sheffield Doc/Fest, where Cartel Land won the Tim Hetherington Award, after earlier bagging awards for direction and cinematography at Sundance. "Slowly it became clear that the story was much more grey, much more complicated."
Vigilantism conjures up a romantic image—Batman-types battling evil forces. Again and again in the film, expectations are confounded, as "good guys" switch places with "bad guys" and vice versa. The lines between drug dealers, cops, government officials, victims, and killers dissolve before our eyes.
In many ways, Cartel Land feels like drama, with breathtaking cinematography and tense action sequences, but it's a gritty, unflinching look at the reality of life for people on the front line of the war on drugs, a bruising study into the collapse of trust between citizen and state.
Our protagonists in this anti-morality tale are two vigilantes on either side of the US-Mexican border. Tim "Nailer" Foley, a bright-eyed, wiry, ex-soldier, and founder of the Arizona Border Recon paramilitary group and Dr. Jose Mireles, or "El Doctor," a charismatic, mustachioed physician leading the Autodefensas, a citizen militia force taking on the Knights Templar cartel in Michoacán, Mexico.
"They're both 55-year-old men. They've both taken the law into their own hands to fight for what they believe in; to protect their country. But obviously there are differences," Heineman points out. "In Mexico, 80,000 plus people have been killed since 2007, with 20,000 plus people disappeared. In the States, the violence is more theoretical."
As VICE News has reported, the Templars have a particularly brutal reputation. Unlike some cartels, which act "almost like benevolent dictators," as Heineman puts it, they messed with locals—adding theft, murder, extortion, kidnap, and sexual violence to their main activity of meth trafficking.
The Autodefensas was founded in 2013 by Michoacán citizens—many of them farmers—who, sick of police inaction, took up arms, and began to run cartel members out their state, village-by-village.
In one of the movie's most disturbing scenes, a woman tells how cartel members assaulted her and burned her husband—an Autodefensa—to death in front of her. "To hear her describe the horrors of what happened and to know that we're the same species that would do that to people was hard to grasp psychologically," says Heineman. It also drives home the risk, and bravery, in joining the Autodefensas.
"It's important to recognize that for years people would walk around shrouded in fear," Heineman says. "Especially when you get outside of Mexico City, mentioning the cartel was unheard of. The Autodefensas were born out of this really beautiful thing of defending your family and defending your town when the government was failing to do so."
Nailer, meanwhile, has his own motives. His vigilantism is a kind of personal redemption, putting him back on a righteous path after a misguided foray into alcohol and drug abuse. "He's not natively from the border. He's not protecting his home. He's fulfilling his duty—the duty he signed up for when he joined the military, which is to serve and protect his country. In his mind, it's a continuation of that."
A Rolling Stone article about Nailer that Heineman read by chance on the subway in New York was what prompted him to make the film. After the success of his last doc, Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, an investigation into the failings of the US healthcare system, he was keen to try something different, "to make a much more experiential, on-the-ground, character-driven vérité film." After his dad alerted him to what was happening in Michoacán, he decided to tell the two stories in parallel—although the US narrative is secondary.
He ended up filming in Michoacán and Arizona for nearly a year. Over that time he found himself in some pretty sketchy spots—being shot at in the street, interviewing heavily-armed, balaclava-clad meth cooks, filming in vigilante torture cells. Did he ever think, what the fuck am I doing?
"Yeah" is the short answer.
"I'm not a war journalist, I've never been in those situations before, I've never been shot at. In this film I found myself in crazy situations in many ways I wasn't prepared for all that." He also only speaks limited Spanish. "I understand enough to get by—to order food and go to the bathroom and ask basic questions. In some ways it was a blessing. I don't think I'd have wanted to know everything that was being said."
Heineman stresses that he's not a fan of what he calls "agenda" filmmaking. He didn't set out to make a film about the war on drugs, he says, but about individuals, and he won't be drawn into a discussion of "policy" beyond the fact that something's clearly not working. "It's basic supply and demand. As long as there's a demand for drugs in the north, in the United States, there's a supply of drugs from Mexico and South America. I don't see that cycle changing."
Instead, what spurred him on were human questions. How would he respond if faced with similar atrocities to the families of Michoacán? "What would I do if my sister was raped, if my father was hanged from a bridge? Would I take up arms, fight violence with violence? Would I become a vigilante? Do I believe that's right? Is it just? Is it sustainable?"
Far from glorifying vigilantism, Cartel Land shows the troubling issues it raises. One is that, since these groups are self-appointed, they're not accountable—an accusation leveled against the Autodefensas by a villager. In theory at least, state institutions answer to their citizens, although, as we see here, there's no guarantee of that. And then there's the depressing habit radical movements seem to have of replicating the corruption they've struggled against once they've gained a bit of power.
"I guess I came out of it feeling like vigilantism isn't sustainable," Heineman concludes. "We've seen this play out throughout history of armed groups fighting against 'evil.' We see it all across the world today. The key is to know your end goal. How are you going to create a sustainable system going forward? Often these groups pop up with noble intentions but without an exit strategy or game plan."
While he's looking forward to the forthcoming US and UK releases, Heineman's most interested to see how the film is received in Mexico. "I fell in love with the people and the country," he says. "I really hope it makes a difference, that it ignites an important conversation. I'm scared, too. I worry about my local crew and about the people in the film—both the 'good' people and the 'bad' people."
Cartel Land is now playing in theaters in the US and UK.
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