This is one of the rare times in which I’ve gone into a movie knowing absolutely nothing about it, and being utterly fascinated by every minute detail of it once the film is over. Cartel Land was a film that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, with the film picking up a few documentary awards while there. The film has slowly been expanding to theaters across the nation, and has gotten a bit of a boost with Kathryn Bigelow, director of the films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, serving as an executive producer on the film. Matthew Heineman, the director behind this documentary, has made a film that is one of the scariest, intense and utterly fascinating of the 21st century, a film that will hit home for many, and inform others about what’s really going on down on the border.
The film follows two plot-lines. One plot-line involving José Manuel Mireles Valverde, a doctor in Michoacán, a Mexican state in which the Knights Templar, a cartel, terrifies the entire state, killing, raping, beating everyone in their path. Mireles decides he’s had enough with being spooked by the cartel, and decides to start a self-defense group called the Autodefensas, which the state gets behind in fighting off the cartel, much to the dismay of the already corrupt Mexican government. The other plotline involves a similar self-defense group, but this time its a border patrol-esque militia that surveys the Arizona/Mexican border, in an area that’s nicknamed Cocaine Alley. The group is led by Tim “Nailer” Foley, a recovering drug addict/alcoholic whose dedicated the last five years to surveying the border.
What makes this doc stand out from any other documentary that I’ve seen, both recently and as a whole, is that docs like this would feature some talking head interviews of important people detailing what’s going on down in Mexico with the cartels but never actually going down to the country itself. Heineman is right there on the fighting lines, along with the Autodefensas, as they have shootouts in the middle of the streets with members of the cartel. This isn’t a shootout from scripted Hollywood fare, this is as real as it gets, and you’re genuinely thrilled because anything could happen, none of this is scripted. There’s one shootout where Heineman and the Autodefensas are driving and are being shot at while driving, and everybody in the car is panicked (you notice that Heineman forgets to focus/adjust the aperture on his camera while in this said shootout).
What’s even scarier is that this story of the Autodefensas plays out like a movie, even though what you’re watching on-screen is far from fictional. As I mentioned earlier, the townspeople don’t want the military/government to come in and take care of the matter, because the Mexican government is about as corrupt as it gets, with most of the police officers working along with the cartels. As one cartel member points out toward the film, none of this will never end, and if it does, it won’t be anytime soon. Even Mireles, the charismatic leader behind the Autodefensas, ends up becoming a tragic figure of his own toward the end of the film, but I won’t reveal what his fate is at the end of the film.
The sequences featuring Foley and his men surveying the border are apart of a growing controversy in America, in which militias like Foley’s group are growing, and taking matters into their own hands when surveying the border. Foley is aware of this in the film, and stresses that what’s going on the border is dire, and that somebody needs to take matters into their own hands. But once you see the film, you have to wonder, is it even worth it? Even if the sequences with Foley are the weaker lengths of an already masterful documentary, it’s still fascinating to tap into the mindset of these men who feel that they’re keeping this country safer by taking matters into their own hands.
As of right now, Cartel Land is playing in one theater in Austin, Texas (the Regal Arbor), and by all means do I recommend that you go and see this film. Cartel Land is a film that will open your eyes to the war on drugs down south, and you’ll have an entirely different mindset on the situation as a whole after you see this film, and how it’s not as black and white as the media here in the states tends to portray it. Cartel Land is easily the best documentary I’ve seen in the past year, and quite possibly the best film I’ve seen this past year, period.