Sydney Film Festival Review: Cartel Land (Mexico, USA, 2015)

cartel land

Cartel Land is the documentary that award-winning filmmaker Matthew Heineman risked his life for, and the danger he thrust himself into is communicated shockingly well in this 98 minute look at cartels and vigilante militias both north and south of the U.S./Mexico border. Heineman has a blockbuster flair for this work, which is why it’s easy to forget that this is documentary and not a multifaceted action-drama; things actually get so depressing and embittering that you begin to wish that this wasn’t real, that it’s all one cleverly scripted film.

Not content with beginning things off slowly, Heineman opens with a team of Mexican meth cooks who are masked and cooking on a desolate patch of desert in pitch black, save for the camera’s spotlight. “We know we do harm with all the drugs”, says one of the cooks, very articulately reasoning through the work; “If we were like you, we wouldn’t have to do this”. We begin by looking at just one facet of the ‘war’ that is going on and then explode into an all-encompassing look at what has resulted from all the drugs, money, and violence. And it’s much worse than you’d expect.

There is that underlying, age-old theme of power corrupting those who began with relatively good intentions, as Heineman very delicately balances between two modern-day vigilante groups who have risen from a community effort to fight back against the cartels. We begin to form a good and bad dichotomy straight away but Heineman’s impeccable sense of pacing slowly chips away at our expectations and actually structures the documentary so we are given nuanced twists and turns, ensuring we never lose interest.

We land mainly behind the perspective of a group of uprising citizens calling themselves the Autodefensas, formed in a response to the violence of the Knights Templar cartel in areas like the Mexican state of Michoacan. It’s not just this ultra-violence and oppression that has called on this group though, government response has been poor and frustrating from the perspective of the people, fueling the cartels rather than doing anything to stop them. It’s a tale of corruption of course, but that takes a brief step back in the light of graphic violence so shocking that stories from grieving citizens and shots of decapitated heads are hard to stomach.

Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde is the man who bands the Autodefensas together and it’s his magnetic personality which rally’s more and more people to their cause. We watch the Autodefensas grow and all these fast moving scene are held together by Valverde, naturally charasmatic and known as “El Doctor”, a reference to his job as a surgeon. While Valverde is somewhat of a Grassroots wonder, his appearance is also chipped away throughout the course of the documentary and his vices slowly unravel while the Autodefensas morph into a movement that mirrors the very thing they are fighting against.

Footage is shocking at times, not just because it’s full of intense, real gunfights and heroic invasions, but because it was all captured by either Heineman or cinematographer Matt Porwoll. The danger they put themselves in and they access they are granted is unparalleled, and they both have a terrifying knack for putting you right on the ground with them.

The other side of the action is in Arizona, where a small paramilitary group led by Tim “Nailer” Foley help stop the lookouts for cartels in the hilly area south of Tuscon. Weariness and determination show on his face every time the documentary stops to directly hear his point of view, and we see a man who too operates on the fringes of the law but is putting a major dent in cartel operations. His movement is slower to grow than the Autodefensas but it’s also insulated against the same corruption. The motive here is clear and it’s juxtaposed against the fleeting integrity of the Autodefensas who are dirtied by politics, power, and an unmanageable size.

Cartel Land isn’t an easy watch, and the editing is perhaps a bit too heavy at times, but there’s no shortage of drama, action, and genuinely moving material here that is all strung together so well. Heineman starts telling a story we think is straight forward, and it transforms into something much more complex than could have been expected, giving Cartel Land the unique opportunity to capture and track a deeply affecting process of corruption despite good intentions.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Cartel Land screened as part of The Sydney Film Festival. More information can be found HERE