Director Matthew Heineman put his life on the line for his art with his drug cartel documentary Cartel Land, which won awards for cinematography and directing at the Sundance Film Festival in January and recently landed a spot on Oscar’s feature documentary shortlist. Cartel Land, distributed by The Orchard and executive produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, revolves around vigilantes on both side of the border — in Arizona and Mexico — who find their own separate motivations for battling the ubiquitous violence of the drug cartels. Last night, Heineman sat down with Deadline’s Dominic Patten at the AwardsLine screening for the film to discuss his inspiration and the challenges of shooting in a country devastated by violence.
Having previously made a documentary about health care in the United States — “about a different type of war,” he quips — Heineman became fascinated with the way cartel violence had been glorified in the media, and with questions about how he would respond if he, himself, became yet another victim of it.
Says Heineman, “Every single day, especially in Mexico, I constantly thought, ‘What would I do? What would I do if my sister was raped or my dad was hanging from a bridge? Would I grab a gun? Is that right, is that just? Is vigilantism sustainable?’” Heineman’s well-executed intention was “to get at the heart of how this cartel violence is affecting everyday people, the response of everyday people rising up to fight back, and then the ramifications of what happens when citizens take the law into their own hands.” As film went on, Heineman was struck by the way in which the lines between good and evil became increasingly blurry, and became obsessed with the pursuit of clarity.
For Heineman, one of the major challenges of the production was gaining access to figureheads on both sides of the border who didn’t necessarily have a reason to trust him. One of his main subjects — Tim “Nailer” Foley, the leader of the Arizona Border Recon , had felt “burned” by a Rolling Stone article in which he appeared, making it a months-long struggle for the director to gain his confidence. Subsequently, Heineman’s father sent his son an article about the Autodefensas in Mexico — a vigilante group combating the cartel violence — which broke the story open for the director, giving him his “parallel portrait of vigilantism on both sides of the border.” Little did his father know that he would take this information and run with it, delving deep into the Mexican conflict and often putting himself in the crossfire. “It took a few weeks for my mom to start talking to my dad again after that,” Heineman says.
What allowed Heineman to get this critical access was simply — time. The director, who also shot the film, alongside DP Matt Porwoll, spent one to two weeks a month for nine months filming in Mexico, which allowed him to become close with Doctor Mireles, leader of the Autodefensas, as well as other key figures. “By the end of filming, pretty much everyone in Michoacán knew who I was — they called me ‘El Gringo’ for better or for worse,” Heineman says. Still, the director felt extraordinarily lucky to be granted as much access as he was. For the Autodefensas, “The tensions were extraordinarily high. Two of their members had been assassinated by two guys on mopeds on a highway nearby.” Getting access to the meth manufacturers, in particular, took months and was a very nerve-wracking process. Going to meet with them, he was led to the outskirts of town, by the freeway, and he felt at the time, “’This is their way of getting rid of me and the story.’” “But once we started shooting, my instincts took over,” he says.
“This is a story that we’ve seen playing out throughout history, that we see playing out in the world today and will continue to see as long as we have a failure of government institutions and societies or people that feel like they’re not being protected by their respective governments, or by the lack of a government,” the director says.
Since 2007, more than 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico and over 20,000 have disappeared completely, never to be heard from again. The “elephant in the room” is simple economics — as long as there’s a demand for drugs in the U.S., there will be a supply. Indeed, this is a war that the U.S. is funding. “If you go out tonight and have a mojito, the lime in your drink is coming from Michoacán. If you go out and have tacos tonight, the avocado is most likely coming from Michoacán. And if you go do meth tonight, the meth is most likely coming from Michoacán,” said the director about the highly coveted region.
After shooting completed in August 2014, Heineman and his editor, Matthew Hamachek, realized that at their current pace, and with a mountain of footage in front of them, there was no way they’d finish in time to submit to Sundance. The duo brought on two other editors, Pax Wassermann and Bradley Ross, who helped them get the film finished in time in what was, for Heineman, “a painful, crazy experiment.”
But despite this wide array of challenges, from craft difficulties to life-and-death scenarios, Heineman lived to tell the tale. “The film has changed my life. I think I’d be inhuman if it didn’t change me,” he says. With a major, successful release in Mexico and the States, and on VOD, hopefully that change will extend, gradual as it may be, to the world at large.