You’d be forgiven for assuming documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman has a background in war reporting, given the nature of his work on the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land. We follow Heineman–who is also the cinematographer–as he dodges bullets, rides along with a gunpoint interrogation and films a meth-cooking operation deep in the Mexican jungle. Yet Heineman, who won a DGA Award last week and whose previous work includes the Emmy-nominated Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, initially only set out to take a closer look at an Arizona border-patrol vigilante named Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley. Then, when Heineman’s father sent him a clipping about an anti-cartel vigilante group across the border called the Autodefensas, Heineman says, “Immediately upon reading that, I knew I wanted to create the parallel portrait of vigilantism on both sides of the border.” Of the significant risks involved, Heineman is philosophical, saying, “I felt this huge duty and a huge obligation to capture what I was seeing, to capture the murky world of vigilantism, the grayness that emerges when citizens take the law into their own hands, and what happens when men with guns take power. I didn’t want to comment from the outside. I wanted to be there right in the middle of it.”

How did you get started on this project?

It was a world that I knew nothing about. I knew nothing about vigilantism. I knew nothing about the border or the drug wars, so I was fascinated by it. It took about seven months to gain Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley’s trust and to actually get on the ground and start filming. Once I got there, it was sort of carte blanche access. So I filmed there for about four months, and then my father sent me this article about the Autodefensas in Michoacán, Mexico. I reached out through the journalists to El Doctor, our main character down there, and I think I was on the phone with him the next day, and I was in Mexico two weeks later. So that happened incredibly quickly.

I originally thought I was going to be down there for a week, maybe two weeks, and get enough footage to create this juxtaposition. One or two weeks turned into nine months. We probably had 20-25 shoots down there, well over 102 days, and at first, I thought it was this very simple story of good versus evil, guys in white shirts versus guys in black shirts. Then over time, those lines between good and evil became ever more blurry.

I became almost obsessed with trying to understand who these guys really were, and what was really happening, and where this story was going, and I think my family and my girlfriend probably thought I was slightly deranged for how much time I was spending down there with my small local crew. But I care deeply about telling this story and getting it right. I also fell in love with the people of Michoacán, the people of Mexico, and the state that they were living in, the suffering that they had endured for so long living under the wrath of a ruthless and terrifying cartel that controlled every aspect of civic society from the local judicial system, to local police, to local tortilla makers to multinational corporations, and beheading or kidnapping anyone who got in their way. I felt a huge duty and a huge obligation to tell the story with all of its warts and all.

Matthew Heineman Cartel Land
“Being a foot away from someone as they’re being interrogated at gunpoint is a really deeply troubling thing to witness as a human being,” Heineman says of making Cartel Land

This film has some serious edge-of-seat, terrifying moments. How did you get through them?

I’ve never been in any situation like this before, and so it was absolutely terrifying, this journey that I went on. Obviously it led me to some pretty crazy situations. Shoot-ups between the vigilantes and the cartel, meth labs in the dark desert night, places of torture, places I never could’ve dreamed of, or imagined ever being in, but I think for me being behind the camera for these situations helped calm me down. You know, focusing on focusing, focusing on exposing them, framing, making sure the record button was on. Those things helped calm my nerves in these really frenetic, chaotic, frightening situations. There were a whole host of situations as well that happened outside the frame. Being threatened, being surrounded by people both in the group, people with unknown affiliations to other groups, shall we say. There were countless situations in which I was surrounded, threatened, and so it was a very scary film to make.

How did you cope with maintaining your journalistic integrity when, for example, you’re seeing a man with a gun to his head?

Basically, two of their members had been assassinated the day before, so the tension was extremely high. I saw them jamming magazines in their guns and putting their bulletproof vests on, and I asked them–and I barely speak Spanish, but in my broken Spanish, I asked them, ‘where are you guys going?’ And they said, ‘we’re going to go get some Starbucks,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ll come get some coffee with you.’ I had no idea when I got in that car what was going to happen. I didn’t know we were going to get shot at. I didn’t know we’d take cover behind the car. I didn’t know we’d go on this witch-hunt. I didn’t know that they’d find this seemingly innocent man and rip him away from his daughter who’s crying, which led to him getting interrogated at gunpoint, which led to this torture chamber.

Being a foot away from someone as they’re being interrogated at gunpoint is a really deeply troubling thing to witness as a human being. As a human being, all I wanted to do was rip the gun away and stop the madness, but that’s not what my job is. My job is not to be down there to police. My job is to document, and frankly, interjecting myself would be downright stupid and dangerous.

What drove you to keep digging this deep, in the face of that kind of danger?

I was just fascinated by what invokes men and women to take up arms. I constantly ask myself, what would I do if I was in their situation? What would I do if the cartel raped my sister or my cousin was hanging from a bridge? Would I take up arms? Is that right? Is that just? Is vigilantism sustainable? These are questions that plagued me and drove me as I made this film.

I also just want to say there are dozens and dozens and hundreds, if not thousands, of journalists all around the world telling difficult stories. So I don’t think what I did or what we did is that different. We found a story that we cared about. I didn’t want to tell through talking heads. I didn’t want to tell through government officials, or experts, or professors, or in retrospect. I really wanted to put myself right in the middle of the action to see 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.

But I owe an enormous amount to my local crew, my local fixer, Daniel Fernandez, for helping keep us safe in the situation, and I also felt a deep responsibility while shooting during these situations, and then also after the film came out, of the ramifications of what happens when the film’s out there. So we put a number of safety measures in place in case there’s any blowback to the film when it’s released in Mexico for our local crew.

What was the process of getting funding, then getting Kathryn Bigelow on board as an EP?

So Kathryn saw the film at Sundance, and I think she was very moved, moved by the issues that the film confronts, moved how the film puts a human face to this conflict. We got to know each other and decided to bring her on board as an EP to help give the film greater visibility and hopefully further spark the conversation that the film provokes.

Making it was relatively quick for a documentary. It was about two years, maybe two and a half years, from when I first read that article. But funding is one of the biggest issues with making documentaries like this in general. Most people want a script, or they want to know what the first, second, and third act is going to be, and this film was a crazy adventure in which every single day, the story changed. It was an ever-moving target. So, at first, it was very difficult to fundraise because people wanted to know where the story was going, and that was a double-edged sword. What excited me most about making the film is I didn’t know where the story was going. So I was very, very lucky to find an amazing producing partner in Tom Yellin, and then eventually A&E IndieFilms came on board to provide the bulk of the funding, and then some investors as well.