By H.S. Bayer and Lisa Lindo
Cartel Land (2015) has its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22. The film premiered at Sundance in January, and has blazed its way through the April festival circuit showing at Ashland Independent Film Festival, Dallas International Film Festival, Florida Film Festival, Sarasota Film Festival and the Independent Film Festival Boston. The documentary’s intrepid director, Mathew Heineman, received the Directing Award and Special Jury Award for Cinematography (with co-DP Matt Porwoll) at Sundance in the U.S. Documentary Competition. The Orchard, which acquired North American theatrical and digital rights to Heineman’s doc, will be releasing it theatrically in the U.S. on July 3. UK distributor Dogwoof acquired international rights with a UK release set for July 31.
Cartel Land follows the stories of two contemporary vigilante groups – both fighting a common foe – the Mexican drug cartels. The first group, the Autodefensas, is based in a small town in Michoacán, Mexico. The leader of this flock of freedom fighters is a man who goes by the name “El Doctor” – an actual local physician – who steers this organic citizen uprising in their adventures against the vicious Knights Templar drug cartel. The second, a small paramilitary group called simply ‘Arizona Border Recon,’ is based in Arizona’s Altar Valley – a 52 mile stretch of open desert dubbed Cocaine Alley. Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American veteran, leads them and aims to stop Mexico’s drug war violence from spreading across the border to the U.S.
At its heart, Cartel Land takes a stand on taking a stand. Heineman, embedded with unprecedented access to the Dr.’s camp, raises the question, “When exactly does neighboring violence become such a problem that ordinary citizens must bear arms in defense, forced to face the problem head on by themselves?” As violence continues to escalate in the region, it’s a valid concern. When your government fails to protect you from murderous organized criminal elements, should citizens take the law into their own hands to keep family, land, and country safe?
El Doctor’s real name is Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles who we first see as a black-hat-wearing cowboy type introducing himself as “General Coordinator of the Autodefensas”. Mireles is something of a local celebrity, often approached by someone who has seen him on TV. The swaggering Mireles is a surgeon, and a grandfather, struggling to define the organization and prevent it from succumbing to the forces it’s designed to combat. On a number of occasions, the movie raises the prospect that the Autodefensas’ policing tactics may not ultimately differ so much from the cartels’.
Meanwhile, back in Arizona, Foley tells Heineman, The phrase ‘vigilante’ – it’s been given a bad name by the media, adding that it wasn’t such a bad thing – back in the day. Even as the doc acknowledges the presence of racist elements in Foley’s organization, it doesn’t shy away from these complicated subjects – the nature of vigilantism, border security, the possibility of ever ending the drug war. Heineman tells this story in an intensely personal and targeted way – through the eyes of the compelling and deeply complex individuals at the heart of these vigilante movements.
Like Heineman’s Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, Cartel Land tries hard not to take sides while it explores the chasm between idealism and the ultimate result of taking arms – Deadly Violence. Heineman originally got the idea for the film after reading about Arizona Border Recon in Rolling Stone magazine. Then his dad sent him an article, in The Wall Street Journal, about Mexican vigilantes fighting back against the cartel south of the border and he saw the potential for an intense parallel story.
Heineman, who claims no previous experience filming in risky situations, allowed himself to be part of some truly challenging and dangerous moments. The filmmaker has said that it took months to gain the trust of these organizations, and many more months to gain such access. Ultimately Heineman ended up in the middle of shootouts, witnessing torture, and even spending some dangerous nights in a nasty meth lab. In an interview with Indiewire he said:
The more time I spent down in Mexico and Arizona, the more ambiguous the story became. It was partly an ascent of people seeking to fight evil and partly a descent into hell as they took the law into their own hands, with many twists and turns in between. It is about elemental issues of order and chaos, of the desire for law but also of terrifying brutality and lawlessness. Ultimately, I ended up making a much, much different film than I initially started out making. The film doesn’t offer pat answers and, instead, presents a complex story that I hope will be interpreted in many different ways. It is this moral ambiguity that intrigues me, and it emerges naturally in the story and in our characters. For me, its a story that has eerie echoes throughout history and across the world today.
In an interview with Ryan Koo, posted on nofilmschool.com, Heineman discussed the dangers he faced and the precautions he took to make sure he lived to tell the story: I’ve never been a war zone. I’ve never been in the types of situations that I found myself in. We took a lot of precautions. Mexico is a whole different world: it’s lawless, you really feel like you’re in the wild west and there’s really no sense of government institutions. It’s really tragic what’s happening in Mexico: 80,000 people have been killed in the drug war, 20,000-plus people missing. We knew we were going into a really dangerous situation, where citizens were rising up to fight back against the cartel. We had a security firm that was following us with a tracking beacon in case we got kidnapped; we wore bulletproof vests. Everyday when we got up in the morning, we’d have a series of different journalists that we’d call to triangulate where we were so they knew what roads we’d be driving on. Then obviously, you gain an on-the-ground sense of the danger and how to avoid it. We’d always have a certain getaway car in case we had to leave quickly. Again, I had no idea the situation I would find myself in: shootouts, meth labs, things that I never could’ve predicted.
While we fully appreciate the quality of the handheld camera work, there are several instances that make you fear for the filmmaker’s safety. Tenacious Heineman and his small crew place themselves in the very middle of this story, and as disturbing, dangerous, and thrilling as the doc is, Cartel Land leaves us with a fearsome reflection of what happens when law and order is replaced by violence and terror. Cartel Land paints a picture of today’s Mexico where much of society exists without order, law or security – a world rampant with vendettas, terror, and corruption despite the country’s slow but steady emergence from third world status
Throughout the grueling production schedule, Heineman shot mostly verité perspective on the Canon C300. In an interview with Indiewire, he bragged about its durability, The camera was dropped, smashed, hit by guns, in dust storms, torrential rain and it never, ever failed.
This camera seems to be becoming a recording device of choice in harsh remote locations. Manos Sucias, which played at last year’s Tribeca FF (winning a directing award) and recently opened theatrically in NYC, used the camera with great success in a film, about drug smuggling, shot in the jungles and isolated waterways of Colombia. Heineman also was one of the editors on Cartel Land, which evolved into a team of four in order to make a tight deadline for Sundance. The other three were Matthew Hamachek, Bradley Ross and Pax Wassermann.
A doc filmmaker based in New York for 10 years, Heineman’s first foray into filmmaking happened almost by accident. He described his start to Indiewire thusly: After graduating from college in 2005. I went on a cross-country trip with three buddies to find out what our generation is about. I bought a video camera, started shooting, learned as I went, and ended up with Our Time – a feature-length documentary about what it’s like to be young in America. I was hooked. I landed a job at HBO, working for two years on The Alzheimer’s Project, which aired in May 2009. I was fortunate to work with a great mentor, producer John Hoffman, and the amazing documentary filmmaker Susan Froemke.
Cartel Land is an A&E IndieFilms presentation – The Imposter (2012), The Tillman Story (2010), a Documentary Group and Our Time Projects production, and was made in association with Whitewater Films. Molly Thompson, Robert DeBitetto and David McKillop executive produced for A&E IndieFilms and Tom Yellin produced on behalf of The Documentary Group – Girl Rising (2013), Into Harm’s Way (2011).
After an incredible reception at Sundance, The Orchard picked the project up in early February. The Orchard was quite active at Sundance with four acquisitions, including The Overnight, which also screens at Tribeca this year. Paul Davidson, The Orchard’s senior VP of film and TV told Variety at the time of the deal, Cartel Land is an impressive, dramatic film that takes hold and doesn’t let go until the final gripping moments. Having the opportunity to share Matt’s film with audiences and partner with A&E IndieFilms on the release is a rush for all of us. Cartel Land was aptly represented in the negotiations with The Orchard by the omnipresent John Sloss of Cinetic Media .
The Cartels and possibly the Vigilantes will ultimately need representation every bit as good – specializing in criminal law.
Cartel Land screens at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday, April 22, Friday, April 24, and Sunday, April 26, 2015 in New York City.