Danger and documentary have always gone hand in hand. The great masters of the genre have always strived to put their art before their safety. Matthew Heineman takes risk to a new level in Cartel Land, proving himself to be made of the same courageous steel that’s present within the likes of Werner Herzog. A study of the Mexican drug cartel from both sides of the border, Cartel Land won The Tim Hetherington Award at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest before it screened, heightening audience expectation and excitement. The award recognised his attempts to give desperately needed coverage to the plight of people whose stories never seem to reach our global headlines. Cartel Land is a story of oppressed people, trapped in a world of vengefulness, abused power and bloody corruption.
The film won big at Sundance and now comes to leave a deep impression on UK audiences. It’s not perfect but its problems are endearing ones. Cartel Land is a two sided coin. Heineman spends time with an American vigilante and self-diagnosed protector of the US borders. His ignorance and determination are blatant and bold. Patrolling the borders between Mexico and the States, we join this “protector” as he keeps tabs on the cartel who attempt to infiltrate whilst also trying to prevent Mexican citizen’s illegally venturing into America. Meanwhile, Dr Jose Mireles sees the violent horrors that the cartel bring to his Mexican village. Full-time surgeon and part-time face of the rebellion against the crime lords, Mireles, with his civil army attempts to destroy the vicious, local drug cartel. Nobody is what they initially seem in Heineman’s striking film about power, murder and manipulation, which takes many unexpected turns in its intense final chapters.
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Heineman and his crew fiercely throw themselves into gunfire and terror in an attempt to capture the harsh truths about this terrifying issue plaguing innocent Mexican people today. You have to admire the trust and understanding the film-maker has built with all involved. The film opens with crystal-meth makers opening up to Heineman about why they do what they do. Revealing their criminal activity whilst masking their identities, Heineman gives us an unprecedented insight into the underbelly of Mexico’s drug world.
In its most disturbing moments, Heineman lets actions and memories speak for themselves. One traumatising interview with a victim of the cartel’s cruelty discusses the gruesome killing of her husband before her whilst another scene quietly captures scenes of intense torture and brutality whilst refusing to show the perpetrators faces. Ethical dilemmas repeatedly throw themselves at the director who refuses to look away or intervene. Cartel Land, despite a few flaws, is an excellent example of the documentary genre being used to shine a light on silent suffering. We spend a limited amount of time on the American side of the border, not enough to make the inclusion of the self-appointed watchman have any reverence or impact. Time spent with this individual distracts from the gripping and more meaningful battles being fought further South – somewhere the film didn’t need to keep departing from. You’ll also find yourself wishing you could learn more about the men making the substances that spawns so much money, power and violence – instead they simply introduce and conclude the film, albeit rather nicely.
Cartel Land is both a mildly troubled and mildly terrific film but perhaps one of the most admirable uses of documentary I’ve seen in recent years. Hats off for the bravery and conviction of Matthew Heineman – Cartel Land proves he’s a director to be excited about. Cartel Land leaves you with the haunting realisation that the anger and chaos you’ve just experienced on the screen continues to rage on across the world at this very moment.
Watch the trailer for Cartel Land here: