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Why the documentary 'Cartel Land' plays like a real life action drama

A scene from
A scene from "Cartel Land."
Matthew Heineman

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Filmmaker Matthew Heineman won the documentary directing award at this year's Sundance Film Festival for his riveting film, “Cartel Land.”

The film, which opens July 10th, plays more like a drama than a non-fiction film by focusing on vigilante groups in Mexico and Arizona. The Mexican Autodefensas, led by Dr. Jose Mireles, are fighting a drug cartel called Knights Templar. Meanwhile, on this side of the border, a ragtag paramilitary outfit called Arizona Border Recon, led by Tim "Nailer" Foley, patrols the U.S.-Mexico fence.

“Cartel Land” opens with a scene in the jungles of Michoacán, Mexico, where armed drug gangs are mixing meth. It looks like an outtake from “Breaking Bad,” but this is the real thing. The film tags alongside vigilantes and cartel members, both armed with automatic weapons.

When we spoke with Heineman at Sundance, we asked about the process of making the film and his inspiration: 

I originally read a Rolling Stone article that featured the vigilantes in Arizona who were fighting to protect our borders. I spent about four or five months filming down there. My father sent me this article featuring the Autodefensas, citizen vigilantes who were rising up against the Knights Templar cartel in Mexico, and right away this bell went off and I thought, Wow this could be this amazing parallel story. Three weeks later I was down in Mexico filming.

So the idea for the movie is to focus on two, we could call then vigilante groups or paramilitary groups, the Autodefensas in Michoacán, and Arizona Border Recon group. The guy that you focus on in Arizona is a guy named Tim "Nailer" Foley. Foley himself is a former meth user. Is the irony of his situation lost on him? That what is driving the drug trade and making the border insecure are people [in the U.S.] who are using?

I don't think the irony is lost on him. I think he knows firsthand the damage that it did to himself. He knows the damage that it has done to families, individuals and communities all across America, and I think that is actually one of the things that drives him. After years and years of drug and alcohol use, he one day got in this horrific car accident and decided to go cold turkey on everything. I think he has a second life and like many sort of former addicts and former users he wants to "do good."

Tim "Nailer" Foley, leader of the Arizona Border Recon, in Michael Heineman's "Cartel Land." (photo courtesy of The Orchard)

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls [Arizona Border Recon] an "extremist hate group." There is one member that you quote in your film who says, "You can't put two races in the same nation and expect them to get along." What was your impression of the overall mix of people who were attracted to this organization — that patrolled the borders in military camouflage with what looked to be either machine guns or automatic weapons?

It's a complicated question and answer. Nailer himself says during this scene that he needs whoever he can get down there. That actually a quite poignant parallel to what's happening in Mexico with the Autodefensas. They really need men. They need people to form the ranks and to some degree they aren't able to necessarily vet who comes along with them. It's definitely a mixture of different belief sets — some which are obviously disturbing and extreme and others which are less so.

The movie opens with a scene of you accompanying some people in Michoacán who are mixing crystal meth, armed with massive machine guns. It's an unbelievable scene with remarkable access. How many months of work did it take you to get into that situation?

About seven or eight months. It was sort of a gold mine, since day one, to get into a meth lab. Meth is sort of the cash cow of the cartel down there. Ninety percent of meth consumed in the U.S. comes from Mexico, the majority of which comes from Michoacán and from this cartel. It's a really important part of the story. Basically, every time I was down in Mexico, I tried to find people who knew people who cooked meth. After about eight months, we got the right connection and I got a call and they said, "Be in this town square [at] 6 p.m. We're going to take you in."

Who is "we"? How big was your crew?

It was my driver/fixer, translator and me. I was taking sound and shooting it all by myself.

The other thing that's amazing about this movie is the situations in which you found yourself. People who have seen a movie like "American Sniper" will think they're seeing the sequel. You are in the back of cars during gunfights. What was it like filming those scenes? I think people who watch the movie are really fearful for your own safety.

My mom definitely feared for my safety. My mom is a journalist and I couldn't speak to her about this film, which is sort of sad. But she was just so nervous for me. It was frightening. I'm not a war journalist. I'm not an adrenaline junkie. It's not necessarily something I want to do again. After those experiences, I didn't come back to New York and [think], Wow, I want to go back out there and get shot at again! When I was in those moments, I really tried to focus on the craft — on focusing the camera, composing the shot, exposing the shot — and I think that's what allowed me not to freak out.

There were a couple of scenes where you don't really show us exactly what happens. I don't know if you were able to show it or able to film it. One scene involves an alleged member of the Knights Templar who is pulled over on the road by the Autodefensas. The other scene involves what I guess is the Autodefensas' version of Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, where horrible things are happening. You don't see it but you hear the screaming. I want to ask about what you saw in those scenes. Is all of what you saw included in the film?

So when I first went down to Michoacán I really felt like it was this hero-villain story, of good fighting evil, of men in white shirts going in to fight this evil cartel. Then slowly — trip after trip, month after month — I started to sort of see these things [around the vigilantes] that raised questions. Where are these fancy cars coming from? Where are these fancy guns coming from? How are they beating the cartel? Those questions kept driving me to go down there, kept driving me to figure out what is the truth. What are they doing? How is this actually happening? Slowly as I peeled away the onion, I started to see how they were really operating.

That scene, in which they are torturing alleged members of the cartel, is one way in which they're operating. I felt like that was a very important thing to show and a very disturbing thing to show. It was a very disturbing thing to witness and to shoot. I had to sort of covertly shoot that whole thing. Their torture chamber was a huge, long bathroom with many stalls. I would sometimes pretend like I had to go to the bathroom for a long time. Then I'd come out and hide my camera to my side and, when I would feel like I could, I'd bring the camera out and shoot a little bit. That scene is actually a compilation of four days of attempting to get stuff like that.

Dr. Jose Mireles "El Doctor," (center) leader of the Autodefensas in Matthew Heineman's "Cartel Land" (photo courtesy of The Orchard)

Did making this movie change the way you think about the drug war or the border? Did it make you see this problem in a new light?

My goal was to see firsthand the effects of the drug war, the effects of this omnipresent force that is just south of our border. I don't think we really realize what's happening [there]. You have to step back for a second and [realize] the horror and the tragedy of what's happening down there — 80,000 killed since 2007, 20,000 missing.

Obviously, the film goes into an interesting place in Mexico, in Michoacán. But this movement really rose out of a desire to stop this evil, to stop the extortion, to stop the murder, the violence. It was a really heroic thing because, for years, people would just walk around shrouded in fear. You never even speak about the cartel. And then, suddenly the Autodefensas rose up and are getting in gunfights with the cartel.

But when you get to the bottom of what's happening, it also seems to raise as many questions as it does [provide] answers.

I'm an eternal optimist. I wanted this to be a good-versus-evil story and, unfortunately, the story unraveled in a way that I could've never expected. I think the tragedy of Mexico and what we see in the film are the lines between the lives of everyday citizens, between the cartel, between government and police. Those lines are blurred. And the guys with the white hats [who] are fighting the guys with the black hats, are really wearing grey hats.


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