Cartel Land – An Interview With Matt Heineman

Critics describe Cartel Land, a documentary film by Matt Heineman, as “raw”, “compelling”, “powerful”, and “stunning”. Heineman tells the story of two modern-day vigilante groups on both sides of the US-Mexico border. In addition to winning Best Director and Best Cinematography at the 2015 Sundance Film Fesitval, it recently won the Independent Documentary Association’s Courage Under Fire Award, was nominated for a Gotham Award, five Cinema Eye Awards, and was just nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary. President Enrique Peña Nieto’s war against the Mexican cartels has led to the deaths of 80,000 people (primarily by homicide) between 2007 and 2014 in one of the most violent ‘wars’ anywhere in the world. The war, started by his predecessor Felipe Calderon in 2006, continues to this day with only 1-2% of the homicides investigated to conviction. On the rare occasion that the government does catch a “big fish” they often escape, as was the case with Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman (boss of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel) who has so far escaped twice from prison.
#9 - Director-Producer Matthew Heineman Headshot (1)
Matt Heineman in Mexico
Faced with this reality, citizens in Mexico have taken to arming themselves, setting up vigilante squads, known as Autodefensas, to protect their communities from corrupt police and violent drug cartels. At least 11 Mexican states boast such movements. Cartel Land focuses on the violent and corrosive influence of the Knights Templar drug cartel in the Mexican State of Michoacán and the rise of a citizen militia who try to overthrow them. At the center of this is the charismatic and enigmatic leader of the Autodefensas, Dr. José Mireles. At just 30-years-old, Heineman spent months embedded with the Autodefensas, witnessing gun-fights, corruption, torture and putting himself at immense personal risk to tell an important story. The story embraces complexity in a way rarely seen in modern documentaries. Instead of forcing the viewer to take a certain stance Heineman gives us a front row seat on his own journey as he tried to understand the overlapping narratives of the drug war. It is up to the viewer, then, to make up her mind.  
  DP: Matt, how did you come to film-making? MH: I went to Dartmouth and had no idea what I wanted to do with life come senior year. Three friends and I hatched up an idea to drive around the US to try to understand what our generation is about. We got sponsorship from a variety of corporations and we hit every state in the US meeting everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to drug dealers to cancer researchers to college students, Our Time (2009). Through this process I fell in love with film-making, got a job at HBO and directed a film on healthcare, Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare (2012). As that was winding down I began Cartel Land.     DP: What’s your approach? MH: It’s all about connecting on a human level. I try to look at the world as objectively as possible and not to politicize the issues I take on. I think the films that do the best commercially are often films with a heavy-handed point of view and there’s nothing wrong with that type of filmmaking but that’s not how I like to do it. I think the beauty of documentary film is showing people a world that they’ve never seen before and introducing them to characters that they might not ever get to meet. That’s what I really tried to do with Cartel Land, is take this issue of the drug war, of narco violence, something that’s dominated the headlines and been glorified on TV and in movies, and really show how it’s affecting everyday people and show the response of everyday people rising up to fight back. And then ultimately show the ramifications of what happens when citizens take the law into their own hands. That’s what I really wanted to do — put myself, put my camera, put my team right in the middle of the action to show how it was affecting everyday people.    DP: How did you decide to do Cartel Land?  MH: It totally depends, each film is different. For Cartel Land I was riding the subway in New York and read about the Arizona side of the story in Rolling Stone. I reached out to the journalist who introduced me to Nailer (leader of an Arizona based border militia). It took six or seven months to gain his trust but eventually I went down there and started filming. The film was originally about Arizona but after four months my dad sent me an article about the Autodefensas and at that moment I knew I wanted to create a parallel narrative on vigilantism on both sides of the border.   DP: The film has some crazy footage (including gunfights and torture). How did you get it? MH: My team was between 2-4 people depending on what we were doing. Much of the film I filmed alone and other times it was me and another cameraman Matt Porwoll. We had an amazing local fixer from the area who tried to keep us safe. There were countless times where I was terrified in the shoot-outs or the torture chambers as I had never been in situations like that, but that’s where the film led me. I tried to withhold most of it from family and friends. I didn’t want them to worry.   4 

Warning: Plot spoilers

MH: Cartel Land is a universal story that we’ve seen play out throughout history, throughout the world today – it’s about when government institutions fail and citizens are forced to protect themselves. It’s a very Mexican story in many ways, but also very universal.   DP: How was it received in Mexico? MH: It was very emotional to be there in a room in Mexico City and screen it. It generated an enormous amount of press and there were rumors it put pressure on the government to get the doctor (one of the film’s main characters) out of the jail but then El Chapo escaped (leader of the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel) which took away that momentum.   DP: Was the doctor (the leader of the cartel resistance) corrupt? MH: My goal with both characters was to not put them in a neat little box and wrap a bow around it. We’re all complex human beings. I wanted to revel in that complexity and allow them to be themselves even if some of it is uncomfortable. I didn’t want to shy away from his strengths and his weaknesses because that’s what makes him human and relatable.   DP: Were you surprised by how the documentary played out? MH: One of my goals in the editing room was to allow the audience to go on the journey that I was going on. There were many moments where I thought I understood the scene or the characters, but then the rug was pulled from out from under me and the story shifted or evolved. There were some key moments including the plane crash, Papa Smurf’s ascension to power, the Doctor flirting in the car, which were all big turning points in the story.   DP: Given what you know today, how do you imagine Mexico can get out of its predicament with the cartels?  MH: The hope question. I’m an eternal optimist and believe in the goodness in humanity but a lot of that optimism was beaten out of me over the years spending time down there. I fell in love with the people of Mexico and with the place but there is just so much suffering. As long as we are consuming drugs in the US, they will be supplying them from Mexico and South America. So until we stop doing drugs and the rampant corruption in Mexico is curbed, I unfortunately don’t see the cycle of cartel violence stopping any time soon.   DP: What’s next for you? Any topics particularly interest you? MH: I’ve been flirting with a few different things, but I don’t know which one is going to emerge as my next film. I am very anxious to start making films again. Hopefully that will happen soon.   See Cartel Land on iTunes now.

Yes, I want to sound marginally more intelligent: