Cartel Land (Oscar Nominee 2016)

Cartel Land (2015)
Dir: Matthew Heineman

I don’t think the director realised what he was getting himself into when making this shocking look at the drugs cartels in Mexico and those who turn vigilante to wage war on them!

This documentary follows the rise of groups on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border, forming to take on the drug cartels in their own ways.

I think this is a great companion piece to ‘Sicario’, I watched them a week apart and immediately saw just how well ‘Sicario’ portrayed some of the horrific sights of cartel territory, then how the failings of the ‘war on drugs’ causes those caught up in it to act. I said that parts of ‘that film reminded me of ‘The Hurt Locker’ and interestingly this documentary was produced by that film’s director Kathryn Bigelow, putting weight behind its successful awards race.

Starting the film with the idea that there are groups on both sides of the border taking it upon themselves to act seemed like a solid basis for the documentary that was to follow. Then we start to get into the Mexican side and realise that’s far more interesting, then the film spends so much more time there that the group on the U.S. side are almost forgotten. With an early scene of Mexican families at a funeral where they describe the most horrific slaughter by a cartel, they immediately grab attention. As the vigilante ‘Autodefensas’ group begin to expand their efforts, they come into conflict with the army and initially are more trusted by townspeople, this sort of conflict and scale of their efforts becomes the far more dynamic and fascinating group to focus our attentions on.

Clearly we as viewers should be able to see how risky it is having a group who are so closely involved to the victims, those personal connections show when they capture someone, all clamour to get a punch or kick in. Devoid of absolutely any sense of legal justice and due process, I quickly felt unsettled about spending time in the company of some of these people. It took a seriously dark turn that made me realise we aren’t able to easily back the group we’re watching, when after capturing and questioning someone someone is told to ‘put him into the ground’ so he won’t come back to the town. It’s at this point that I really felt the lines were becoming blurred beyond distinction. You don’t know who’s in the right or the wrong as no proper procedure, training, or authority is present with the people we’re following. They may be apprehending completely innocent people and possibly even killing them, with no provable reason. I found it quite disturbing.

The director couldn’t possibly have foreseen major developments in the story, such as the plane crash that critically injured the Autodefensas leader ‘El Doctor’ and is suggested might’ve been an assassination attempt. While he’s incapacitated, the man who takes control isn’t as eloquent or persuasive as him, and they suffer a strong backlash from townspeople, in contrast to the support seen earlier, and you begin to see how right they are to be concerned. Footage shows members of the group doing things that are flatly denied later on, we as the viewer are becoming more aware of the situation that those caught up in it.

The documentary style is not one in which the filmmaker is seen asking questions or offering analysis, they’re out of frame but there in the midst of things holding on for dear life to the camera. At one point they are in a car that gets shot at, with the camera-person (presumably the director) right there, his life is just as at risk as those he is filming. Even if not at danger from gunmen, there seems to be a real risk of the filmmakers uncovering things that people may be willing to kill to keep secret. When you’re working in a place that’s being described as lawless where the army and police are hesitant to act, you have a recipe for a filmmaker disappearing while filming. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but I honestly still felt like it was an ever-present risk throughout as I watched the film, adding to the unsettling nature of it.

Nobody featured is clearly ‘good’, even the initially likeable ‘El Doctor’ who we followed from the start, given a measure of sympathy because of his serious injuries in the plane crash, shows a seedier side that turned me completely against him in the space of a minute. It’s impossible to side with any person or group in the film, except for the general population who are suffering at the hands of so many corrupt and violent groups.

The film is approximately 70% in Mexico with the Autodefensas, 28% in the USA with the Border patrol, and there’s a brief top and tail from the meth cookers themselves that makes up the last 2% which is a tiny share, yet they are so much clearer in what they say and do that we get more information and clarity from them in a few minutes than the rest of the film churning up uncertainties. I’m not sure that the U.S. side of the fence really added much to the film at all, the Mexican side became far more interesting than the director had possibly envisaged, and so it gets the majority of the running time. This meant that while we get in depth and to grips with the Autodefensas, we really don’t delve very deeply at all into their American counterparts. All I could take from the scenes on the other side was that they were who the cartels might meet if they crossed the fence, another group who also believed they were right to act outside of the law for their own reasons.

It’s a shocking documentary, illuminating a situation that may have gone largely unnoticed. I get the sense that Heineman got access to film these groups and honestly didn’t know where it would end up leading. He was probably as surprised as I was when things got so serious and murky, and has tailored the final edit to go down the most interesting path. Nobody featured comes out of it looking good at all, except this filmmaker who I have to give credit for his bravery, it’s amazing he got through this alive.

‘Cartel Land’ is nominated in the ‘Best Documentary Feature’ categories of both the BAFTAs and Oscars, though I don’t expect it will win. Honestly a very powerful documentary film that’s worth watching if you can handle the harsh reality it shows. 

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5 thoughts on “Cartel Land (Oscar Nominee 2016)

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