Surely an early forerunner for the Best Documentary Oscar, Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land **** startles with its access and proximity to mayhem.
The New York film maker goes deep into Mexican drug cartel territory, in the deadly state of Michoacan, where the fed-up people are rising against the cartels, forming their own army of Autodefensas, lead by the charismatic Dr Mireles, with his fine moustache.
Heineman kicks us off with an eerie scene in a meth cooking factory, where masked men bubble away like Macbeth’s witches. “We can’t get good clean jobs like you,” says one, “we come from poverty – what else should we do?”
Heineman then finds himself in the middle of a revolution as the army arrive in one village only to be repelled by the newly-emboldened Autodefensas. For a while, we are optimistic, that like in a Western, these good guys in white T-shirts will defeat the nasty men in black hats from the Knights Templar cartel, whose thugs regularly kidnap, extort and behead.
However, as the doc progresses, we sense corruption taking hold all around us. When Mireles suffers a strange accident and is put out of action, he delegates to a man called Papa Smurf, who quickly loses control and is easily sucked in to the political system.
This is as dismaying as it is confusing, but you can’t take your eyes of Heineman’s footage. He’ll be right up close while men are punched, beaten, threatened with knives. He’s in a car while a gun is pointed at someone’s head. He ducks to avoid gunfire in the street.
The film also focuses on vigilante groups in Arizona, lead by Tim “Nailer” Foley, a keen-eyed soldier who’s decided to pick off illegal immigrants and smugglers with his own recruits, the self-styled Arizona Border Recon. Although troubling and terrifyingly wrong-headed, this element of American militia just doesn’t have the danger or immediacy of the Mexican footage and slightly muddies the story – I’m sure, however, this was the film maker’s intention. You can’t have easy answers in a doc if the reality is impossible to grasp.
It remains, then, an admirably detached if frustrating film about law, government and institutions which are crumbling before our eyes, leaving people without hope and without anything to trust in their society.
It isn’t a film that preaches, nor begs for your sympathy, nor is it about drugs at all – though you do see piles of shards of meth. It’s more like a war movie or a Western: there are great characters here, but Heineman doesn’t scrape to casting it like a narrative feature – this is very much in the tradition of dispassionate docs with high production values (Kathryn Bigelow is exec producer) that nevertheless remain humble in the face of the problems they encounter.
Ultimately, subtly, it’s about the desolation wrought by the secret economics of successive governments, both in the US and in Mexico.