Cartel Land

500 Days Of Film Reviews Cartel Land And Finds A Gripping And Distressing Story About The Vigilantes Fighting Mexico's Drug Cartels


The people living in either side of the Mexican/US border have reached breaking point. 


They no longer believe in their government and feel that their only choice - for their own safety and for the safety of their country - is to take arms and fight back.


Cartel Land is a documentary that, with truly breathtaking access, follows two such vigilante groups: Arizona Border Recon (AZBR) and Mexico’s Autodefensas, who are rising up to fight the cartels.

Is It Any Good?

I am finding it hard to believe that what I am watching is real. The camera is at the heart of the action - surely this would be far too dangerous in ‘real life’. It all feels like a particularly bleak and nasty episode of Breaking Bad. 


But what I am watching is real - it is the nightmare at the heart of the war on drugs. 


Cartel Land is remarkable for two reasons. First, it tells a story from a different perspective - that of the vigilantes. Second, this documentary is outstanding because of the incredible access given to the filmmakers. 


Director, Matthew Heineman, spent months earning the trust of Nailer, the leader of (AZBR). He was then welcomed to the group with open arms and spent four-five months filming their activities. 


Heineman then read an article about Mexico's Autodefensas and their charismatic leader, Dr Mireless. He got in touch with the journalist who wrote the piece and she gave him the doctor’s telephone number. After explaining his project to Mireless, Heineman and his crew flew to Mexico and started filming. 


What is interesting is how similar the two vigilante leaders are. They are both the same age, they have both lost faith in their government and they are both prepared to fight for what they believe in.


While the leaders are similar, the situation in Arizona and Micheochan in Mexico couldn’t feel more different. AZBR tracks and captures people trying to cross the border illegally. They are heavily armed but we do not see any violence - this feels more about protection and prevention.


Meanwhile, in Michequan, the violence is all too real all too often.



The access given to Matthew Heinemen and his team makes for an extremely tough watch. We see the brutality of the situation from the front line - the film does not look away when violence erupts.   


However, the violent scenes in Cartel Land are not what will stay with me. 


But a woman's story will. She has a distressing tale to tell. Something utterly terrible has happened to her and her husband. And yet, despite it all, she is defiant - she puts on an Autodefensas t-shirt in the hope for a better future.


Hearing her speak moved me to tears and, for a moment, Cartel Land had me in the palm of its hand. I was ready to believe that there could be change. Or at least progress. I felt that Dr Mireless’ Autodefensas was getting somewhere. 


However, having dropped breadcrumbs of hope, Cartel Land brings us back to reality. There is, as yet, no solution to the cartel problem. This, as one of the meth cooks explains, is a never ending story. 


 

Cartel Land is beautifully cinematic. Despite the dark and disturbing subject matter, Heineman fills his shots with light - often swooping across arid terrain with his camera. 


There are only a couple of instances when the style of this film changes. At the beginning and end of the film we see and hear from men cooking meth in the desert.


Due to the dangerous and difficult circumstances, Heineman had to use a torch to light this scene. It works as if it had been his plan all along. The torch light gives the scenes added drama and atmosphere.


The men talk to the camera while cooking and it just feels incredibly tense - I felt like they were talking directly to me.


I felt this again when Dr Mireless is talking. He looks into the camera and asks: if we were in his shoes, what would we do? Would we sit and wait for a cartel to come to kill us and our loved ones?


Or would we want to fight back?

Random Observations

Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) is an executive producer of Cartel Land.


Have you seen Cartel Land? If so, what did you think of this powerful documentary? I would love to know... leave me a comment in the box below.

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