Published on March 7th, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant0
Cartel Land is a truly fascinating, Oscar-nominated documentary film about the Mexican drug cartels and a few groups of vigilantes who would defend against them.
There are (at least) three sides to every story. That isn’t the point of Cartel Land, per se, but by the end of this Oscar-nominated documentary, that phrase is definitely being illustrated. One of the smart things about this film is that it doesn’t try to tell you what the answers are — it just presents the information and lets you decide for yourself, which good documentaries should do. It’s no wonder it was a hit at Sundance and on the award circuit (though, some cynicism on that in a minute).
Cartel Land follows the exploits of two groups of “vigilantes” that are fighting the Mexican drug cartels. Tim “Nailer” Foley is the leader of the Arizona Border Recon [ABR] that patrol the area, a group that started mostly because they didn’t like Mexicans illegals (“They took ar’ jerbs!”). However, the ABR soon realized that the cartels were a much more sinister force, even encroaching onto American soil where US border patrol is stretched thin.
The other story takes place in Mexico itself and revolves around a group called the Autodefensas, led by Dr. Jose Mireles. The Autodefensas are a community self-defense group that have armed themselves to drive out the gangsters that don’t even seem to have much of a problem murdering children. It’s implied that the government is in league with the cartels, so authorities are of very little help. The Autodefensas travel from town-to-town, liberating communities from the cartels and setting up local councils so the people can learn to organize themselves. Mireles starts the film as a likeable, cunning, and charismatic leader, though he has some surprises in store for the viewer.
What follows is as fascinating as it is harrowing. The first ten minutes of this film is more nail biting than any Hollywood thriller I’ve seen in a long time, as the Autodefensas and the town they are liberating come up against the army. Filmmaker Matthew Heineman has amazing access and he seems to be an incredibly skilled cameraman (he shot the film himself). There’s one telling scene where the he is embedded with an Autodefensas group in an SUV when someone starts shooting at them. He rolls out of the SUV, taking cover behind it. You see his hand quickly shoot past the lens to adjust the exposure, having gone from the darker interior of the SUV to the bright, blinding outside. He does this at a moment’s notice, on the move, while the bullets are flying. That’s a fucking professional.
The story itself is engrossing; twists and fractures come over time as some of the Autodefensas wander into corruption themselves, becoming the very thing they were formed to fight. And it gets worse when the Mexican government seeks to control the Autodefensas through the brilliant Machiavellian scheme of making them legit. This causes dissention in their ranks and turns friends against friend and heroes into villains.
If I had any nitpicks about the film, it would just be that Foley’s (the militia guy) story, while interesting, feels underdeveloped and it doesn’t really go anywhere. It might have been more interesting to follow the government-sanctioned version of the Autodefensas to give more of a clue as to where they end up. But this is a very minor observation on an absorbing film.
As a side note, while the movie has been celebrated by groups like the DGA, Sundance, and even won the George Polk Award for Journalism, I was blown away by the farce that is the Oscars. I can’t believe that the by-the-numbers bio of Amy Winehouse beat movies like Cartel Land and The Look of Silence. These movies are pushing the way we think about documentary films and it’s a shame that the Academy chose to award Amy instead, clearly a move that doesn’t make much sense. Don’t get me wrong, the Amy doc was okay, but it doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as these films.
Then again, I suppose this isn’t much of a surprise. We live in a world where people are glued to gossip about pop stars and faux celebrities the way a cat follows a little plastic mouse on a string. They don’t know, or care to know, what’s happening to real people outside their bubble. I guess movies with subjects like Cartel Land are too real for most.