COLUMBIA, MO – “We are the meth cooks, number one in Michoacan,” says a masked man at the beginning of Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land. “If we had good jobs like yours,” he says into the camera, he and his fellow meth makers would be doing good things too, instead of selling meth.
This thin line between good and evil is what drives the rest of this powerful and often disturbing film, which was screened at the True/False Film Fest that ran from March 5 to 8, 2015. True/False Film Fest is an annual documentary film festival based in Columbia, Missouri.
Cartel Land follows the fates of two vigilante groups, one in the Mexican state of Michoacan, the other north of the border, in Arizona. Both claim to fight for the common people affected by the drug violence that runs from Mexico to the southwestern United States. Both claim to be against the murderous cartels. But how do they actually behave?
This is the central question that informs Heineman’s exploration. He has a skill for sifting through layers of propaganda, bluster and mythmaking in order to reveal the dualities and doublespeak within these groups. “We are David, they are Goliath,” says a member of the paramilitary “Arizona Border Recon,” referring to the cartels. He states that his organization’s goal is simply to prevent the drug violence from spilling into the United States.
And yet, the group was born as a fight against those it calls “illegals.” One member casually reveals his racist convictions in a conversation. The skill of the director then lies in bearing witness, in staying clear of preconceived notions, in letting people play out their “characters” on screen. Heineman does precisely this. After showing the popularity of the Mexican vigilante “Autodefensas” in one scene, Heineman trains his camera on a meeting in which angry locals castigate the group, and thus reveals the cracks within.
The film presents shocking scenes without any cinematic drumroll. They just happen, and the viewer is challenged to interpret them using his or her own moral compass. Heineman aims to capture the nuances of human behavior even though he is dealing with large-scale political and ideological movements.
Heineman’s technical skill is also on full display. The film won an award for best cinematography in the documentary category at Sundance, and it is easy to see why. Dark reds and browns drench the screen, setting up a mood that mirrors the violence and unease in the film.
By the end, we get a sense of the almost impossible complexity of the situation, and how ordinary people become pawns in the wars of the powerful. The film is also an indictment of the failed drug wars on either side of the border. Heineman shows in Michoacan a society wrecked by lawlessness, unmoored from morality, yet surviving through small acts of kindness and resistance. In Arizona he hints darkly at similar future outcomes of ineffective and counterproductive government strategy.
All that remains when the film ends is the blurring of separation between the good and evil within us. It seems that only the cartel, as someone in the film says, “is forever.”