Matthew Heineman puts himself in the heart of the action as he looks to showcase those taking on the Mexican drug cartels. This is grass-roots documentary making at its finest, quite often getting caught in the firing line, offering nothing but the most brutal and honest depiction of horrendous violence that takes place on a daily basis. Narcos and Sicario may have caught your attention, but there is no substitute for the real thing.
Opening with a chilling scene of a make-shift meth lab in the desert, masked men armed to the teeth set the sinister tone for what is about to take place. While Mexico’s dark aspects are dramatised and often glamourised, nothing can quite prepare you for the harsh realities of a seemingly never-ending cycle of drugs, death and money.
Interestingly, this started out as a documentary about the vigilantes on the Mexican border in Arizona. The aim was to give focus to a group portrayed as irrational and paranoid by the media, a group that has decided to take it upon themselves to what the border patrol cannot, and that is to stop the flow of immigrants hopping over the poorly maintained border. Heineman’s attention moved to Mexico when he realised there was an equivalent group, operating in far more hostile territory, trying to stem the flow of Cartel at the source.
They call themselves the Autodefensas, a vigilante organisation made up of civilians taking on the mighty Cartel in Michoácan. Much like the US have their patriotic, vigilante soldier we see in the form of Tim “Nailer” Foley, the Autodefensas have an equally passionate leader in Dr José Manuel Mireles. As he rallies support in the local villages, against the might of the Cartels and the corrupt police, we learn of the severity and emotional anguish that the locals are experiencing.
This is not as clear-cut as you hoped it would be. Are the Autodefensas any better than the Cartels they seek to stop? Will anyone win this bloody battle? Why don’t the police do their jobs, and how is any of this funded? Above all of this, is the reoccurring question simply put, why doesn’t anyone else step in to help? The fact that these kind of acts continue unpunished, that vigilante groups have to exist and that progression seems such a far-fetched ideal is worrying.
It’s this worry portrayed in the faces on both sides of the border that makes Cartel Land such compelling viewing. While it is small in its focus, it is broad in its message. What is being displayed on the screen is not unique to these specific regions, and there is an urgent cry for help among the mayhem. This is a brave documentary that is scarily close to the action, it brings you face to face with the events that plague Mexico and drives home the grim, inescapable reality. Heineman must be commended for placing himself so close to the action, and consequently delivering one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve seen.
Cartel Land is now available on Netflix UK