CAROLINA A. MIRANDA
Q&A

Director Matthew Heineman followed vigilantes and survived shootouts for 'Cartel Land'

'Cartel Land' embeds with vigilantes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border

The story of the drug wars is not a simple one to digest. It is a tangled, wide-ranging conflict between cartels, between narco enforcers and drug enforcement agents, between the corrupt and the corruptible, between those with power and those without. Then there are the thousands of workaday citizens, who confront the violence from all sides.

Into this morass steps documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman, who spent more than a year following a pair of this conflict's more fascinating players.

On the U.S. side of the border, he trails Tim Foley, a U.S. veteran who heads up Arizona Border Recon, a vigilante group that patrols the border for signs of illegal activity. And, on the Mexican side, he follows Jose Mireles, otherwise known as "El Doctor," the leader of the Autodefensas, a paramilitary citizens group that battled the violent Knights Templar cartel in the Mexican state of Michoacán throughout much of 2013.

The resulting documentary, "Cartel Land," looks at the effects of vigilantism on both sides of the border — examining those moments in which citizens are inspired to take the law into their own hands. It is a story about the grizzled Foley, with raspy voice and razor-thin sideburns, intoning about the threat of violence on America's borders, and it is the avuncular Mireles, with his towering presence and shock of white hair, directly facing the beheadings and the lynchings of his neighbors and fellow townspeople.

The film is a stirring work of cinema verité, bereft of talking heads and think-tank experts. Instead, Heineman simply lets the story unfold — one in which the lines between right and wrong seem to be hopelessly blurred.

The director, 32, has a couple of other docs under his belt, including 2012's lauded "Escape Fire," about the American healthcare system. "Cartel Land," however, has been his most high-profile work to date, landing him the best documentary director prize at Sundance and drawing the attention of "Zero Dark Thirty" director Kathryn Bigelow, who signed on as executive producer.

In addition to directing the film, Heineman shot a good portion of it himself. (The cinematography also pulled in an award at Sundance.) He took time to chat via telephone about the arduous nature of making "Cartel Land," the ways in which he approached his very complicated subjects and the shootouts he survived. 

How did you come to this topic of the drug wars and vigilantism? 

I was fascinated by what happens when government institutions fail and citizens take the law into their own hands. This is a story that has played out throughout history, and it continues to play out around the world today. I really wanted to examine what motivates men and women to do this.

I first heard about [the U.S. citizens patrol] through an article I read. I decided to go down to Arizona and spend time with Arizona Border Recon. I spent four or five months filming them. Then my father sent me another article about the Autodefensas, and he was like, 'This is similar to what’s happening in Arizona.' Little did he know I would go down there.

Both groups — the Autodefensas and Arizona Border Recon — give you wide access to their operations. The Autodefensas even let you film strategic meetings and raids. How did you achieve that level of access?

By being transparent, [by] not coming into this with preconceived notions or wanting to put people or events into a simplified box. I told them, "I want to document your story, document your life. I want to follow you over the next year."

I was fortunate enough to be able to spend almost a year with these groups developing relationships, developing story lines. Those relationships allowed me to get into the places I got into. I’m not a war reporter. I’d never been in situations like this before. This led me to some crazy places: shootouts between cartels and Autodefensas, meth labs in the dark desert night, torture rooms.

Obviously, the danger level was much higher in Mexico. They were risking their lives to fight for what they believed in, and many of them were dying. So, by spending time with them and being doggedly next to them during every waking moment, I think there’s a level of respect and rapport that emerges.

I was risking my own life to tell the story. And by continuing to go back, they felt comfortable in letting me tell the story — both the good and bad.

What traits do these two vigilante groups in the U.S. and Mexico share? And how are they different?

At the center of "Cartel Land" are these two main characters, the leaders of these two groups: El Doctor [Mireles], who is the leader of the Autodefensas, and Tim Foley, who is leading Arizona Border Recon. They’re both 55. They both believe the government has failed them. They both have taken the law into their own hands.

But the circumstances are quite different. In Mexico, the violence is real. You have 80,000 people killed, 20,000 people missing or disappeared. Whereas in Arizona, you are a bit at the edge of the world. You're out in the desert, in these hillsides. You can see cartel scouts, you can hear them on the radio. But the violence isn’t happening there. There aren’t the severed heads. The fight is more theoretical. That fight is more about a fear that the drug wars will seep their way across our border. 

In fact, you see the Arizona vigilantes nab what appear to be a group of undocumented migrants — but over the course of the film they don't appear to do much else. The group comes off as a little paranoid about the possibility violence given the very real violence going on in Mexico.

Those differences are quite stark and obvious in the film. We’re not trying to parallel the situations by any level of the imagination. What we see in Arizona is a mixed bag of guys. Most of them are veterans. And they all say the same thing: They took an oath to protect our country, and that oath doesn’t stop when they stop serving. So in their minds they are protecting our country. But there are a lot of different strands motivating each person.

There's a scene around a bonfire where they give their reasons for being there, and it’s all over the spectrum. It’s people who don't want people coming across our border, and people who feel that the cartels are a threat.

Really what fascinated me was the dynamic of how the groups operated: outside the law, without any kind of accountability. So we see parallels and differences with how that plays out on both sides of the border.

With the Autodefensas, you have this stunning narrative arc: A scrappy group of citizen fighters trying to roust out the drug dealers becomes a more mercenary force that we find out may also be linked to the cartels. What is your view of that group and what they became?

I think the way the story plays out is the way the experience played out for me as a filmmaker. Originally, it really seemed that these were good benevolent citizens: farmers, shopkeepers, a small-town physician, who are rising up to protect their families. That is all true.

But inevitably when you’re operating outside the law you can’t necessarily control everyone within your ranks — despite your most noble intentions. Power corrupts. The Autodefensas were at one point 20,000 strong. How can you possibly control 20,000 people walking around towns and pueblos and cities with assault rifles? 

Over time it became clear that the story was changing, that those who were fighting evil were becoming evil. As that unraveled, the film became ever more interesting. I became obsessed with trying to understand what was happening and who these guys really were.

The figure of Mireles is such an interesting one: charismatic, sympathetic, grandfatherly. Then midway through the documentary you essentially see him ordering an execution. How did you meet him? And did something about him change as the Autodefensas gained power?

I was introduced to him through a journalist. When I called her, I asked her, "What’s he like?" She said, "He’s by far the most interesting man I’ve ever met." As a documentary filmmaker, those are things you want to hear.

So, I went down there and I met him. He is incredibly charismatic. The way he controlled the group. The way he would sit in the town square and speak to thousands of people. He has an unbelievable charisma, but also a darkness, a complexity. I wanted to show that. And I commend him for letting me show that. I didn't want to do a whitewashed portrait of a hero. I wanted to show the complexity of who he is and the decisions he was making as the leader of the Autodefensas.

People in Michoacan suffered. They suffered at the hands of the Knights Templar Cartel, who extorted them, who beheaded or killed anyone who got in their way, who ruled through extreme violence — besides trafficking in drugs. This is what Mireles' movement was born out of.

So what we see in the film as it progresses is that vigilantism is messy and war is messy. And as they’re cleaning Michoacán of the Knights Templar, there are things they are doing that are dirty. 

There are scenes in meth labs and torture rooms. There's a scene in which members of the Autodefensas cry for a fallen fighter. What was the most difficult scene for you to shoot? 

For me, the scariest moment in the film was not one of the more adrenaline-packed moments — of being shot at or any of those other experiences. It was actually a moment that I spent in the beginning of the film with a woman who was kidnapped by the cartel along with her husband. To be next to this woman as she describes her husband being chopped up to pieces and then burned, it was just ... Her eyes were deeply hollow. Her soul had been sucked out of her. To think that there are human beings that would do that, that stuck with me more than any of these other moments.

You don’t have narration or talking heads. Why did you decide to forgo that?

What I really wanted to do was to let the characters speak for themselves. A lot of people use talking heads to tell you what to think. I wanted to show people a world that they don’t get to see, to see people they don’t get to meet. I have faith in an audience being able to interpret complex material.

When I first set foot in Mexico, I thought I was telling a simple story: a story of good guys versus bad guys, guys in white shirts fighting guys in black hats. But I realized over time that the lines between good and evil are quite blurry and that the lines between right and wrong are quite blurry.

I might be with guys in a back of a truck, and I truly didn’t know if they were good guys or bad guys. That feeling I had, where I was emotionally and viscerally uncomfortable, I want the audience to feel that same thing. There were so many moments where I thought I knew what the story was, but then it would change. I wanted the audience to have those same rug-pulling moments.

This story ultimately is about blurry lines: between government and cartels, between good and bad, and right and wrong. You can't put this film into a neat little box with a bow around it. That doesn’t do the story justice.

There are so many scenes that get at that sense of uncertainty.

There’s a scene in the film where I'm on an operation with the Autodefensas. We started getting shot at. And they decide to go on this witch hunt. They hear that the people who shot at us were in a white Jetta. They don’t find a white Jetta. They find a guy in a white Cherokee with his family. And it was clear that his only crime that day was driving a white car.

Then they put him in the back of the car, and they start interrogating him. They put a gun against his head. The guy has a tattoo that may connect him to organized crime. But you don’t really know.

That's what's so difficult about all of this. A lot of people are connected in some way or another, so you never know. When you are part of a cartel, you don’t have a Costco card that says, "I’m a card-carrying member of the cartel."

What's next? Do you have anything you are working on right now?

My mom wants me to make a film about bees. There are a few different projects that I’m exploring. There is nothing too solidified at this point.

I'm just excited that "Cartel Land" is being released in theaters here in the U.S. and it's being released in theaters in Mexico. We fought really hard to get it seen in Mexico. We hope it ignites an important conversation.

"Cartel Land" opens at the Arclight in Hollywood on Thursday. 

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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