Matthew Heineman is lucky to have come back from Michoacan, Mexico with his life after shooting his documentary, “Cartel Land,” which was shown at the True/False Film Festival last week in Columbia, Missouri. He put himself and his small crew at risk while filming people involved with the drug cartels, but the result is an important piece of cinema verité that exposes the situation’s enormous complexities.
“Cartel Land” includes footage of a vigilante group in Arizona at the border with Mexico, as well as meth cookers and a vigilante group in Mexico called Autodefensas in shootouts, interviews, and surprisingly intimate moments.
One of the film’s main characters – a doctor who became the leader of Autodefensas – is currently in prison in Mexico, and at the end of the documentary, there is a blow-your-socks-off confession that shows the appalling enmeshment between Autodefensas, the drug cartels such as Knights Templar Cartel and others, and the Mexican government.
Matthew appeared for a Q&A after the screening, and below are some of the highlights.
On how he came to make the film:
I was riding on a subway in New York, and I read this Rolling Stone article about the Arizona vigilantes. And the minute I read it, I just knew that it was a world I wanted to explore….
My father actually sent me an article about the Autodefensas … so two weeks later, I was down in Mexico. And it took a couple of months for my mom to start talking to my dad again….
We did an enormous amount of research, first figuring out if it was safe to go down there. If you look at state.gov [the U.S. Department of State website], it’s like ‘Nobody is supposed to travel to Michoacan’ – no U.S. citizens, no government employees. You’re just not allowed to travel there.
So, we hired a security firm to keep a tracking beacon on us at all times. In case we got kidnapped, they’d know where we were…. It was scary, and we obviously had bulletproof vests. We took as many precautions as we could.
On the number of crew members he had in Mexico:
I shot the majority of the film. I shot 90%+ of it. Especially in Mexico, there was a small crew, there was like three or four of us…. I barely speak Spanish, so a translator, and a sort of driver/fixer, local producer.
On how he gained the trust of his subjects in the film:
Access and trust are what make documentaries documentaries…. I had absolutely no idea where the story was going. Especially when I set foot in Mexico, I thought I was telling this very simple sort of hero/villain story – guys in white shirts fighting against guys in white hats. Obviously, that changed.
In terms of the access, again, in Mexico, the minute I stepped foot there, I said, “I’m here to document history. I’m not here to take sides.” Especially the doctor [the leader of Autodefensas], I told him, “The only way I’m going to sign up for this with you is if you let me film sort of carte blanche.” I commend him for allowing me to show the good side and bad side of who he is and what’s happening down there….
So many other people have covered this story, but they would come in for a day or a weekend. I was there for eight months on and off. I think that’s what allowed me to get into these corners that other people couldn’t get into. I think it’s very hard to tell a story if you come in for a day, if you helicopter in. I think that’s a sad state of where we are in journalism today. There’s so little money to feature stories…. The budgets are being slashed.
On getting access to shooting in a meth lab in Mexico:
Every single time I went back in Mexico, I asked somebody to find somebody who knew somebody to get me into a meth lab…. Eventually, I sort of gave up. I didn’t think it was going to happen.
Then, finally, on one of our last shoots, we got this call saying, “Be in this town square at 6:00 p.m., and we’re going to drive you in.” And so, we went to the town square….
We trusted the person who gave us the lead and set it up for us, so they drove us into the field. They stopped. Another car drove us in. It was all a security game. We had sort of rules of engagement. We said we did not want to be blindfolded. In exchange for that, they needed their faces covered.
On the release of the film in the U.S. and Mexico and the threats he has received:
We’re releasing the film this summer in the states, but I’m probably as or more excited that we’re releasing the film in Mexico right before the elections in May. I think it will be really interesting to see how the government reacts.
This past summer, we received a threat from the government saying that they’re tracking my phone and my email – to watch my back. Just on the way out here, my fixer in Mexico corresponded with me and said he’s being tracked, his car followed everywhere he goes the past couple days. It’s scary. That keeps me up at night.
I think as a Gringo from New York, I’m protected a little bit, but I worry every day and every night about my local crew in Mexico, as well as the people in the film.
Watch the featurette below from the Sundance Film Festival to learn even more about this shocking documentary that I consider a must-see.