“It’s kind of like a David and Goliath story out there” explains Tim Foley, his piercing blue gaze never leaving the camera. “We’re David, and they’re Goliath.” Foley leads paramilitary group Arizona Border Recon in their efforts to apprehend drug dealers and people traffickers as they attempt to cross the Mexican-American border and ply their trade in the USA. 1,000 miles to the south, his Mexican counterpart – doctor and vigilante leader, José Mireles – echoes a similar view. “We have suffered many tragedies because of these criminals” he points out as he loads a rifle. “What would you do?”
It is these first-hand stories, told unflinchingly to the camera, which mark Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land as one of the seminal documentaries of this year. From Narco Cultura to La Santa Muerte, many previous documentaries have attempted to investigate the ongoing drugs conflict at the Mexican-American border, but few have managed to gain such extensive insights into the cartels, who perpetrate the violence, and the small armies of citizens, who attempt to apprehend them.
Most of the action occurs on the Mexican frontlines, with rousing uprisings and deadly attacks a daily occurrence. This is where the film spends the most time, and the audience receives a detailed insight into the complex dynamics between Mireles and his colleagues, who recruit tirelessly in their genuine, if brutal, efforts to oust the largest cartels. While Heineman displays both groups’ efforts in parallel, it becomes apparent that their respective leaders are not all they appear, with the Americans throwing racist terms around and the Mexicans accepting assistance from drug dealers and the military.
And indeed, as do the heroes, the film has its faults. The unimaginative score belongs to a second-rate crime drama, and certain moments of violence may have been more effective had they taken place off screen. But Cartel Land clocks in at a brisk 100 minutes, with Heineman wisely getting in, displaying his findings, and getting out before the film starts feeling ponderous or self-aggrandising. Few documentaries achieve such intimacy with their subjects, and judges at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival rewarded Heineman’s efforts with the Best Director Award and Special Jury Award for Cinematography. The result is a powerful and astute documentary, which portrays the darker side of what is often perceived to be “heroism”, and engages with the complexities of politics and leadership in communities where there is little of either.
Cartel Land is released nationwide on 4th September 2015.
Watch the trailer for Cartel Land here: