Director: Matthew Heineman
Cast: José Manuel ‘El Doctor’ Mireles
Watch Cartel Land online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Vimeo On Demand
In the autumn of 2013, ‘El Doctor’ José Manuel Mireles Valverde founded one of the first vigilante groups in Michoacán, Mexico – the Autodefendas. With the authorities unable or unwilling to protect citizens from being kidnapped, killed, tortured and raped by members of the cartel, anger and desperation forced locals to come together and unite against the Caballeros Templarios, otherwise known as the Knights Templar cartel.
Cartel Land is not a film for the faint-hearted. Footage includes drug production on a clandestine visit to a cartel meth lab, corpses, and interrogation scenes that are uncomfortable for the audience. The filmmakers do well to move swiftly along from one scene to the next, but the visuals remain etched on the retina for some time. There is no escaping the reality of the situation when making a documentary on this subject.
Just north of the Mexican border is another vigilante group, the Arizona Border Recon, which is made up of a small number of ex-military men, led by Nailer. He leads dangerous border patrols and believes he is playing his part in defending his country from the cartels. Not all of his troop are there for the same reasons but he welcomes them nevertheless. Nailer’s piercing blue eyes and weather-worn face is visually breathtaking in the low light of his basic accommodation. Heineman’s talent for capturing his subjects using without professionally lighting, really adds to the naturalness and vitality of this film.
Mireles is the protagonist of this documentary, however, and Heineman’s unprecedented access to him and his personal story is impressive, considering Mireles is an unpopular man amongst the cartels. Heineman follows Mireles to a town square where a rallying cry fills the locals and the audience with hope that if you remain united, you can conquer anything.
The hurt and anger of the locals is all too evident. The reality of the situation both then and now is unrelenting, but the courage it takes to stand up and be counted is unmistakably courageous. They have much success in taking back the control of their towns, however over time and as the group expands, things change and begin to alter the dynamics of the group. Mireles is, like the politics of his home country, complicated and layered. Having this kind of access, means you wonder if he forgets the camera is picking everything comment and every look.
With over 500 hours of footage, it takes a painstaking team of editors (there were four, including Heineman himself) to knit the scenes together in a seamless and cohesive manner. This intense documentary goes some way to show how blurred the lines really are between good and evil, and that there is no easy fix for the problems endured by victims of the cartels.
With the director already having won the Directors Guild of America award, and Sundance (both for Direction and Cinematography), Cartel Land is also BAFTA and Oscar nominated. Having Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) as executive producer really adds weight to an already impressive CV but Heineman proves to be a powerful filmmaker in his own right, and Cartel Land deserves the awards already bestowed upon it.
Cartel Land is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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