One of the chief complaints raised by Matthew Heineman's documentary Cartel Land was that it was too well shot, too carefully composed - as if a documentary on the topic of drug cartels and citizen militias could not, or should not, also be a work of art with formal concerns. In the case of Cartel Land, the accusation comes in part from the fact that Mr. Heineman's punchy, hard-driving film has the soul of an exposé or news report while pushing forward like a no-nonsense action movie looking like it had top-notch production values.
The presence of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow as executive producer will give you by itself a sense of the morally shifting landscape Mr. Heineman's film inhabits, making it a true-life counterpoint-slash-companion-piece to Denis Villeneuve's Sicario. But, for all the drive and strength of Cartel Land, it's clear this undeniably riveting and technically accomplished work of filmmaking never really finds its footing as a piece of contemporary documentary.
Its central problem is also one of its strengths: what starts out as a piece on the nativist militias that dot the American land borders with Mexico, and particularly veteran Tim Foley's Arizona Border Recon, changes its focus across the border to physician Manuel Mirales' Autodefensas de Michoacán, a group fighting to reclaim territory from the rural drug cartels. Though initially the question is "what's the difference between them?", exploring how these sort of militia movements can be very similar in practice while representing different things in theory, Mr. Heineman effectively realizes the greater story is in Mexico and the American footage, present mostly as relativising counterpoint, becomes secondary and occasionally surplus to requirements.
Next to the fighting for their lives and lands that the Mexicans are doing - their openly anti-governmental fight is borne out of an actual situation on the ground and aims at reinstating a measure of dignity, lawfulness and peace to their territory - the Americans are essentially playing at soldiering and seem to have little idea at what they are aiming at. This, however, leads into a somewhat formulaic rise-and-fall narrative arc for Mr. Mirales himself; the narrative developments lead you to ask if Mr. Heineman is trying to emulate his own experience as he learned of all that was actually going on, or if he is manipulating the timeline as expertly as he manipulates the visuals (four editors and two composers are credited).
For all that, there's no doubt that the actual footage the director got in Mexico is absolutely outstanding, with a sense of nerve-wracking, you-are-there witnessing that transport a heart-pounding clear and present danger, stunning for both its urgency and its formal control. That Mr. Heineman actually went out and shot this himself, and that the film does not shy from the big questions it raises while refusing easy answers, is why you can't dismiss Cartel Land as mere "docsploitation" work.
USA. 2015. 101 minutes
Directed by Matthew Heineman; camera, Mr. Heineman and Matt Porwoll (colour); music by H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg; film editors, Matthew Hamachek, Mr. Heineman, Bradley J. Ross and Pax Wassermann; produced by Tom Yellin and Mr. Heineman; an Our Times Projects and Documentary Group production in association with Whitewater Films, presented by A&E Indiefilms
Screened November 26th 2015, Porto/Post/Doc official competition advance screener