“1000 People Can Watch the Film and Have 1000 Different Takeaways”: Oscar Nominee Matthew Heineman on the Dangers and Complexities of ‘Cartel Land’

The phrase is overused, but this week, Matthew Heineman is living the dream. His film Cartel Land is nominated for Best Documentary at Sunday’s Academy Awards – a remarkable achievement, considering the sheer volume of nonfiction cinema recently, and the high quality of so much of it.

“This year was a particularly amazing year for documentaries,” he says. ”There were so many films that inspired me and moved me, so I’m just very grateful that I made it to the final five.” Unsurprisingly, he says getting an Oscar nomination is “incredibly humbling and gratifying – what an honor after an amazing journey with the film.” But he’s also keeping his eye on the ball: “I was shocked and surprised, but mainly just grateful that this nomination will further put a spotlight on the issues raised in the film — on the suffering of the Mexican people, on the cycle of violence that’s perpetuated by the drug war — with the hopes that one day it’ll end.”

Those issues are certainly timely. In the midst of heated – and often troubling – rhetoric about border security and the nefarious activities of the drug cartels south of it, Heineman’s film focuses on two groups whose methods and motivations are, to put it mildly, tricky. An article in Rolling Stone sent him to Arizona, where he spent four months with Tim “Nailer” Foley and his Arizona Border Recon, an armed group patrolling the border on the lookout for smugglers, illegal immigrants, and their “coyotes.”

Still image from "Cartel Land"

“And then my father sent me an article about the Autodefensas,” he recalls, “who were citizens fighting the Knights Templar cartel in Mexico. In a way, when I read that article I knew I wanted to see a sort of parallel portrait of the vigilantes, and on both sides of the border… I thought I’d be down there for one or two weeks, and then one, two weeks turned into nine months.”

If Heineman didn’t know what he was getting into, how hairy the situation was down there, he certainly learned quickly; Cartel Land, which he not only directed but photographed, finds his camera plunged into the midst of several terrifying situations, from fights and riots to straight-up shoot-outs. “There were countless times where I feared for my life,” he confesses. “I’ve never been in any situation like this before. The film led me to some very dangerous places: Shoot-outs between the vigilantes and the cartel, meth labs in the dark, desert night, places of torture, places that I could never have dreamed of or imagined ever being in. But I felt this huge duty and this huge obligation to tell this story. I was really struck – especially when I stepped foot in Mexico – by the suffering of the people living in the face of a very corrupt and ineffective government, who allowed the cartel to operate with impunity.”

And that’s the puzzle piece that, too often, gets lost in sensationalistic coverage of the issue. “The cartels control almost every aspect of civil life — from local traditional systems to local police. It extorts everybody from multinational corporations to local tortilla-makers. And they’ve beheaded or kidnapped anyone who got in their way. So that’s why this movement rose up. And, in some ways, the film is very timely and very specific to this conflict, but it’s very timeless as well. We’ve seen this story play out throughout history and across the world today. But what happens when governmental institutions fail and citizens are quote-unquote forced to take problems into their own hands?”

Still image from "Cartel Land"

Yet what’s most striking about Cartel Land is how its perspective evolves along the way – especially as the people at its center start to diverge from your preconceived notions and political leanings. It’s a journey for the viewer that mirrors Heineman’s own as a filmmaker.

“I heard Al Maysles once say that if you end up with the story you started with, then you weren’t listening along the way,” he explains. “And I think that’s good advice for life and I think it’s good advice for filmmaking. It’s something that I held true to my heart in almost every single step along this journey: let the characters evolve, let the story evolve naturally. I didn’t, obviously, insert myself into the story. I went on this crazy adventure, and my goal was to be there for all these twists and turns, for all the complexity that emerged, and to capture that – to capture that in real time and not in retrospect, but as it was unfolding before me. And my goal, in the edit room, was to allow you, as an audience member, to go on that same journey that I went on. All those moments where I felt like I understood the story, and then it changed, and then it evolved; all those moments where I felt like the rug was was pulled out from under me, where my perception of my characters or their movements changed, I wanted you to feel all of those moments too.”

So he complicates our notions of these people. The Americans working on the border are easy to dismiss as nutjob militia racists (and the film doesn’t shy away from that notion, as one of them asks Heineman’s camera, “Why would you put two races in the same nation and expect them to get along?”). But there’s admiration there, for their dedication and willingness to do a job no one else is doing. And while the Autodefensas are initially seen as a triumph against not only the cartel but the local and national governments who are in their pocket, their organization is not immune from corruption itself – or (in the case of its leader, Dr. José Mireles) from the little perks of national notoriety.

“My goal with the characters, with their movements, was to not put them into a neat little box,” Heineman says. “So many documentaries spoon-feed you or, in other instances, jam some opinion down your throat, and that’s not necessarily my style of filmmaking. I didn’t feel like it really did justice for the story. They were incredibly complex characters doing incredibly complex things, and I really wanted to revel in the complexity of humanity – not tie the doctor or Nailer or their movements with a nice, neat little bow. First of all, that’s not what life is, and that’s definitely not who these guys were.

Still image from "Cartel Land"

“I think one thousand people can watch the film and have one thousand different takeaways, which I love,” he continues. “I love hearing people argue about whether they think the doctor is a good guy or a bad guy. That’s wonderful to me.”

Wherever you land on these groups and the people who run them, it’s difficult to come out of the film with anything resembling hope for the situation – and Heineman doesn’t have any easy answers. “At every Q&A I’ve ever been to, everyone asks, ‘So how do we fix this problem?’ And it’s not possible,” he says. “There’s no silver bullet in this fight. The elephant in the room in Cartel Land is, obviously, America’s voracious appetite for drugs… it’s basic supply and demand: as long as there is a demand for drugs in the states, there will be a supply of drugs in Mexico and South America, and the violence that comes from that. Obviously the issue is more complicated than that: it involves very corrupt and ineffective institutions in Mexico, it involves failed border policy on both sides, it involves decades of failed drug policy on the US side, it involves money and guns flowing south. You know, it’s a multi-effectual problem without a silver bullet.”

So in the meantime, it’s a problem that requires in-depth discussion, policy proposals, examination from all sides. Movies like Cartel Land help, and in this season of general cynicism about the ceremony, Oscar nominations for movies like Cartel Land help them get seen. And will Heineman be there Sunday for the big show? “No, I was going to skip it, I think,” he laughs. “I have a concert I have to go to…”

Cartel Land is available on DVD and on demand.