Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman talks about the dangers of filming a documentary about a Mexican drug cartel.
Cartel Land is a tense documentary that has you on the edge of your seat. Director Matthew Heineman takes you inside the Mexican drug war and introduces you to the drug lords that rule it. The documentary won both cinematography and directing awards when it screened at Sundance. It went on to be nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars and now won an Emmy. I caught up with Heineman to talk about the risks of going into Cartel Land.
Cartel Land came out last year, then you were nominated for the Oscar, and now here you are nominated for an Emmy.
It’s been a crazy ride. I’m deeply humbled and never would have expected to be where I am now.
When did Cartel Land begin for you?
It started in June 2013, that’s when I started shooting it. I first heard about it in February of that year. I was reading about the U.S. side of the story, and I spent time gaining access to the vigilantes on the U.S. side of the border. I filmed there for 4 to 5 months. My father sent me an article about the autodefensas in Michoacan, Mexico. When I read that article, that’s when I knew I wanted to do a parallel portrait of vigilantes on both sides of the border. Two weeks after that I was in Mexico filming.
How did you get funding for the film and how did Kathyrn Bigelow get involved?
Like most documentaries, I could bore you with the long details, but I went out, shot the first shoot on my own and put some footage together. I showed it to a producer in New York, Tom Yellin, who started C-funding me. Eventually we got Molly Thompson and off we went. Kathryn didn’t come on until after Sundance. Someone sent her the link, we got together and met. I take a lot of inspiration from her work. So through those conversations, I asked if she wanted to come on board to help raise the visibility of the film, and she was willing to do so.
There are some truly scary moments in that documentary where even the viewer fears for you.
I’m not a war reporter, I’ve never been in any situation before. The shoot-outs, the meth labs, the torture chambers are all scenarios I never dreamt I’d be in. It’s an absolutely terrifying journey for a year, one that I wasn’t necessarily prepared for, and that took on a life of its own. I thought it was going to be a simple story, at least the Mexican side. A story of good versus evil and of everyday citizens rising up to fight against an evil cartel. Slowly over time I realized these stories were far more complicated and these lines were blurry. As these lines blurred and things got complicated, I became obsessed with who these guys were. I spent two weeks of every month for nine months in Mexico.
How do you watch someone having their daughter being taken from them? How do you watch those meth lab scenes? What’s that like for you as a journalist?
People often ask me how did I get that scene. There are several different answers. I poach the subjects with a level of respect. I told the folks in Mexico and Arizona that I had no pre-conceived notions, no goal, and I really wanted the story to evolve naturally. I really wanted to let the story play out. I spent a lot of time down there, almost nine months. In that time, I gained their trust. When you spend that much time with them, you develop a rapport. They’re risking their lives to fight for what they believe in.
With that scene, that never would have happened if I had knocked on the door and asked, “Can I hang out with you?” I was nine months into filming, we’re at the autodefensas base and they start jamming magazines into their guns, get into their cars. I asked where they were going, and they said they were going to get Starbucks. I barely speak Spanish. We literally weren’t speaking the same language, but we all knew they weren’t really going to get Starbucks. They let me go with them, and little did I know that we’d soon be in the middle of a shoot-out, getting shot at, falling out of the car, and going on a witch hunt through town.
That terribly devastating scene was deeply troubling to film. I was a foot away from them, and to see that unfold, as he’s being interrogated at gunpoint. As a human being, all I wanted to do was grab that gun and stop the madness, but my job is not there to police or change the course of events. My duty was to document what I was seeing, and to get in the torture chamber and the meth lab. It was just a matter of getting those doors open to be able to get in there.
How do you manage to stay safe and ensure your crew stayed safe?
It was a tiny crew. It was incredibly dangerous, and the key was never to be complacent and always have your antennas up. The first day of filming, I was scared shitless. Over time that changed, but not being complacent was the key. Even driving in Mexico with the doctor was scary because he had a bullseye on the back of his head.
Did you receive any threats?
There were countless moments, people tried taking the camera, men had masks on, but nothing terribly bad happened. I think we’re talking about the dangers that I had. The real danger was in the tragedy of the people in Michoacan living in a society where government has failed and where citizens are forced to take situations into their own hands. That’s also what drove me to make this: the tragedy that I was witnessing. The real losers are the people living on the ground who live in this lawless land, and the lines between government and cartel so blurry. That’s what makes living there and filming there so scary.
There’s a woman in the first act of the film when the autodefensas takes over the town, and they surround the army to get their guns back. Her anger was representative of so many things. Her entire family was killed by the cartel. She was too scared to go to the police because she thought the police would rat her out to the cartel, were the cartel, or were being paid by the cartel. All the things we take for granted, they don’t have.
We’ve got shows like Narcos, but the news here doesn’t tell us about the war on the cartels?
That’s exactly why I wanted to make this. We’re obsessed with terror around the world, and here’s terror on our doorsteps that we’re connected to and we’re responsible for. We’re funding this war through our voracious appetite for drugs. As long as there’s a demand for drugs, there will be a supply coming from South America and Mexico and, with that, the violence. Since 2007 over 100,000 people have been killed in the Mexican drug wars. Over 20,000 people have disappeared. Those are staggering numbers, and it’s right on our doorstep. One goal was to highlight this and show how it’s affecting people on the ground.
You did that in the sense that it’s really terrifying to watch. Aside from what you capture in the documentary, what challenges did you face?
There were so many. From a creative standpoint, it was one of the hardest films I’ve ever made just because the story kept changing. I was always on quicksand not knowing what was right and wrong. Every single day, month, the story evolved. Trying to make sense of it and trying to tell the story in a compelling and human way was the biggest challenge. On the end of it, I could be on a mission and look to my left or right, I could be with people and not know if I was with the cartel or the people fighting the cartel. From where I started that was a massive arc. When you’re on the ground trying to make sense of that, it was difficult.
How did they gain your trust?
That’s one thing I’m very lucky. The ones who aren’t are the journalists who were killed. There’s no question that by having a blue passport and being a gringo I had some level of protection. At the end of the day, if you’re in the middle of a shoot-out, the bullets aren’t concerned with the color of your skin.
For me, there were adrenaline filled moments. The interview I did with Milagros, and she witnessed him being chopped up to pieces and being burned to death. To see her body, it was as if her entire soul had been sucked out of her. The hollowness in her eyes stuck with me more than anything else.