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Released this past summer, Matthew Heineman’s tense documentary “Cartel Land” has drawn critical acclaim for its intimate investigation of the Mexican Drug War from a verité perspective. “Cartel Land” tells the parallel stories of two vigilante groups: Tim “Nailer” Foley, the leader of Arizona Border Recon, and Dr. José Mireles, a Michoacán-based physician in charge of the Autodefensas, who share a fight against the ruthless Mexican drug cartels.
On the heels of the film earning a Gotham Independent Film Awards nomination for Best Documentary this morning, Heineman gave a Reddit AMA to share his experience making the film with the Internet masses. The highlights from Heineman’s AMA are below.
What was the most unexpected thing you saw in Mexico?
I’m not a war reporter and have never filmed anything like this before, but Cartel Land led me into some pretty crazy places–shootouts between the cartel and the vigilantes, meth labs, places of torture, places that I never imagined I would ever be in.
What inspired you to make this movie?
The initial inspiration was from a Rolling Stone article by Damon Tabor called “Border of Madness” about the Arizona side of the story. It took me several months to get access to film Tim “Nailer” Foley, the head of Arizona Border Recon.
I then filmed down there for 4 months, until my father sent me an article about the Autodefensas in Michoacán, Mexico. After reading that and doing some research, I decided I wanted to change the story to be a parallel narrative about vigilante groups on both side of the border. Two weeks later, I was in Mexico filming.
How did you go about just getting permission from the cartels to film them and did they tell you what could and couldn’t be filmed?
Regarding filming in the meth lab, that is something that we tried to do for months and months. Eventually, on one of our last shoots, we got a call saying, “Be in this town square at 6pm and you’re in.” Beforehand, we had set up rules: we did not want to be thrown in a trunk or have our heads covered with bags. And, in exchange, the meth cookers wanted their faces covered. I thought it was a fair exchange.
Were you ever scared for your life? Were you always dedicated to filming or were there situations you just had to get yourself out of?
There were countless times that I was scared for my life — shootouts, meth lab, car chase, torture — all of those scenes were terrifying. But honestly, one of the scariest moment for me was the interview that I did with the young woman who was kidnapped by the cartel (along with her husband) and witnessed him being chopped into pieces and burned to death. Sitting next to her, it was almost as if her soul had been sucked out of her and to hear her describe these horrors, and to think that we’re the same species as people that would do that to other people – -that stuck with me psychologically more than anything.
What was running through your mind when you were in the middle of the shoot out with the cartel members?
In the middle of the shootout, I really tried to focus on the craft of filmmaking (focusing, framing, exposure) to keep me somewhat calm in these very chaotic situations.
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