“Cartel Land” follows two modern-day vigilante groups fighting a shared enemy – the ruthless Mexican drug cartels. When I first heard about the Autodefensa movement in Michoacán, Mexico, and the American paramilitary group Arizona Border Recon, I was immediately drawn to know more about their worlds and their leaders: Dr. Jose Mireles (“El Doctor”) and Tim “Nailer” Foley.
It took many months to gain their trust and the access I needed to tell their stories from an intimate, yet action-driven, verité perspective. Gaining this access and dealing with the risky situations the access put me in were by far my biggest challenges.
Having no experience filming in a conflict zone, “Cartel Land” pushed me into some dangerous places – I filmed in shootouts on the streets of Michoacán; in “Breaking Bad”-like meth labs in the middle of the dark, desert night; in places of torture. My goal was to be there to capture in real time each chapter of the rapidly shifting story, with the camera in the action, not observing it from the outside. Utilizing small crews or shooting by myself, it was a wild adventure and a grueling film to make.
Here are 5 lessons that I learned along the way:
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1. It never hurts to ask twice (or three or four times).
It took many months to gain Nailer’s trust. He felt burned by a prior article about him and was very reticent about taking part in the film. We spoke almost weekly on the phone for several months and got to know each other through these conversations. There were numerous times when he said that he didn’t want to take part in the film. I told him that I didn’t have an agenda in approaching the subject – while I didn’t necessarily align politically, I wanted to be open-minded to him and his group operating along the Mexican border. And to tell their story in their own words. I think that this desire to report the story, not to editorialize with voiceover, eventually gained his trust, and I began to plan for our first shoot.
However, several days before heading down there, Nailer called me and said he was backing out for real and didn’t want to do it. I felt burned and didn’t know what to do, so I asked him to think about it for a couple of days. When I called him back the day before I was supposed to fly down, he said that he was back on board. Apparently, his daughters had just seen my previous film “ESCAPE FIRE: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare.” And they called him up to tell him that he had to see it and that it was an unbiased, apolitical look at what is wrong with our healthcare system. It sounded familiar to Nailer, and he asked his daughters who made it. When they made the connection to me, they urged him to take part in “Cartel Land,” saying that they thought I would approach the story in a similarly open-minded way.
I thanked the documentary gods and jumped on the plane the next morning.
2. If shooting abroad, get a great local crew.
After filming in Arizona for five months, my father sent me an article about the Autodefensas. Immediately, upon reading it, I knew that I wanted to create this parallel story of vigilantism on both sides of the border fighting a “shared” enemy. The problem was I’d never filmed in Mexico, nor in any real conflict zones.
Knowing the danger stakes were much higher in Michoacán and that I was not fluent in Spanish, I reached out to a few journalists in NYC and was connected to Myles Estey, a Mexico City-based journalist who ended up becoming a co-producer on the film. Myles then connected me with Daniel Fernandez, a journalist and local fixer in Michoacán. He knew the terrain, people and politics there. With this amazing local team, I quickly evaluated the risks of shooting down there, and we prepared for our first shoot. Less then two weeks later, I was in Mexico filming.
Myles and, especially Daniel, were key in helping connect me to El Doctor and the rest of the Autodefensas. They knew the land, they knew what roads were safe to drive on, what places were safe to stay at. And Daniel already had strong connections with El Doctor and some of the other Autodefensas. Together, over the next nine months, they help me develop an intimate relationship with our subjects. They were indispensible in helping me get access to a story that otherwise would have been hard to tap into.
So much of the access that I was able to gain with the Autodefensas was over months, not days. With newspapers cutting foreign bureaus and budgets shrinking for long-form, investigative journalism, documentary filmmakers are often filling a void nowadays in the media landscape with their ability to spend time with their stories and subjects. There is absolutely no way I could have told this complex story in a few days or even a few weeks. I was fortunate to be able to spend almost nine months (one to two weeks of every month) in Michoacán. During that time, I was able to create a deep rapport with my subjects, developing storylines and character arcs. And, most importantly, I was able to develop trust.
The Autodefensas were risking their lives to fight against the Knights Templar Cartel and some of them were dying in the process. The fact our small crew was similarly risking our lives to tell this story further cemented the connection to our various subjects in the Autodefensas. I didn’t just parachute in and out, I kept going down to Mexico, and I think they respected the fact that I was pursuing the story just as doggedly as they were pursuing the cartel.
Eight months into filming, I was hanging out at an Autodefensa base. Tensions were running high, as two of their men were recently assassinated on a highway by sicarios (hitmen) on motorcycles. They were eating lunch, and then, all-of-a-sudden, they feverishly began jamming magazines into their assault rifles and tossing their bulletproof vests on. As I threw on my vest, I asked them in my very broken Spanish (I understand about 50-60% and spoke enough to order food, get to the bathroom, etc.) where they were going. They replied, “to get some Starbucks.” I then said that I was hoping to get some coffee too.
This “operativo” turned into one of the most hair-raising and intense parts of the film and also an important turning point: while scoping out an area of town, they got shot at; frantically jumped out of the car to take cover; got info about who was shooting at them and went on a witch-hunt through town looking for a “white Jetta,” Instead, they found a seemingly innocent man in a white Cherokee; pulled him out of the car and then away from his family and distraught young daughter; interrogated him at gun point in the back seat of the car speeding through town as I was jammed in between the two middle seats; and then brought him back to a torture chamber where they were similarly interrogating others with tazers.
There is no way that any one of those moments would have happened if I had just walked to a group of Autodefensas and said, “Can I hang with you guys for a day?”
4. Patience and persistence are key – Don’t film everything.
Growing up in the digital age of filmmaking, I’m as guilty as anyone of overshooting. But one thing that I learned in the making of “Cartel Land” was the importance of knowing when not to film – a lesson that I learned vividly when trying to film in a meth lab.
From the moment I stepped foot in Mexico, my goal was to shoot in a meth lab, and I knew I wanted to begin the film there. We tried for months to get into a lab. Every shoot I would try to find somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who cooked. Amongst our vast network of people down there, we thought we had a guy who could hook it up, and he kept telling us to be patient and promised to make it happen.
Finally, last summer we were on one of our last shoots. And, at last, the call came. “Be in this town square at 6 p.m. sharp,” they said. We drove through the mountains and made it to the town with minutes to spare. A pair of armed men asked if we were ready and told us to follow them. With the sun dropping rapidly, they drove us down a highway, off the highway, through towns, and then small villages, which eventually gave way to vast, open farmlands.
Suddenly, in the middle of one of these fields, our “guides” stopped and told us that they weren’t going any further. They would stay there to provide protection. Another car full of men drove from out of nowhere, and they said that they would lead us into the lab. We filmed there for several hours and it was frightening and incredible.
Just before midnight, my fixer told me that it was time to leave. We were escorted out of the forest into the fields, past the villages and towns, and onto the highway. I was disappointed because I wanted to get more footage, more visuals to illustrate the process of meth cooking. So, before we left, we made a date with the chefs to come back the following night.
We were given instructions to be in a certain village at a certain time the next night. We went and we waited. And we continued to wait, but they never showed up. Through a series of cryptic text messages, we arranged to meet the next night, and again they blew us off. And the same thing happened a third night.
Four days after our first visit, on our last day in Mexico, I turned to my fixer and said something like, “This is our last chance. I think we should drive straight in since we have a vague idea where it is.” It was a crazy idea, but after consulting with various colleagues, we decided it was safe enough to try in the daytime. So we drove back in through the towns, the villages, and the fields. Soon the gnarly smell of meth started to penetrate our car, and we knew we were close.
But suddenly, a car started driving slowly at us. Our hearts started beating faster and faster. The car drove up slowly next to us, and the men inside rolled down their tinted windows and asked, “Why are you here?” And we nervously replied, “I think you know why we’re here.”
They told us to turn around, and they escorted us out to the road. A second car drove up and a new set of men rolled down their tinted windows and asked, “Why are you here?” And, again, we replied, “I think you know why we’re here.” After a few more “interviews,” we were told to drive down the road to a pool hall.
Trucks that looked familiar and men who looked familiar came and went. It turned out to be the place where the meth cooks socialized. I struck up a conversation with one of the men, and he began to spill the beans of how things really worked – making connections for me that I hadn’t made before. I couldn’t figure out whether I should bring out the camera. It was such an amazing scene to film, and I was getting such good information. But I also knew that we had worked so hard and risked so much to be there. Bringing out the camera might jeopardize our ability to get back into the lab and get us kicked out, or worse.
It was frustrating me not to film him, but I stayed patient and, eventually, we got the greenlight to go back into the lab to get the shots that I needed.
It was a good lesson too, because it ultimately allowed me to get an important perspective that I needed to better understand the story I was telling. And several weeks later, on our final shoot, I randomly ran into the man from the pool hall, who had all of the juice about what was really happening, and he agreed to be filmed. This interview ended up being very integral to the final act of the film.
My experience with the meth lab was a good reminder that patience and persistence pay off in documentary filmmaking. They are not just important, they are absolutely crucial.
5. Plan for the unexpected.
I’ll never forget going to an event in New York City when I was first getting into this crazy business and the late Albert Maysles was speaking on a panel. He said something that I never forgot and something that I carried with me every day in the making of “Cartel Land.” In his quiet, confident tone, he said, “If you end up with the story you started with, then you weren’t listening along the way.” I’ve found that that’s not only good filmmaking advice, but also good advice for life itself.
The story is supposed to change, it’s supposed to evolve. In making “Cartel Land” I ended up with a much, much different story than I started with. And, if I wasn’t listening to the clues that were thrown at me (and then following them even though I wasn’t sure where I was going) then I wouldn’t have been able to get access to the incredible twists and turns that this film took me on.