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Matthew Heineman on Going Beyond the Headlines and Body Count in ‘Cartel Land’

Matthew Heineman on Going Beyond the Headlines and Body Count in 'Cartel Land'

I start talking about “Cartel Land,” the film, I have to disclose
that given the fact that I was born in Mexico, grew up there, and left before
the outbursts of cartel-related violence started, I have a personal, if divided, perspective on
the issue this film discusses. I have lived half of my life in Mexico City and the
other half of it in Los Angeles. This dual experience makes it difficult for me
to completely detach myself emotionally from such a painful subject for both
nations, but particularly for Mexico. Most Mexicans here and back there, know
someone who has been a victim of this bloodbath in someway. For us is not
something that exists only on a film removed from everyday reality, but something we dread profoundly.

Therefore, when
I first heard about how the filmmaker had immersed himself into the eye of the
storm and seen first hand the rampant violence that afflicts my homeland, I
feared that the portrayal would be one-sided and that Mexicans would be shown
as savages who lost control of their country, as it’s often the case with
American films depicting conflicts in developing countries.  Will this be
a film my an American about the barbaric neighbors to the south? 

it wasn’t. Matthew Heineman‘s “Cartel Land” is indeed a gruesome and
riveting account of how the narco violence has kept entire towns in the state
of Michoacán hostage, and how a group of civilians, the
“Autodefensas,” took matters into their own hands and became a
reactive form of rogue institution that had, initially, no ties to the federal
government, but it’s also a profoundly humanistic and intellectually complex

relying on statements from government officials, forensic experts, or observes
who see it all from afar, Heineman manages to skip the headlines and focused on
the individual loss, fear, and powerlessness from everyday people. All insight
comes from those affected directly by Drug War of horrific proportions.

The filmmaker also includes the leader of a militant group in
Arizona, which aims to secure the U.S/Mexico border on their own terms. They
believe the American government has failed to efficiently address their
concerns regarding illegal immigration and drug trafficking.  

Land”  bravely tackles this overwhelming matter with compassion for the victims and
as much objectivity as possible towards the political questions it raises.
Though it can’t possibly give us definitive answers, it’s a great vehicle to
raise awareness and demand action.

Aguilar: What was your idea of Mexico before you made this film? Had you been there at all beforehand? I ask because I’m from Mexico, and I feel like we all have preconceived ideas of places we’ve never been to formed by the media.

Matthew Heineman: I’ve been to Mexico before on vacation, but not to this Mexico. Just like with America, there are many Americas, and
there are many different Mexicos. I was shocked by what I saw in Michoacán.
Where are you from?

Aguilar: Mexico

Matthew Heineman:
Obviously Michoacán is close to D.F. but still a world way. I think the suffering of everyday people is what stroke me the
most. Citizens who are living in this lawless world, where they’ve no one to
turn to, where the very institutions that are there to protect them are either
not there or are working hand in hand with the cartel. That’s a scary world.
It’s a world in which violence can erupt at any moment.

Aguilar: What point
of reference did you have in terms of what you had seen in Mexico before making
this film, Tijuana, Cancun, Mexico City?

Matthew Heineman: I’d
never been to D.F., I had been to Baja once and I was surfing along the coast,
not too far from Michoacán actually.

Aguilar: The narco violence in Mexico is a very complex and broad subject, how did you
find out about what was happening in Michoacán and why did you decide to make it the focus of your film?. 

Matthew Heineman: I
read about it. I had already started filming the Arizona side of the film. I’d
spent four or five months filming in Arizona, and then my father sent me an article about
the “Autodefensas” and “El Doctor.” Right when I read it I knew I wanted to
create this parallel narrative about vigilantes in both sides of the border. Two
weeks later I was down there in Mexico filming.

Aguilar: So you picked
up your camera and left ? Were you scared of what you would encounter based on what you had read in that article?

Matthew Heineman: It
was frightening! I’m not a war reporter. I’d never been in situations like
these before and obviously the film led me into some pretty dangerous places.
I could have never image that I would be in shootouts between the vigilantes
and the cartels, meth labs in the dark desert night, or places used for
torture. The film led me into places that terrified me.

Aguilar: There is shocking and heartbreaking footage in the film thanks to the incredible access you manages to obtain. Sadly, it often proves that reality overpowers fiction. How impactful was it
to witness it?

Matthew Heineman: I
think I’d be inhuman if it didn’t impact me as a person. My goal was to really
take this issue out of the headlines. There’s been a lot of coverage especially
in Mexico, everyday you open the paper and if you turn to the back of the paper there are pictures of dead bodies. A lot of that violence is glorified in TV
shows and movies, my goal was to take this issue out of those headlines, out of
pop culture, and show really what’s happening, how real people are affected by
this narco violence, and then the response of everyday people rising up to
fight back and what happens when that happens.

Aguilar: Was it a
conscious decision to refrain from making the body count or statistics a central part of the film? Numbers tend to be cold and factual, and they can’t illustrate the whole picture.

Matthew Heineman: Yeah,
I didn’t want to have talking heads, I didn’t want experts, I didn’t want to
have stats, and I didn’t want to have government officials. I wanted to tell the
story through the eyes of the people who are living it. I wanted to put myself
right in the middle of the action. I wanted to explore a world that I’d never
seen before.

Aguilar: How difficult was it to get access to this drug-driven underworld? Why do you think people from all sides of the conflict let you in?

Matthew Heineman: They
wanted their story to be told. There’s the same common denominator no matter
what film you are making whether it’s with vigilantes in Mexico, or an
emergency room in the United States – in the case of my last film – people take
part in  documentaries because they want their story to be told and they want
other people in the world to understand what they are going through. I think
that’s why they let me in. But I think what help me get the access that I was
able to get was time. I spent almost nine months down there. One to two weeks every
month and that allowed me to sort of get into the dark corners that I was able to
get into. I developed relationships, I developed storylines, I developed
characters. That allowed me to be in the situations that developed over time.

Aguilar: Something that’s very interesting about the film is the fact that power
corrupts almost every character in it. This unfolds in the film in a really
compelling manner.

Matthew Heineman: Look,
there is absolutely nothing scripted about this film. The film evolved in a way
that I never could have predicted or imagined. It’s an exhilarating and a scary
way to make a film, you know? Bu I really didn’t want to go in with an agenda
or a point of view. I didn’t want to put these people, or these movements, or
this issue into a nice neat little box. I wanted to show the complexity, to
show the complexity of human emotions, to show the complexity of human
motivations. What pushed these people to take the law into their own hands?
What are the ramifications of that? That unravels over time.

Aguilar: It seems like your protagonists on both sides of the border think of themselves as heroes – even if they are really villains at times. Was this something you noticed right when you met them or did you discover it over time?

Matthew Heineman: When
I first set foot in Mexico I really felt like I was telling a classic
hero/villain story of guys in white shirts fighting against guys in black
shirts in the classic Western sense. Over time I realized that the
lines between good and evil became much more blurry, and the blurriness
fascinated me. It obsessed me and it drove me to want to really understand what
was happening.

Aguilar: There are
moments in the film that change our perspective of the characters. We might thing that a certain individual is truly a heroic figure and that vision is demolished by a particular actions. How did you construct these moments from the footage you gathered?

Matthew Heineman: I
think what I wanted to do in the edit room was take the audience on the journey that I
went on. I worked with my editors and I cut a little bit of it myself. The story
unfolded for me in an incredibly unpredictable way. There were moments where I
thought I understood the story, where I thought I understood what was
happening, where I thought I understood the characters, and then something would
change. Those moments where I was surprised, I wanted the audience to be
surprised. That was the goal when editing the film, to maintain that
spontaneity I felt while making the film.

Aguilar: You are and
American filmmaker that went to Mexico to make this documentary and witnessed it in the flesh, but how do you think everyday Americans
will react to it if they get a chance to see the film?

Matthew Heineman: One
thing that I hope happens is that people really see this world that they’ve
never seen before and recognize that there is a war happening in the country to
the south of us: 80,000 people killed, 20,000 people disappeared. This is our
neighbor, and this is the country that we share so much history with, that we
share a border with. We talk all about ISIS and we talk about all these groups out
in the world, but this is something that we are tied to, we are connected to it
whether we like it or not. We are buying the drugs that are the basis for this
war. We are funding this war to some degree, and this violence to some degree. It’s
a complicated issue and it’s not that simplistic, but we are connected to it. I
hope it opens people’s eyes to what’s really happening on the ground.

Aguilar: Do you worry
that people from the extreme right in the U.S, like Donald Trump, might used the film erroneously
to support their claims and point a finger at Mexico rather than admitting there is a shared responsibility?

Matthew Heineman: I
can’t really speak to Donald Trump, and I don’t particularly want to.

Aguilar:  How has the film been received in

Matthew Heineman: It’s
been amazing to see how the film has been received in Mexico. We fought really hard
to get it shown down there. That matter enormously. I fell in love with Mexico.
I fell in love with the people. I felt a huge obligation and duty to tell this
story and I’m really excited that it’s been received well and seen widely in
theaters across Mexico.

Aguilar: Have any of your subjects
seen the film yet?

Matthew Heineman: It’s
playing right now in Uruapan and Morelia, so it’s being seen in movie theaters
right now as we speak.

Aguilar: It must be
intense for people in Michoacán to see the film. It’s so recent.

Matthew Heineman:
It’s very recent. I hope it ignites a really important conversation in Mexico. That’s
the goal at least.

Aguilar: Do you think being an outsider gives you a certain perspective on the issues as opposed to the perspective that a similar film made by a Mexican filmmaker would have?

Matthew Heineman: I’ve
been asked that before. I could be a Mexican from Mexico City and Michoacán is
as different a world for me being from Mexico City, as it is for me in reality
being from New York. I could go to Memphis, Tennessee, and that’s as different
a world as Mexico is perhaps or Arizona. I think it doesn’t matter the color of
your skin, it doesn’t matter where you are from, it matters how you relate to
people, how you connect with people, and the open-mindedness with which you
approach the subject. That’s to me what matters when you are making a film, not
who you are or where you are from.


Cartel Land” is now playing in Los Angeles at ArcLight Cinemas Hollywood and in NYC at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

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