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‘Cartel Land’: Capturing Conflict and Conflicting Perspectives

Cartel Land is a harrowing look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy: the Mexican drug cartels

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman didn’t set out to put himself in the middle of a standoff between the Mexican military and a heavily armed vigilante group. Nor did he intend to spend any time crouched inside a car taking fire from members of a drug cartel. But his work on the feature documentary Cartel Land took him into both of those situations—and more.

The film was initially inspired by an article Heineman read about an American vigilante group in Arizona that militantly patrols the border with Mexico, which its members believe is far too penetrable, but as he prepared to investigate this story, he encountered another article—this one about the massive power of the Mexican drug cartel Knights Templar, and a local citizens vigilante group calling itself Autodefensas. Heineman came to realize his story needed to document the situation on both sides of the border.

At left, Tim “Nailer” Foley, leader of Arizona Border Recon

Cartel Land is a harrowing look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy: the Mexican drug cartels. Nine months of filming took him on patrols with American vigilantes on this side of the border and into cartel-run meth labs and hideouts of the Autodefensas in Mexico. Part of what makes Cartel Land so chilling is the fact that as his investigation progresses, it becomes less clear who’s really working for whom. How do we tell the heroes from the villains?

As disconcerting as that may be for Cartel Land’s audiences, it was considerably more so for Heineman. “I’m not a war reporter,” he says. “I’d never been in situations like that. Many times I felt extraordinarily uncomfortable, but I think this is a very important story to tell. I never felt I was just there to get this footage. Every moment played into the larger story.”

Autodefensas members in Michoacán, Mexico

Heineman shot the majority of the material in Mexico himself, with shooter Matt Porwoll gathering additional material or acting as a second camera in large group situations. The crew had to be small, with just the shooters, a local fixer and a local producer capable of making introductions to Knights Templars and Autodefensas members—none of whom were willing to appear on camera until Heineman and the fixers convinced them he was there purely to document and not to take sides. The trust-building process often took many days or weeks before Heineman was permitted access. He was eventually able to bring cameras to meth labs, secret strategy meetings and even violent interrogations.

Director/producer Matthew Heineman

Both Heineman and Porwoll used Canon EOS C300s for just about everything. (For some time lapse effects and drone shots, the team turned to Canon DSLRs, particularly the EOS 5D Mk II and EOS-1D C.) “I don’t think any other camera available at the time would have allowed me to make this film the way I did,” Heineman says. “I don’t like to shoot with DSLRs. [The EOS C300] is ergonomically much better than a DSLR, but it’s still small. It allowed me to shoot in run-and-gun situations but have steady moves. I could be jammed into the back of a car during an interrogation without having a bunch of equipment everywhere.”

The shooters captured the images in Canon log, “to give us more room to [manipulate images] in post,” he notes. He recorded audio into the camera with a small on-camera mic or lavalier where possible. To keep things simple, Heineman adds, “we shot the whole film on two lenses: the 17-55mm and 24-105,” both Canon E mount. The only after-market addition the shooters used was the DB Premium eyepiece. “We put those over the viewfinder and it really helped us to shoot in really bright sunlight.”

As he wound down shooting, he and a team of editors—Matthew Hamachek, Bradley J. Ross and Pax Wassermann—started work on the roughly 500 hours of material, with a number of festival submission deadlines just months away. The edit took place in Apple Final Cut Pro 7. “It was a crazy experience, four people cutting a film,” he says. “We started out with each of us taking a different storyline, and by the end, we all had our hands on every scene. It was a really wonderful team environment.”

It’s not a spoiler to say that a lot of the good guy/bad guy ambiguity that plagued Heineman mid-production makes its way to the final film. “We had the freedom to take the story wherever it needed to go,” he says. “I started out thinking I was telling one story and then it went in directions I never could have imagined. That’s the type of filmmaking I love!”