A physician in Michoacán, Mexico leads a citizen uprising against the drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Across the U.S. border, a veteran heads a paramilitary group working to prevent Mexico's drug wars from entering U.S. territory.Written by
Although he hasn't made the technical "best" documentary of the year), it's hard to see a documentary filmmaker who stuck his neck out more, literally, than Matthew Heienman to make Cartel Land (maybe Joshua Oppenheimer, in his way, put himself in danger to make his Indonesia docs, but he wasn't caught up in anything like this). He puts himself into some incredibly dangerous scenes, and from what I could tell it's not at all the case of him trying to get some extra dramatics or tension where there is none. On the contrary he follows the Mexican group the Autodefensas (at times when they are in the midst of shoot-outs and enemy fire) in their rise to become a major presence in Michoacan, Mexico, as well as how they became corrupted by the very forces they are/were up against.
So points automatically have to go to the director for that, and he clearly is passionate about this issue - and as the wisest choice he doesn't put himself into it in the slightest (very much the objective, here and there more like a war cine-journalist when with his camera on the streets and roads and interrogation rooms). But I do wish that he had stuck to the story of the Doctor Meirelles and his group, as he and the world that he's in is just more captivating and stronger as a story of a rise and fall than that of the American who is supposed to be the 'counter-point' or other side example.
His story, as a man who has split off from society (in part due to the 2008 economic collapse, among other issues), and formed a small would be (?) militia patrolling parts of the Mexican border for immigrants, could be compelling. But it's not even so much that the contrast or point-counter-point of him and the Doctor might not have some interest (I think the point ultimately is one guy really is fighting for his life and for others, and the other is more about rounding up illegal immigrants where, for some reason, border patrol doesn't seem to be around), it's more a flaw of filmmaking. I think that if Heineman had kept it all down as a story of the Autodefensas, he would have a full movie to tell, and indeed the two places - on the US/Mexico border and Michoacan, which is over a thousand miles away to the south - are so far apart that they don't have much relation to one another exactly. Of course the cartels are a problem in one spot as much as the other, yet on a simple film editing level, it throws off the balance.
This could have been two documentaries, perhaps, again to bring up Oppenheimer, as compliments to one another. It's a shame that it doesn't work much better, since there's a lot of potent, incendiary stuff here. When Cartel Land works best, it all but indicts a country for not doing far more than it should, or what the president or government claims to do (again, this is the documentary, I'd have to read up more to know if the filmmaker doesn't show more sides to what the police or other military forces may or may be doing for the Autodefensas to rise up in the first place), and that corruption and crime becomes just a fact of life. It displays another form of terrorism that seems not as apparent as, say, Islamic fundamentalism but is no less a threat to the people where it takes place, though oddly enough what the film shows is the danger of vigilantism as well.
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