Film Spotlight: Cartel Land

For his new documentary Cartel Land, a film about vigilante movements against the Mexican drug cartels, director Matthew Heineman knew he didn't want to make a "policy film." So he put himself into the middle of the action to make the compelling feature. It opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.

"I was fascinated by what drives men and women to take up arms," says Heineman in a phone interview. "There's been a lot of coverage of narco violence and narco wars in the headlines down in Mexico. I wanted to get beyond the headlines and put myself in the middle of the violence to see how narco violence is affecting everyday people. I wanted to see how they fight back, and I wanted to see the ramifications of taking the law into their own hands. I didn't want to make a film from the outside. I wanted to put myself right in the middle of the action. It's a character-driven film and a film in which the story unfolded before me."

The characters are actually real. Heineman imbedded himself with two different groups, one in the States and one in Mexico. In Mexico, Dr. Mireles leads a group of armed Mexican citizens. In the States, war veteran Tim "Nailer" Foley leads a group of armed citizens. Heineman shot some 500 hours of footage and spent a year working on the movie. The film starts with a clip of some guys making meth. Heineman says it wasn't easy to get that footage.

"From the moment I stepped foot in Mexico, I wanted to get into a meth lab," he says. "Meth is the cash cow of the cartel and it's their lifeblood. Most of the meth we consume comes from Mexico and from the Templar cartel. It was important to get that. In almost every shoot, I would talk to people and ask if they knew someone. We kept getting teased and after four or five months, we gave up because it didn't seem like it would happen. On our second to last shoot, we finally got a call to be in a town square at 6 a.m. We went to the square. A group of masked men drove us through small towns and then through some fields. I knew I wanted to start the film there and eventually we decided to end it there as well."

Without giving away the film's end, suffice it to say that the vigilantes start to lose the battle. Heineman happened to be in the right spot at the right time to capture that moment.

"I'm not a war reporter," says Heineman. "I've never been in situations like this before. The war put me in some crazy situations, shootouts between the vigilantes and the cartels, meth labs in the darkness of night, places of torture I could never imagine being in. The story unravels in a way I could have never expected too."