Directed by Matthew Heineman
How rare, and what a thrill, to see a documentary that could double in large part as its own narrative remake. Most docs are woefully uncinematic, strings of talking heads and archival footage that too often ends with links to “for further information” websites. Cartel Land, exhilaratingly, could not be translated into an op-ed piece.
As the title implies, the film considers modern narcotic trafficking, but while dealers and manufacturers do appear (masked, with one shocking exception), the primary focus is on the vigilante groups—on both sides of the border—fighting back. In Mexico, a small-town physician forms one such group, becoming a folk hero, while stateside, a veteran marshals a militia to monitor the border. Both sides raise important questions about how much citizens should step in if the official apparatus to provide security fails, while the leaders of both sides sometimes seem just as ominous as their opponents.
The War on Drugs is too big a topic for any film to go into fully, but some context would be helpful. Both sides seem to relish living out machismo fantasies, shooting into the air in celebration, so their necessity and effectiveness is uncertain, making it difficult to know how to evaluate their role in the issue. Nonetheless, director Matthew Heineman has made a tremendous work, getting so close to the action that you fear for the camera operators. The filmmaking itself is extraordinary, so one can forgive it if it gives less basic reportage. It’s difficult to imagine someone making a more vivid depiction of this issue.
A theatrical release is planned for this year.