Some of the most galvanizing moments in documentary history have resulted from intrepid filmmakers bringing their cameras into volatile situations: The killing of Meredith Hunter at Altamont in Gimme Shelter; the gunfire that greeted protesters during a miners’ strike in Harlan County, USA; the camera getting swept up into street clashes during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as director Haskell Wexler was shooting the real-world backdrop of Medium Cool. But the rise of digital filmmaking—which has allowed documentarians to film endlessly on very small cameras—has lately led to the proliferation of ride-along docs that give viewers the visceral experience of being in real danger.
One of our favorite movies out of the True/False Film Festival last spring, Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land will make you appreciate the director’s courageous/crazy willingness to put himself literally and repeatedly in the line of fire. But the film isn’t a mere stunt: By cross-cutting between two vigilante operations on different sides of the U.S./Mexico border, Heineman reveals the idealism and delusion of men who strongly believe the government has lost its fight against the cartels and it’s time for citizens to step up. On the Mexico side, Heineman follows Dr. Mireles Valverde, the founder of Autodefensas, an armed and organized grassroots organization that attempts to push the Knights Templar cartel out of the Michoácan region. On the American side, he follows Tim “Nailer” Foley, who heads up a vigilante group in Arizona that tries to beat back the scouts and mules trafficking drugs through the hillsides surrounding the border.
The first trailer for Cartel Land emphasizes the life-or-death stakes of the film and the moral conviction of two men who believe, perhaps naively, that they’re standing up for good in the face of pervasive, seemingly unstoppable evil. Let’s take a look, shall we?
The trail of the tape
Title: Cartel Land
Director: Matthew Heineman
Release date: July 3, 2015
The entire trailer in one line of dialogue: “If you’re seeing this, it’s because I’m no longer alive.”
The entire trailer in one screengrab:
Whew. The sweat is dripping from my brow, too, and that trailer is just a taste of the action. But the true brilliance of Cartel Land is that Heineman isn’t merely a danger-seeker pulling a conceptual stunt; when the dust settles, the film arrives at sophisticated conclusions about the drug war and the flaws and compromises that go along with getting in the middle of it. Expect much more from us when the film hits limited release next month.