In Cartel Land a meth cook on the Mexican side of the border tells the camera how he learned to manufacture the drug: "A father and son came from America to teach us," he says, before adding that the Americans studied chemistry. There's an unmistakable resemblance to Breaking Bad — or rather, Breaking Bad unmistakably resembles the reality portrayed in the feature-length documentary Cartel Land, which recently premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
In the media, there are two common ways the drug war unfolding on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border is portrayed: it is written about, in the form of investigative journalism and unfathomably bleak news stories, or it is used as the backdrop for Hollywood-style entertainment. Cartel Land bridges the gap between the two forms: its stunning cinematography lends it the air of a narrative film, and its exploration of the human cost of an intractable war is what gives it the feel of long-form, written investigative journalism.
For Cartel Land, director Matthew Heineman deservedly took home the Best Director Award and Special Jury Award for Cinematography (the latter with co-DP Matt Porwoll) in Sundance's U.S. Documentary competition. NFS sat down with Heineman at the festival to talk about his approach to documenting a world of meth labs, machine guns, bulletproof vests, and staggering human loss.
A transcript of the video interview follows.
We had a security firm that was following us with a tracking beacon in case we got kidnapped; we wore bulletproof vests.
No Film School: Can you tell us what Cartel Land is about?
Matthew Heineman: It's a story about vigilantism. It's about citizens who've taken the law into their own hands. I'm following one group in Arizona, one group in Mexico, both who share a common enemy: the murderous Mexican drug cartels.
NFS: How did you gain access to and infiltrate this world?
MH: It took many months to get access to both groups. I'd read a story in Rolling Stone about the Arizona vigilantes and it opened up this world that I knew nothing about, and right when I read it I knew it could be a really fascinating film. I spent months first getting in touch with them and then gaining their trust, and I filmed with them for about four or five months.
My dad actually sent me an article in The Wall Street Journal about Mexican vigilantes who are fighting back against the cartel south of the border and just this bell went off. I was like, wow this could be this really cool parallel story.
It's really tragic what's happening in Mexico: 80,000 people have been killed in the drug war, 20,000-plus people missing.
NFS: What precautions did you take when you were filming, surrounded by violence and weapons?
MH: I've never been a war zone. I've never been in the types of situations that I found myself in. We took a lot of precautions. Mexico is a whole different world: it's lawless, it's you really feel like you're in the wild west and there's really no sense of government intuitions. It's really tragic what's happening in Mexico: 80,000 people have been killed in the drug war, 20,000-plus people missing. This is a situation that we knew we were going into a really dangerous situation, where citizens were rising up to fight back against the cartel.
We had a security firm that was following us with a tracking beacon in case we got kidnapped; we wore bulletproof vests. Everyday when we got up in the morning, we'd have a series of different journalists that we'd call to triangulate where we were so they knew what roads we'd be driving on. Then obviously, you gain an on-the-ground sense of the danger and how to avoid it. We'd always have a certain getaway car in case we had to leave quickly. Again, I had no idea the situation I would find myself in: shootouts, meth labs, things that I never could've predicted.
NFS: How long were you embedded and what was your crew like?
MH: We took about four or five different trips down to Arizona over the course of a year. I spent about two weeks each time down there with them. The Mexico story, we originally thought we were just going to go down there for a week or two to see what it was like, to see whether this could develop into something and the minute I got down there I knew that this story was incredible.
It originally was the story of good versus evil and then slowly over time, as we peeled away the onion, as we spent more and more time down there, we realized that the story of good and evil was a little more gray than we thought. We ended up spending about two weeks out of every month down in Mexico, for about a year.
NFS: You've had two documentaries you've directed and produced premiere at Sundance now. What advice would you have for other documentary filmmakers?
MH: I feel so, so lucky to be here. It's an incredible place to premiere your film, to showcase your film, to generate buzz around your film. The Sundance Institute's been incredibly supportive of me as a filmmaker, incredibly supportive of this film. I will say I feel like a lot of people feel like Sundance is the only place, and "if I don't get into Sundance, what am I going to do?" There's so many beautiful festivals out there. There's so many wonderful places to premiere a film and this is not the only place to do so. I think you make the best film you can and you let the documentary Gods decide what happens to it.
Is it just for citizens to take up arms to fight violence with violence? What would you do if violence came to your front door?
NFS: One of the things I think was so effective for me was asking the question, what would you do? You have a number of parties in this film picking up arms on both sides of the border. What questions do you hope this film raises regarding violence, both in America and Mexico, and are those different questions or are they more universal?
MH: I think the central question that I was trying to answer is, is it just for citizens to take up arms to fight violence with violence? What would you do if violence came to your front door? Those are the questions that drove me at every step along the way.
NFS: When you're filming for as long as you were — you have several editors in the film — how long did you take to shape it and when did you know that you were finished?
MH: The edit was a crazy process, I originally started editing with this super talented editor Matthew Hamachek when we were still shooting, and then early summer/late spring, we realized, "hey, maybe we can make the Sundance deadline," so I ended up bringing on two other talented editors, Bradley Ross, who edited my last film, and Pax Wassermann, and I edited myself a little bit. It was just an amazing dynamic.
I'd never done anything like it, this ego-less collaboration where one person cut a scene and we'd workshop it and send it to somebody else and send it back and forth through the different rooms. It was a really, really unique way of making a film and I think ultimately it made the film so much better. Obviously, I had to make sure we had one voice and that the film was flowing and making sense as a cohesive piece.
We knew we were done when we had to be done to get the film here. I never ever thought that we'd actually have time finesse the story before getting here, but having four editors we actually finished a pretty good rough cut in time to allow us to really finesse the story. I have very few regrets at this point and I'm really happy with where we are.
NFS: As filmmakers we're always evolving and learning from each project. What were some of the lessons you learned on this one?
MH: I made a film, Escape Fire, about healthcare in the U.S. It's a film I'm very proud of, but in some ways I felt very shackled by the form, as an investigative doc about our healthcare system. I really wanted to artistically break free of that mold and make a film that was more of the type of film that I wanted make, a deeply personal film. A film in which I was embedded with people for months and months and months, a character-driven film in which we use characters and their paths and their journeys to speak about larger themes.
A mentor of mine in the film world once said, "You know if you end up with the story you started with you weren't listening along the way."
It's a really arduous way of making a film because we had absolutely no idea where the story was going to go. A mentor of mine in the film world once said, "You know if you end up with the story you started with you weren't listening along the way," and that maxim really held true with this film. You could go down into Mexico, thinking you're going to get one thing — we'd plan all this stuff thinking that we're going to get this story point — and the story was shifting in this way that you get down there and just a completely different thing would happen.
We were constantly evolving and analyzing where the story's going, how it fits in, how it's arching, and, obviously, how do we end it? I think that process really helped me evolve as a filmmaker.