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With unprecedented access to an evolving cartel v. vigilante situation on the US-Mexican border, director Matthew Heineman found himself on the front lines of a war that’s been brewing for decades in Cartel Lands. Told through the lens of two vigilante group leaders, Dr. José Manuel Mireles of the Mexican Autodefensas and Tim “Nailer” Foley of the US Cartel Resistance force. Both men arm themselves and work outside the confines of the state and Heineman finds himself in close quarters with these outlaws, probing their victories and defeat. His ultimate victory is in leaving the door open for his audience to assess for themselves what is right and what is wrong.

I sat down with Matthew at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival to discuss the idea of anti-heroes vs. villains, the demands of cinema verite, winning big at Sundance, distribution, the dualism of man and getting shot at.

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In Cartel Land, you play with this narrative of flawed heroes, which are very much the centerpiece of your story. To borrow a Batman phrase, you see the white knight live long enough to become the villain. Can you talk about your experience taking that in?

Matthew Heineman: I originally thought I was telling this very simplistic hero/villain story—guy in white shirts fighting against guys in white hats. But very quickly, I realized this story was much more complicated, much more grey, and this complexity fascinated me. I wanted to know more about who these guys were, what was really happening. At the end of the day, it’s a character-driven film about two very complex men, both who are 55 years old—one in Arizona, one in Michoacán, Mexico. Both who are leading vigilante groups; both who believe that the government has failed them; both who have taken the law into their own hands, to fight for what they believe in. Obviously, the context of Michoacán, in Mexico: I’m shooting extreme and gruesome violence. 80,000+ people killed since 2007; 20,000+ people disappeared. In Arizona, we’re not seeing the violence, obviously. It’s much more theoretical, and more a fear that the violence will be coming across our borders.

What about the story that you were trying to tell, and the specific narrative you were trying to get across to your audience, demanded that you tell it with these two sides to the story—the American side and the Mexican side?

MH: Nothing demanded it. It’s what I was drawn to.

Let me narrow the question down a little. Did the one beget the other, or did you find out about both of them at the same time?

MH: I made this healthcare film before this called Escape Fire, about how the healthcare system is broken, and I was very proud of it. But I wanted to make a much more immersive, experiential, on-the-ground, character-driven film, and I was in the subway and read this Rolling Stone articled called “Border of Madness” by Damon Tabor. And it featured Tim “Nailer” Foley, Arizona Border ReCon, and the Arizona vigilantes, and I was just fascinated. It was a world I knew nothing about. I knew nothing about the border; I knew nothing about vigilantism; I knew nothing about the drug wars. I gained his trust; I gained access to him and his men. So I started filming that. The film was originally just about the Arizona side. And then after four or five months, my father sent me an articled from The Washington post about “El Doctor”, the citizen uprising that he was leading against the Knights Templar cartel. And right when I read it, I knew I wanted to create this parallel narrative; and so that’s when the film totally shifted.

With the two of these guys, were you always in somewhat of an observational stance, or did you have much say as to where their stories were going? Did you ever think about actually stepping in and manipulating the narrative, and being like, “Hey, maybe we should have you guys meet, and see what that would be like?”

MH: No. I was just in an interview, where someone said, “You did some beautiful recreations.” There’s absolutely nothing recreated. It’s a pure verité film where we captured life as it unfolds. The idea of stepping in and asking any of the characters to manipulate the story is not only wrong, but antithetical to what I believe is the basis for a documentary film. Although we always intellectually have to be fascinated for them to meet. We sort of role-played that in our head.

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In terms of the intensity of the situations that you found yourself in—some of the things depicted on the screen are fairly harrowing. In some scene, you’re in a car that’s being shot at: how harrowing was that experience for you, just in terms of being a living, breathing human being getting shot at?

MH: I’m not a war reporter. I’ve never been in situations like this before, so it was incredibly frightening and disturbing. I think, for me, being behind the camera shooting a lot of this stuff myself, I found solace in that: focusing on focusing, focusing on exposing, focusing on framing—the craft of filmmaking sort of calmed me down a lot in those situations.

Speaking of the craft of filmmaking: you won some directing awards and the film won the Special Jury Award for Cinematography over at Sundance this year. How has that affected the release platform of the film, and what are your hopes for the film going forward?

MH: I think my hopes and dreams are the same as any other filmmaker’s: to get the film out there in as big a way as possible. I’m feeling very grateful the film’s being released in theaters by The Orchard in July; and it’ll be on A&E Indie films. It should be through the A&E Indie Films banner, through Molly Thompson, who’s been an incredible Executive Producer on the film. I just hope the film gets seen as widely as possible.

Has the acclaim had much effect in terms of a wider release?

MH: Of course. It never hurts. We were very excited to announce yesterday that Kathryn Bigelow came on to executive produce the film, and help promote it as well.

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One of the things that I find so fascinating about the narrative that the story tells is that Dr. Jose Mireles—when we meet him, he seems like such a charismatic guy with a very, very just cause. And then, the more we get to know about him, the more shady some of his character traits begin to become. So I’m just curious: is that something that you discovered throughout your course of filming him, or is that something that was immediately apparent: this dualism to his character?

MH: It definitely revealed itself over time. The access, the trust that we gained, the rapport that we had together—he definitely opened up his life more over time. But I think that dualism is within all of us. Last night at the screening, I had someone get almost angry at me for including some of those other moments, shall we say. I don’t particularly want to record that. To me, it’s human life. It’s who he is. I didn’t intend to create a whitewashed portrait of either of these men. I wanted to create a real, complex, dynamic portrait.

So while you’re going about editing this, there’s no thought to, “Maybe I leave the harsh reality on the cutting room floor”?

MH: No! That’s what we do. I’m here documenting a movement of citizens rising up to fight against cartel. It’s as much a story about that as about the men who are doing that, and what drives men to do that. And that’s a questions that’s plagued me, too: what would I do? What would I do if my cousin was hanging from a bridge, and my wife was raped? Would I take up arms? Would I fight violence with violence? Would I become a vigilante? Is that sustainable? Is that right? Is that just? Those are questions that really fascinated me.

Continuing on that thread, I think your film is really craftily able to manipulate our response to this violence, first in showing us firsthand witnesses of the cartel violence, these people giving these harrowing accounts; and then, making us as audience members thirst for vengeance of some sort. And then we actually see the vengeance taking place and it’s really disturbing to watch. Can you talk about that dichotomy?

MH: I’m not exactly sure what that is to you; but to me, in the editing process, with three very talented editors, and then I edited it as well a little bit—so sort of a crazy experiment in having four people cutting a film. Constantly through the post process, I wanted to have the audience experience the emotional highs and lows that I felt on the ground. I really believe in this idea; I really believed that this experiment might work. And then, slowly over time, as things changed, I wanted the audience to go through the emotional rollercoaster that I went through.

So what is your ultimate take on their particular brand of vigilante justice? Do you think that this is a sustainable model? Do you think this – citizens rising up to defend themselves – is something that is inherently positive, or are the flaws too many, and too great?

MH: It’s a really complicated thing to answer simply. I think that the idea of standing up when your government is not protecting you, the idea of standing up and fighting against evil—I think we see that not only in Michoacán, Mexico, or on the Arizona border; we’re seeing that all throughout the world, and we’ve seen that throughout history, and we’ll continue to see that throughout our future. So, I think men and women will always rise up to try to fight against something that they don’t agree with or believe in. But I think the big question—we’ve also see with American foreign policy—what’s the long-term gain? How do we make these changes sustainable or lasting? And I think that’s inherently the problem with vigilantism: you might win, you might get rid of the bad guy…then what happens?

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For more Silver Screen Riot interviews, check out more of our “Talking With…” series here.

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