Cartel Land

By Christopher Redmond

Mailed on January 29, 2016

Stamp image Priority
StarStarStarStarHalf Star

Dear Daniel Carter
Camera Operator

Dear Daniel,

You’re one crazy sonofabitch, aren’t you? Embedding yourself with gun-toting mercenaries, meth cooks, and cartel members is not exactly a sane way to make a paycheque. The fact that director/producer/cinematographer/editor Matthew Heineman seems willing to put his life on the line is one thing – he gets all the final glory if things go right. But you’re just a hired gun (sorry, bad metaphor). I don’t exactly know which scenes you filmed, but whether it was State-side with armed minute-men hunting drug traffickers, or following a mini-revolution within Mexico, the chance of you getting shot before getting the shot you wanted seemed stupidly high.

But damn. What a hell of film.

There’s no shortage of movies about the U.S. government’s bloody war on drugs. Cartel Land, however, ups the ante by actually going into the trenches with the foot soldiers who are either profiting from the chaos, or simply trying to protect their home.

The film starts off with a deceptively slow-pace, with drug producers being interviewed in an undisclosed desert location at night. The masked interviewee is calm, thoughtful and personable. He’s fully aware that the drugs they’re making in Mexico are ruining people’s lives, but he’s also fairly unapologetic about his participation. After all, he’s out of options. This humanizing introduction is an important touch that I thought back on a lot over the course of the film, especially when horror stories are relayed about how the cartels take over small towns. One woman in particular goes into gory detail about the ways the cartel assert their control over the population by brutally murdering not only men and women, but infants and children. Thank God you didn’t capture any of that.

But you do come pretty close, especially during a climactic raid by the Autodefensas – a paramilitary group trying to reclaim one cartel-run Mexican town at a time. The shoot-out is so intense that I had to remind myself this was a documentary. People’s lives are at risk – including yours – during the sequence of events. It was the most breathtaking scene I’ve watched all year.

The visuals throughout the film are powerful, with beautiful compositions not only during the less intense transitional moments, but also when you’re under fire. How you guys managed to keep your trigger fingers operating a zoom lens while bullets are whizzing by, or while people are being interrogated at gun point, is a truly compelling feat of cinematography.

Heinman’s approach totally immerses the audience in the chaos. There are no voiceovers to tie together the different stories we’re following, and no convenient confrontation linking the subjects together. They are just two sides of the same coin, making up the complicated cross-border battlefront of the drug war that most of us are blessedly removed from. You helped bring it into our lives in a very real way.

Stay safe, man.



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