Cartel Land (2015)

Director: Matthew Heineman
Cinematographers: Matthew Heineman & Matt Porwoll
Composers: Jackson Greenberg & H. Scott Salinas

I watched this documentary last night and can honestly say that this was the most troubling film I have ever seen. I am still coming to terms with what I watched and am grappling with all the information and images and experiencing one of the biggest emotional and intellectual reactions to something I have ever experienced. I don’t know how much this is a review or if it’s really a collection of thoughts, but I know that I experienced greatness on the part of the documentary’s director Matthew Heineman, for showcasing such artistry in the assembling, editing, and courage for putting together this masterpiece that truly rivals most movies, let alone any documentary I’ve seen.

This has been quite the year with films and media chronicling issues with drugs and cartels pertaining especially to Central and South America, as already Sicario and Netflix’s Narcos have equally garnered praise and attention. In comparison, though, those stories are fairytales for children, as this is also a terrifying account of issues concerning cartels, drug production, resistance, vigilanteism, and government trustworthiness. For the vast majority of Cartel Land I wasn’t quite sure how to feel. Heineman’s lens didn’t seem to judge or question anything being said or done, allowing the images to seemingly speak for themselves, and allowing the subjects of the film, Mexican anti-cartel Autodefensas and US border vigilantes, to manipulate the entire conversation. It wasn’t until the credits rolled and I was trying to recover from the metaphorical blow to my stomach that I truly realized what I had been witnessing for the previous hour and forty minutes.

It’s so easy, especially when analyzing events in retrospect, to paint with large brush strokes history as either black or white. We tend to shun grey as a confusing mess of a hue, it’s harder to analyze and the various shades and minutiae that can exist within it are sometimes too horrifying to grapple with. Bad vs. Good is so easy and comforting. Terrorist vs. Hero. We vilify people for making a mistake or committing a crime because it is just more comforting to essentialize someone as a criminal or a bad person than try to differentiate a behavior or characteristic we dislike in an otherwise agreeable person. It’s terrifying to think of a world that is much less demarcated than we have convinced ourselves of. We choose sides and wear labels because of these ideologies and blindly believe the lies that we ourselves propagate and ascribe to in order to keep going and make the world keep making sense.

The Mexican cartels behead people, rape women, commit heinous crimes, rob and usurp from the poor. Those who fight them are the good guys. They bravely give up their lives, sacrifice themselves, put themselves in harm’s way for the good of their fellow put-upon citizens. But the Autodefensas are not working within the confines of legality. Where does their ammunition come from? What is their endgame? Do they disband when the job is over? Is the job ever over? Who fights among them? What happens if/when they begin exhibiting some of the same traits seen in the cartel behavior? And then there’s the government itself which has not done anything to curb cartel behavior and hasn’t gone after these very prominent and public figures. The army and police are possibly corrupt, but how far corruption reaches is as easy to tell as it is easy to extract cancer from a body once it has metastasized in every single major organ of the human body. And I haven’t even broached the topic of what is happening on the American side of the situation.

I was left bewildered, angry, depressed, confused, agitated, paranoid, and a myriad of other emotional reactions after my viewing experience. I am still trying to deal with all of them. I know that any possible simply demarcations I had made in my mind to explain the situation to myself have now been swept into a mess that will never be able to be neatly reconstructed. If that was the goal of this documentary, then mission accomplished. It was an unforgettable experience that will haunt my approach to my own personal ideologies in any category for the rest of my life. So… thanks, I guess?

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