Rob McCrae, General Manager at The Gate, Notting Hill, previews this week’s Discover Tuesdays title.
Cartel Land (15)
Director: Matthew Heineman. Mexico/USA 2015. 100 mins. English, and Spanish with English subtitles.
Director Matthew Heineman must have swallowed bottles of courage pills to film Cartel Land, a documentary that shadows the drug war on the Mexico-US border. It throws in shootouts, corruption, a mysterious plane crash and an eloquent meth chef who delivers a speech that, in one moment, changes our perspective on everything we’ve just seen.
Charming, rangy, Mexican doctor José Mireles leads Autodefensas, a group set up to wrestle power back to villagers living near the border who are in the grip of the Knights Templar cartel’s sadistic regime. On the American side we have Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley, the walnut- faced leader of Arizona Border Recon. This group of army fatigue-wearing, furrow-browed, gun-cradling vigilantes patrol their territory, rounding up the scouts who prepare the way for huge drug shipments that are en route to America.
In some of many incendiary scenes, we spend quality time with the meth cooks as they stir their products in huge oil drums in a deserted prairie by haunting torchlight. The cooks wear face-covering bandanas and answer questions with a languid articulation, in a scenario that is both frightening and mesmerising.
Heineman follows Autodefensas as it becomes a movement. But as the organisation grows in size, and Mireles travels the country delivering his inspiring rhetoric, its seemingly solid principles are undermined by rumours that cartel members may have infiltrated it. Who can be trusted? Nailer, on the Arizona side, doesn’t trust anyone – he builds huge fires and stares into them, his face a furious knot of troubles, even while more people start to join him.
Back in Mexico, there are plenty of harrowing interviews with the victims of the cartel’s mindless violence. We also begin to see a darker side to Mireles and his allies, and suddenly everything we’ve learned starts swirling with uncertainty.
Heineman has gained incredible access to the differing factions – one moment recording a sotto voce request to make someone disappear, the next capturing the echoing screams of someone being tortured in a corrugated tin hut. Somehow he has found an insider’s route into this murky world, and has documented what he has uncovered.
The parabolic trajectory of the story is always shifting, and what Cartel Land perhaps concludes is that the drug war shows little sign of ever ending. One of the last scenes takes us back to the beginning: a meth chef’s devastating monologue becomes a metaphor for the endless cyclical nature of the story, and drives a final rivet into the structure of this remarkable film.
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