Cartel Land

 

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On both sides of the US/Mexican border unimaginable corruption and brutality is taking place, a reality captured in visceral detail in this Oscar-nominated documentary.

 

We are living in a golden age of the theatrical documentary. While small-screen editions continually dumb down into formulaic, reality-TV “journeys,” the large-screen equivalent is taking cinema into a whole new direction. And just as big-budget cinema aims for ever greater realism with fuzzy imagery and hand-held camerawork, so its cousin in the world of non-fiction is becoming increasingly more sophisticated.

 

Cartel Land

 

As the technology becomes lighter on its feet, so directors like Matthew Heineman can blend in with their subjects like invisible collaborators. In fact, Heineman’s Cartel Land is so beautifully photographed and narratively engrossing that one forgets that what is unfolding on screen is actually happening – for real.

 

Setting his tale on both sides of the US/Mexican border, Heineman has infiltrated both cultures as a confidant – an ear and eyes for the outside world. His greatest feat, besides his consummate craftsmanship, is his access to the drama on the ground. And so there’s genuine character development, twists in his story of blurred morality and moments of edge-of-your-seat action. And Heineman takes no prisoners. He is the neutral intimate of vigilantes staking out the US border in Altar Valley, Arizona; he is the confessor of masked cartel members who admit that they are in cahoots with the Mexican government; and he mingles freely with the villagers who take up arms against the drug traffickers that have blighted their lives.

 

Once one forgets that this is not fiction, Heineman’s film makes for harrowing viewing. A haunted widow tells of how she was forced to watch her husband burned alive, before being tossed into his grave. There are scenes of brutal interrogation, shoot-outs and incriminating flirtations. And then there’s the devastatingly beautiful scenery and the charismatic presence of José Manuel Mireles Valverde. A doctor with the human touch, Mireles is seen at work, interacting with the townspeople he professes to defend and, later, ordering the death of a man without trial. Here, good and evil blend seamlessly and, amazingly, Matthew Heineman was there to record it all.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Dir Matthew Heineman, Pro Matthew Heineman and Tom Yellin, Ex Pro Kathryn Bigelow, Ph Matthew Heineman and Matt Porwoll, Ed Matthew Hamachek, Matthew Heineman, Bradley J. Ross and Pax Wassermann, Music Jackson Greenberg and H. Scott Salinas.

 

The Documentary Group/Our Time Projects-Dogwoof Pictures.

100 mins. USA/Mexico. 2015. Rel: 4 September 2015. Cert. 15.