Cartel Land - NZFF Review

NZFF Review - Cartel Land

The insidious damage done by drugs is given the on the ground treatment in this doco.

It starts like something out of Breaking Bad with mysterious figures, bandanas over their mouths, brewing up crystal meth in the desert under the cover of dark. As the camera watches the swirls of the drug rise up above, a voice intones "We are the number one meth cooks in Mexico" and at once captures the conflict in a nutshell.

Director Matthew Heineman had unprecedented access to both sides of the conflict in this; and it shows through an electrifying doco that very calmly plants itself in the middle of the drug cartel issue and never sways.

Following both Tim "Nailer" Foley, an American who runs the Arizona Border Recon and Dr Jose Mireles, a Mexican based physician who leads the Autodefensas, a vigilante style group determined to wrest control back from the cartels and the government itself.

It's not a film that flinches from the horror the cartels inflict on those around them either; shots of a trio of heads, the victims of crossing the cartel are gruesome in the extreme, a reminder that this war is very real and this justice is disgustingly shocking. Posing questions of what would you do if the drug lords came for your town, the cameras follow the self-appointed Autodefensas and its Lee Marvin-esque leader Mireles as the townships embrace him, his group's position and the chance to claw back power.

Heineman is thick in the fray of the conflict; when the bullets fly, his cameras are there; when the Autodefensas believe they've tracked down two men who are responsible for a series of atrocities, they are there on the raid - and they're also there to capture the raw emotion of the victims of the cartel, and the anger that threatens to bubble up as justice catches up to the wrong doers.

In many ways, Cartel Land is an electrifying modern day portrait of a Wild West scenario, with sides squaring up to each other; rather than using talking heads, Heineman's insistence on filming a live document makes it all the more powerful. If it weren't a documentary, you can imagine Hollywood coming a-calling as this explosive piece of film-making leads to its shocking denouement.

Along the way, there's corruption, surprises and pathos; while it's probably fair to say that Cartel Land works better when it follows the Mireles story rather than Foley's patrolling the borders, it's only because Mireles' tale is set in the heartland of the conflict. It's a place where retribution and revenge are insidious and strike when least expected, leading the viewer to wonder who is actually winning this never-ending war. No-one appears right, and the innocent soon crumble to the daily pressure of experience, and the growing power of revolution.

Plus the final scenes of the doco are incredible, sending everything you've just watched into a tailspin and give you an urgency to experience it all again through new eyes.

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