Saturday, 14 November 2015

Cartel Land

Everyone likes a good drug thriller. Look at Breaking Bad – the award-winning tale of a chemistry teacher Walter White turned drug kingpin Heisenberg kept audiences on the edges of their seats for 5 seasons, and entered the Guinness World Records in 2013 as the highest rated show of all time. And of course Scarface, one of the most iconic films of the 1980s, told the story of Tony Montana – yes, another drug kingpin. And Narcos, Netflix’s story of drug lord Pablo Escobar, is currently one of the most viewed shows on the streaming service. But we can enjoy these films and shows in comfort, knowing the extreme violence we’re witnessing is all just make-believe! That sort of thing would never happen! Yay, the world is safe and happy! Wrong. Here comes a documentary to show you the real world of the drugs trade, and the real violence that comes with it.

Out now on DVD comes Cartel Land, an alarming documentary executively produced by Kathryn Bigelow and directed by Matthew Heineman. Cartel Land is an engrossing on-the-ground look at the lives of two vigilante groups and their shared enemy - the violent, murderous Mexican drug cartels. In the Mexican state of Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as "El Doctor," leads the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the violent Knights Templar drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Meanwhile, in Arizona's Altar Valley - a narrow, 52-mile-long desert corridor known as Cocaine Alley - Tim "Nailer" Foley, an American veteran, heads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, whose goal is to stop Mexico's drug wars from seeping across our border. Director Matthew Heineman embeds himself in the heart of darkness as Nailer, El Doctor, and the cartel each vie to bring their own brand of justice to this dark, twisted society where no form of government or law enforcement seem brave enough to intervene.

Cartel Land is an extremely cinematic piece of work. With its 2.35:1 aspect ratio and darkly violent subject matter, Cartel Land doesn’t feel like a documentary. You could easily be watching Sicario or Traffic with production values like this. The cinematography and score are immensely powerful and make for an incredible viewing experience. And therein lies the power of Cartel Land. Watching the harrowing story unfold is uncomfortable viewing at the best of times, but when you remind yourself this is not fiction, the punches pack so much more strength. Director Matthew Heineman’s brave adventure is worthy of praise in itself – rather than talking about the dangerous situations from the safety of a studio or office, he’s right there on the frontlines with the vigilantes and his camera, with bullets flying all over the place. 

Cartel Land features a lot of nerve-racking combat scenes and general violence and horror, but it isn’t all like this. We spend a lot of intimate time with the documentary’s subjects, too – some have criticised the film for this, as the film arguably doesn’t spend enough time discussing the wider causes and problems in the modern drug war. But this film isn’t out to stop the problem, or figure out why the problem is there. It’s to open our eyes to it and show us the true terror going on in that part of the world. A particularly visceral sequence describes a cartel slaughter – “they grabbed babies by their tiny feet and smashed them against the rocks”. Despicable, disgusting, shocking and something the world needs to know.

Cartel Land is a chilling, disturbing portrayal of total collapse of law and order - and one of the finest and most important documentaries of recent years. Perhaps now when we watch Walter White’s adventures from the comfort of our living rooms, we’ll think twice about those who have truly suffered at the hands of real drug lords.

Dark, violent and engrossing; Cartel Land is one of the best documentaries of recent times. 5/5.


Sam Love

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