If there's a dominant trend among high-profile documentaries over the last couple of years, it involves a move away from contextualizing information in favor of immersive experiences for filmmakers and viewers. Gone are the expert talking heads that used to bring perspective and credibility to earnest examinations of typically complex subjects. In their place we find intrepid filmmakers embedding themselves in formerly off-limits, sometimes dangerous settings in hopes of revealing hidden worlds.
The latest example is Matthew Heineman's Oscar-nominated Cartel Land, for which the writer/director found his way inside vigilante groups on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border to illuminate the Mexican drug wars that have raged for a decade. Like many films that embrace immersive methods to the exclusion of all else, Cartel Land delivers a frustratingly incomplete portrait of its subject. It also presents a series of revelatory, often shocking scenes that get to the heart of an increasingly violent and corrupt 21st-century world.
The background information not included in Cartel Land paints a bleak picture of the social ills caused by the Mexican drug trade. After decades of relative quiet, the crime organizations (or cartels) in Mexico that largely control the U.S. market for crystal methamphetamine and cocaine escalated a turf war that resulted in an estimated 63,000 deaths between 2006 and 2012. Border towns like Juarez, Mexico suddenly ranked among the most dangerous places on earth. A $1.6 billion effort mounted against cartels in 2007 by the U.S. and Mexico seemed to increase the rate of drug-related homicides. Meanwhile, the threat of violence spilling over the border into Texas and Arizona began to influence public debate over illegal immigration in the U.S.
Heineman conceived a way into this sprawling topic after reading journalistic pieces about two vigilante groups. Arizona Border Recon is a paramilitary organization founded by American veteran Tim "Nailer" Foley in Arizona's Altar Valley to stem the flow of drugs and violence from Mexico. Autodefensas was developed in the Mexican state of Michoacan by charismatic leader Dr. Jose Mireles Valverde to take back — by whatever means necessary — the rural towns that had come under control of the Knights Templar cartel. After lengthy negotiations, Heineman gained unprecedented access to each organization's activities and inner workings.
Not knowing exactly where that access would lead, Heineman shot Cartel Land by himself or with a small crew in often life-threatening situations, including multiple shootouts and a harrowing pair of interviews conducted at a Mexican meth lab. But the footage of Arizona Border Recon amounts to a sad portrait of a militia–style group motivated primarily by mistrust for the U.S. government and unwilling to exclude openly racist members.
Far more effective is the story of Autodefensas, an grassroots organization that enjoyed extraordinary success fighting the bloodthirsty Knights Templar. Cartel Land finds its footing by examining the evolving moral ambiguity of that effort. Heineman maintains his nonjudgmental, fly-on-the-wall approach throughout the film, but his growing confusion about his various subjects' increasingly contradictory behavior is unavoidable — primarily because it reflects our own misgivings as observers. Given the right subject matter, the shortcomings of immersive, context-free documentary filmmaking can dissipate rapidly in the face of hard truths.