Matthew Heineman (“Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare”, “Our Time “) decided to shoot the Violence wrecked by the Mexican drug cartels from the ground, the way it was experienced by civilians swept into its remorseless machinery.
To do so he spent nine months traveling with two local “vigilantes”: in Arizona he follows Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American veteran, leader of a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon vowed to protect a narrow, 52-mile-long desert corridor known as Cocaine Alley. In Mexico he profiles charismatic Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as “El Doctor’ throughout the state of Michoacán.
He captured the rise of Mireles’ citizen’s movement Autodefensas, which at it’s height was comprised of 20,00 armed civilians , men and women, who ran the vicious Knights Templar drug cartel out of town after town.
Beginning in Tepalcatepec, where they liberated the town from the Knights Templar Cartel, the movement quickly spread to the municipalities of Buenavista Tomatlán, Coalcomán de Vásquez Pallares and Apatzingán de la Constitución, In each local el doctor explained how the locals could arm themselves and what the rules of engagement would be.
Nine months bought Heineman the respect of ihs subjects, who reveal the most shocking things to his camera, it’s as if they want to make history and a camera is the perfect witness
Heineman’s editing strategy was to put the audience in his shoes, reveling only what he knew as he discovered it. His “I am a camera” stance pays off as we, innocent as Candide, follow his surprising slippery trip into the heart of darkness. We visit a meth lab manned by masked cartel members in the depth of a forest. One masked ‘cook’ opines, “If we were like you, we’d have clean jobs helping people, but we’re poor, if we listen to our hearts we’ll be taken advantage of, There will always be labs”.
Heineman follows the Autodefensas into gun battles as they capture various Templars, letting family members of their victims dispense personal justice.
We meet family of slain victims, some beheaded, others hung, One family lost 15 members from infants to 60 year-olds, workers killed because their boss owed the Cartel money. The testimony of a woman whose husband was burned to death and dismembered before her eyes is as chilling as that of any survivor of War Crimes.
To protect himself and his tiny crew, his Mexican producers alerted local activist journalists of each day’s route, in case the crew was kidnapped.
In Mexico the circle of corruption is huge; Cartel members operate at all levels, of society, taxing, extorting, corrupting, hiring and killing civilians, but also working as and with the local police, Federales and even higher levels of the local and federal government.
A story, which began as a heroic attempt at self-defense, rapidly becomes an imbedded meditation on how the cycle of violence perpetuates itself. Anything else I could say would be a spoiler. WHAT A JOURNEY HE TAKES US ON.
At a recent USC interview with Alex Ago, self- taught Heinemen stated a lesson he learned from a mentor. “”If you end up with the story you started with, you weren’t listening along the way.”
The film, which was runaway hit at this year’s Sundance, taking both the Directing and Cinematography Awards (Heineman did both). opens at the Arclight Hollywood Frrday, July 10. A MUST SEE.