Monday, February 15, 2016
OSCARS 2016: Cartel Land (2015)
Cartel Land” is gripped with immediacy, true documentary journalism at work.
The Mexican state of Michoacan is being torn apart. Drug cartels control the area, terrorizing the citizens with acts of random violence and enforcing their rule with brutal effectiveness. A vigilante group has arisen to protect the people and combat the cartels. Led by Dr. Jose Mireles, a professional surgeon, the Autodefensas vigilante group do what they can to protect the towns and drive out crime. Yet rumors of corruption plague the group. On the American side of the border, a very different vigilante group also attempt to protect their country in a wholly unrelated fashion.
“Cartel Land” does not focus solely on the Mexican vigilance group, though some reviews wish it had. The sequences set in Mexico are bracing and disturbing. When guns are drawn, and two opposing forces are shooting at each other, the viewer becomes seriously worried that someone is going to die on camera. The Mexican vigilance group is confronting the criminals head-on, going to quite literal war against the people terrorizing their homes. But what about the patrol on the American side of the border? The camera gives time to the leader of the Arizona Border Recon. He tells his story, how an abusive childhood home, drugs and alcoholism led him on the path he is now. The man is an interesting interview subject but dismissive of the virulent racism and hatred within his group. (The film allows some of the openly racist members of the group to speak for themselves.) While the Autodensas is directly fighting the drug cartels, risking life and limb, the American border patrol hang out in the mountains, sitting around with their guns, and listening to their radios. Occasionally, they harass some illegal immigrants. The comparison is clear. One group is actually making a difference, good or bad but at least a difference. The other group is a bunch of ineffective rednecks, out to stroke their own egos and cowboy daydreams.
Dr. Mireles is in prison for drug charges. A secret interview with a member of the cartels has the man saying the Autodefensas is deeply corrupted.
That ending causes another comparison between the two groups to emerge. Maybe groups of self-appointed lawmen with machine guns are not the solution to this problem. As a piece of documentary journalism, “Cartel Land” is bracing and intense. Brave people went into the center of a war zone to tell this story. It’s heavy stuff but a thoughtful treatment of the subject. [7/10]