Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, February 15, 2016

OSCARS 2016: Cartel Land (2015)

One of the things I most look forward to when Oscar season rolls around is getting to watch movies normally outside of my wheelhouse. I’m a big fan of documentaries and foreign language films but I don’t see them very often. However, it’s not always easy. Since the Academy is very focused on “important” films, I’m often stuck watching documentaries about unpleasant, uncomfortable truths. Yet these things are happening. “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” is not for the squeamish. Disturbing images are shown in the film. An early scene has a community burying men, women, and children, all of them murdered by the cartels as an act of retaliation. A woman describes her husband being tortured to death while she was raped by the criminals. We see decapitated heads dropped in the streets, men laying dead on the ground from gunshots, and bodies hanging off bridges. It’s all real, as the filmmaker stress how bad the situation in Michoacan truly is. Moreover, the documentary filmmakers were in danger. The film shows several shot-outs as they happen. Real bullets are flying pass the heads of the cameramen, ducking inside and out of vehicles to avoid being shot. “Cartel Land” is not a soft issues documentary, providing statistics and interviews in support of its topic. The director and his team put themselves in harm’s way to convey their message.

“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.

“Cartel Land” is not out to glorify vigilantism. During a rally, one of the people in the town openly ask if the vigilante group is actually helping. One sequence shows one of the vigilantes pointing a gun at a bound enforcer, mocking and belittling him, the barrel pointed to his head. Another scene focuses on the faces of the terrified captives as the agonized screams from the interrogation rooms ring through the facility. Before too long, the fact is raised that some members of the vigilance group are actually working with the drug cartels, of the corruption boiling inside those seeking justice. Later in the documentary, Dr. Mireles is shown flirting with a much younger girl, setting a clandestine meeting with her. Even after the Autodefensas is authorized by the government, officially being recognized as lawmen, we wonder about how much they truly help. By the end of the film, 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]

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