Unconsciousness as Reality: Documenting Moral Ambiguities in Cartel Land

Addie Johnson
9 min readDec 13, 2018
Cartel Land

Matthew Heineman’s nearly two-hour long documentary about insurgent vigilantes Cartel Land looks and achieves a certain sense of realism using direct cinema verité that many traditional documentaries do not. However, considering their differences raises two questions: what makes a viewer believe a film he or she is watching is real? and how does that perception differ from reality in itself? The true power of Cartel Land lies less with the specific story of the Knights Templar Cartel, but more within how Heineman portrays the true day-to-day horrors of two vigilante groups in a way that viewers actually believe to be credible and realistic. In many ways, Cartel Land’s “reality” using purist cinema-verité appears real to the viewer more so than traditional documentary through the lack of explicit narrative, use of apparent spontaneity, and absence of a clear underlying argument.

Cartel Land’s plot focuses on two vigilante groups on either side of the Mexican-American border that are simultaneously fighting within their own socio-political systems to tackle drug-cartel monopolies. It explores how cartel violence affects everyday people living beneath an ineffective government allowing cartels to operate with impunity, as well as the ramifications of what happens when citizens take the law into their own hands. In the film, former military and self-appointed border patrol leader Tim Foley leads the Arizona Border Recon on the American side. On the Mexican side, Dr. José Manuel Mireles launches the paramilitary self-defense group Autodefensa. The film focuses particularly on the Autodefensa’s efforts to disarm and defeat nearby cartels and follows their lab busts and violent shootouts. Eventually, however, even the Autodefensas fall to the cartel system. Many of the vigilante groups fragment, act aggressively, and even collude with the cartels themselves.

Heineman’s unobtrusive fly-on-the-wall style of filming is an example of extreme cinema verité that utilizes unexpected shots and unintentional footage. Documentary is a format that “heightens, telescopes, dramatizes, reconstructs, fetishizes, miniaturizes, or otherwise modifies” the real world; most have narrative structures, interviews, and external footage that help contextualize life within only the one general setting and timespan of a film, but Cartel Land diverges from the norm (Nichols 113). Heineman doesn’t need any external commentary to have a strong sense of storytelling. Compared to other documentaries within the same subject theme, such as Narco Cultura or Cocaine, Cartel Land presents information in a slightly less outwardly imposed narrative structure. Heineman includes minimal interviews, overlays, and other personal statements or opinions, but juxtaposes the two vigilante groups’ struggles through editing. Cartel Land, especially with its footage rooted more in sudden action, fight scenes, and citizen unrest, demonstrates not only Heineman’s skill in hiding the camera but also his expertise in taking clips of “inherently dramatic situations” (Saunders 65). Through the simple visual juxtapositions of the two vigilantes, the viewer creates a firm connection between the physical and emotional struggles. However, Heineman was still physically present during all the action scenes, and thus never entirely invisible nor omniscient. For as much as he promotes his observational-based cinematography, Heineman had more control over the narrative of the film than he admits.

Heineman considers Cartel Land a pure verité film in which he tried to be as subtle and as inconspicuous as possible, emphasizing the challenges in making such a “real” film because he did not stage any of the footage (Heineman 41). Much like in real life, Heineman did not know where the ‘story’ would take itself, and because he was not fully fluent in Spanish, he did not always understand what was happening. Dave Saunders notes that early direct cinema filmmaker Donn Alan Pennebaker “experienced an epiphany: he became aware that he should not impose a story upon his material at the production stage, but rather let the story and rhythm emerge later, in the film’s assembly,” which remarks upon Heineman’s own methodology of creating films (Saunders 64). In Heineman’s own words, “the story unfolded in Mexico in the way it unfolded” (Heineman 43). The story as it happened unfolded naturally, but the film itself was still framed and edited in a classic documentary action story arc. Its action-centered clips allow the viewer to view and understand the situation more personally through an implicit story narartive, but are still inherently distortions of reality because Heineman did not include every single scene he recorded. Additionally, as believable as these scenes may seem, the presence of a camera can subconsciously change how people act. Saunders mentions “long-standing tendency to incorporate (and elicit) aspects of performance” within nonfiction (Saunders 186). Heinemann plays this idea off the “convincing element of unscripted performance,” especially through intensifying the sharp cuts in the action scenes to heighten the emotional drama (Saunders 65).

Bill Nichols, the film theoretician infamous for founding the contemporary study of documentary film, states that observational documentaries present the world “with associations we had not consciously realized or attended to” such as Heineman’s incorporation of vigilante groups on both sides rather than just one side or the other (Nichols 113). He does it not only through his choice of content, incorporating both Mexican Autodefensas and the American border patrol, but also through his cinematography framing and the decisions that stress intimacy. One example of an effective use of his framing style occurs throughout one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the film. In the film at 0:09:14, after showing cartel members creating meth at night, Heineman transitions to a series of peaceful establishing shots of Michoacán, including the mountainside and women, men, and young children traveling in the backs of a pickup truck caravan driving down a dirt road. At 0:09:30, a young woman begins speaking several names which we later learn are civilians who were killed by cartel members. The woman’s face is framed in a close up of the mirror of her car. Then, the camera travels to the cross hanging from the rearview mirror. As she speaks, we begin to see a montage of handheld close-up shots of white flower, the symbol for death in Mexico, coffins being laid into the ground, women placing memorial candles and necklaces (Fig 1), and people sobbing (Fig 2). Moments later, the scene transitions to Mireles’ ranch, in which there is a medium close-up cutting off Mireles’ face as he pulls out a gun from his car. As Mireles is preparing his gun so that he can practice shooting, Heineman focuses on his hands loading the gun itself, then onto the actual barrel of the gun as Mireles is talking, which makes what would usually be a somewhat cliché-styled scene become much more impactful with the incredibly deep depth of field and the viewer’s understanding of the context of the preceding background (Fig 3).

Fig. 1 Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman, 2015.
Fig. 2 Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman, 2015.
Fig. 3 Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman, 2015.

This scene parallels Heineman’s statement in an interview: “I don’t believe in rules — I believe in instincts” (Canon Pro 0:05–0:09). Even though the scene is inherently emotionally intense, Heineman uses both tight and loose compositions in his instinctual cinematographic style that creates rich, dynamic images, that also appear authentic to reality.

This instinctual style of filming does not attempt to give all the details about the political atmosphere within Cartel Land, but instead adds to the film’s realism and credibility. Greg Smith, a film professor and critic at Georgia State University, states that “‘realism’ is a set of techniques a filmmaker can choose to adopt that would invite a viewer to actually believe what he or she is watching to be real” (Smith 14). The realism generated in Cartel Land does not just come from the direct plot narrative levels and structures, but also on the actual way the clips are presented and shown. Smith discusses the concept of “apparent spontaneity,” a way of making viewers believe that what they are watching is spontaneous and unplanned (Smith 15). The apparent spontaneity in Cartel Land is its ultimate form of credibility, as Heineman himself often times had no idea what was going to happen. However, this credibility is still an illusion of our perception of reality — in the end, Heineman edited the film in a particular way to craft a specific story arc. Interestingly, his edits demonstrate the “paradoxical nature of the tendency for performance that is not performance” as he films the people in the towns expecting them to do something performance-worthy of a documentary (Nichols 121). Our understanding of realism is often guided by fact that reality is not pretty — and by the ‘realistic’ performance of the main characters. Heineman develops that sense of realism by including incredibly emotional and violent scenes. We believe what we see because the scenes are so intense that it would be hard to truly know whether or not reality is entirely different. Furthermore, what makes Cartel Land so compelling over a traditional documentary is its spontaneous narrative frame as well as its perceived semblance to truth about the life it attempts to portray.

Possibly the most powerful aspect of Cartel Land’s pure verité style that makes the film feel authentic is its overall absence of an explicit argument. Nichols defines the purpose of argument in documentary as:

“in documentary, the sense of the filmmaker’s argumentative activity or of an over-expository process that directs our attention toward the historical world is often continual and highly noticeable. Without it, we would have the impression of gazing onto the world itself rather than seeing the world by means of a text, a window, and an argument” (Nichols 113).

However, unlike this traditional documentary characteristic, Cartel Land underscores this idea of gazing without argument: the viewer must gaze upon each scene to ‘overhear’ the conversations taking place, and must come to his or her own judgments based on his or her own opinions. In the preface before an interview with Heineman, Joan and Dennis West write, “Heineman is to be congratulated for the risky immediacy and urgency he communicates with his ‘intimate, yet action-driven verité’ approach… But this verity approach — which picks up contextualizing elements haphazardly, as they appear — means that viewers expecting a full-blown socioeconomic and political contextualization may be disappointed” (Heineman 40). Furthermore, Cartel Land allows the viewer a more narrow and detailed slice of a bigger picture, but in that narrowness, there is no commentary or ‘sub’ narrative, and the viewers must come to their own conclusions. By having to piece together the narrative puzzle and avoiding the classic argument-centered documentary approach, the viewer actually may be more willing to believe in the veracity of the overall film.

Source: Cartel Land

Cartel Land demonstrates the public confusion and distrust through intimate portraits of the Mexican people. Heineman’s cinematographic decisions not only symbolically reflect the vigilantes’ moral ambiguities and eventual downfall, but also formally attempt to parallel the accuracy and reality of the actual cartel situation today. What is most intriguing about this particular depiction of reality, however, is the absence of information that we should and would know in reality. For example, Cartel Land does not explain why the government in Mexico had not stepped in to help these villages, nor why the supposed law enforcement did not fight back against the cartels. The film only shows us the present and now. Through the complete submersion of the viewer, Cartel Land’s purist cinema-verité approach feels more realistic than a traditional documentary, yet simultaneously pushes the definition and boundaries of activist filmmaking and videojournalism.

Works Cited

Canon Pro. “Cartel Land: Behind the Scenes.” Vimeo, Interview with Matthew Heineman.

02 Nov. 2018, https://vimeo.com/132462755.

Heineman, Matthew, et al. “Action Vérité Comes to Cartel Land: An Interview with Matthew Heineman.” Cinéaste, vol. 40, no. 4, 2015, pp. 40–43. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26356462.

Cartel Land. Dir. Matthew Heineman. The Orchard, 2015, Film.

Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington:

Indiana UP, 1991. Print.

Saunders, Dave. Documentary: Routledge Film Guidebooks. New York, Routledge, 2010.

Smith, Greg M. What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss: a Student Guide. New York,

Routledge, 2011.



Addie Johnson

writing about the intersection of design, business, and technology // addiejohnson.com