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2015 Florida Film Festival: “Cartel Land” Reaches Moral Core of U.S. Border Issue From Both Sides [Review]

WINTER PARK, FL (FNN News) – “Where is the line between good and evil?” the provocative documentary demands on its ominous poster above a silhouetted man in fatigues pensively beholding the mountainous twilight holding an assault rifle. Cartel Land presents two simultaneous narratives: American border vigilante Tim Nailer and the charismatic Dr. Jose Mireles of the Mexican state of Michoacan. Nailer admits he initially began his crusade against illegal immigrants attempting to cross the Arizona border from his frustration with their “sucking from the system and not paying taxes,” but through his encounters, learned the real problem. “It’s the drug cartels…The cartels are evil.”


Why You Must Watch It

Cartel Land
Directed by: Matthew Heineman
Produced by Our Time Projects (A&E), The Documentary Group, Candescent Films
USA, 2015, 98 minutes
Rated NR

Cartel Land, which won Best Director and Best Cinematography Awards in the U.S. Documentary category at Sundance, is a poignant moral requiem of sorts, threading the consequences of a failed legal system and the citizens’ frustration reaching the unwanted boil of taking matters into their own hands. “I had neighbors living there,” Mireles says as the camera shows a humble house across from his own. “The [cartel] killed them and my family was next.” The next scene was Mireles loading his weapon and firing a few practice rounds. He explained that he took up arms and defended his family against the Knights Templar cartel. “What would you do?” he boldly asks.

In standing up for his own family, Mireles began amassing other frustrated citizens in his town to form the Autodefenzas, Michoacan’s own citizen force against the cartels. Meanwhile, in the U.S., after four years of apprehending what aliens he could and speaking to whoever would listen, Nailer too became a leader.

Director Matthew Heineman paints a compassionate portrait of both sides, wrenching viewers with the eventualities of their respective movements, particularly in Mexico.

Like any well-made documentary, Cartel Land makes us thoroughly examine the sore finger we’re pointing, and in some instances, compels us to retract it. The film’s tagline—where is the line between good and evil—is its macro issue, which will never die as long as we live on this earth, but the closer problem, the cyclical power struggle with the cartels and their collusion with governments and the ramifications thereof, is what’s intimately examined here. Heineman was so deep in the trenches, he even gives us the jolting firsthand experience of a gunfight and un-blurred graphic footage of cartel-inflicted atrocities on Michoacan’s people.


This documentary is a heart-breaking, eye-opening must-see. Only because of its very graphic violent cartel imagery and frequent F-bombs, this amazing film gets 4.5 out of 5 stars. If your stomach turns easily, do not watch this while or shortly after eating.


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