by Timothy Kennelly
The recent recipient of the Sundance Jury Prize for Documentary Directing is one of the most powerful and gripping docs I’ve seen in many years. Director Matthew Heineman’s up-close look at the drug cartel’s impact on Mexico opens with a nighttime scene of masked men offloading chemicals from a truck and doing a large-scale meth cook in a secret location in the Michocoan mountains. Is that up-close enough for you? The movie follows parallel stories of citizen vigilantes, militias formed in the absence of government support, or in the presence of government corruption.
A pickup truck drives along a dusty road bordering the fence between Arizona and Mexico, with both the road and the fence fading into the infinity of the desert. A voiceover says, “There’s a line between good and evil—maybe imaginary, but I believe it’s real—and I see myself as guardian of that line, protecting the good people from evil.” The words spoken by Arizona resident Timothy Nailer, leader of a self-organized militia trying to keep Mexican meth smugglers from bringing drugs into the U.S. Like many big city liberals, I tend to associate border-guarding militiamen with gun-happy racists. Yet Nailer is empathetic and earnest as a local man whose life was almost ruined by drugs, and turned his near-ruin into redemption, organizing patrols to capture drug smugglers and turning them over to Border Police. He makes it clear he’s not after innocent migrant families who pose no security threat. He and his fellow militiamen (most from the region, and ex-military) are dedicated to capturing criminals and staunching the flow of poison into the US, and money back to Mexico. The filmmaker is smart to focus on Nailer, as when the camera picks up the chatter of some of his cohorts, a bit more unfocused racism seeps through the cracks of their casual conversation. Still, Nailer is an inspiring and eloquent leader, glad to have the help from others, whatever their political views, and he puts his life on the line for the cause he believes in. After hearing the body count of the cartel wars (80,000 killed and 20,000 missing since 2007,) it’s impossible to not reevaluate my own preconceptions about these militiamen, who are in their own way “Watchers on the Wall, Guardians of the realms of Men.”
Across the border, we’re dropped in middle of a small Mexican town’s funeral for victims of a massacre by the local drug gang—including many children. There’s no short supply of harrowing tales in Cartel Land. I had to close my eyes for some scenes, not wanting to read any more subtitles of survivors’ tales, and they were the lucky ones. Terrorized by the biggest gang, sickeningly ironically named “Knights Templar” (an ancient Catholic order), and abandoned by their corrupt government, the citizens finally declare a war against the cartel. Men old and young respond to the call, and are given T-shirts, training and weaponry, and a true “folk militia” is born. In an early scene, they move into a neighboring town, taking over the central square and declare it “liberated”. Soon the army shows up (any government body as we soon learn is completely in the pocket of drug gangs). The way the small town citizens surround the military and make them back downis one of the high points of this film. A bullied population suddenly sensing and seizing their moment of power is electric and unforgettable. One wonders how many small towns around the globe are only one spark away from similar explosion of repressed righteous anger.
During the rise of the vigilante defense force, we see the predictable stages such as the government minister calling them “hoodlums with no respect for the proper authorities”, an assassination attempt on the leader, the jockeying between power-seeking lieutenants, and of course the government’s attempt to eventually co-opt them by offering to make them an official government militia. We also witness the ethical transgressions of its leader, almost inevitable in a man of such charisma and hubris. There are more external factors behind the transfiguration of the Civilian Defense Force (Autodefensas), but I won’t ruin it because you should see it yourself unfolding in the movie.
The “no man’s land” of Timothy Nailer’s Arizona/ Mexico desert is a physical metaphor of the moral landscape. Proactive self-defense is survival, where lines of morality disappear in the desert sand, and traditional authorities are nowhere on the horizon. Justice is often a mirage that disappears as one approaches. Perhaps the saddest manifestation of this, is the slow change of the Civilian Defense Force from liberators to harassers to oppressors. We have a front row seat to this including a car chase and firefight so intense the filmmakers have to leap out of the SUV and run down an alley for their lives, still filming. Citizen Defenders capture what they believe to be a member of a drug gang, who may have just been an innocent man driving down the wrong street. They pull him away from his screaming child and wife to interrogate him in the back of their SUV. The temptation to bully the handcuffed man is too great, and the camera, inside the claustrophobic car, captures all this intimately, as if to remind us indelibly, “This is the way of the world—the devil hands the victim the whip and whispers to him use it on his tormentor.” In the next scene he’s at the “questioning/processing center” in a line of handcuffed, fearful men, hearing the screams of the current interviewee behind the wall. No overt statement is needed to conjure the image of Abu Gharib and America losing its moral compass down the blind alley of the War on Terror.
In a movie full of moments tearing away the veil, I found this unmasking to be the most haunting, that the victimized can turn into hero, only to be seduced by power into becoming the victimizer. In many ways it’s the oldest and saddest tale of human history. It’s the journey from 9/11 Ground Zero to Rumsfeld’s Gitmo, it’s Israel walling Palestinians inside a West Bank ghetto, it’s Tamora of the Goths in “Titus Andronicus” turning from Titus’ prisoner to Titus’ destroyer after she becomes Roman queen. Shakespeare 400 years ago, casting his lens back 1600 years further, vividly showing us that the seductive siren song of Retribution is the force pulls all Progress inexorably back down into the History’s whirlpool of perpetual violence. “I do believe the cycles can be broken”….said the filmmaker Heinemann in his Q&A. “The population is approaching the tipping point of tolerance.. The recent murder of 43 university students inspired hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets and demand an end to this catastrophe.” Let’s hope that this documentary can open even more eyes and help bring real-world changes.