- Monday, Apr. 4, 2016
There was no way to predict what would come from the documentary that was percolating in Matthew Heineman’s mind and heart. For one, who would have thought that Cartel Land would end up landing him the DGA Award in February for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary. Cartel Land also earned a Best Feature Documentary Oscar nomination, among assorted other accolades.
But arguably far more unpredictable was the path that Cartel Land took which made it far different from what director Heineman originally envisioned. It all started when he read an article about the Mexico/Arizona border fight to protect America. Heineman found himself immediately drawn to that world. Though he knew little about border militia groups and vigilantes, he became fascinated with them. He spent several months in Arizona gaining those people’s trust and ultimately access to chronicling them, including Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American veteran who heads Arizona Border Recon, a paramilitary group looking to stop Mexico’s drug wars from seeping across the border to the U.S.
Later Heineman received an article from his father about vigilantes in Mexico fighting against the drug cartels. This group was led by Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as “El Doctor.” The situation was similar to what was going on in Arizona, sparking the documentarian’s desire to capture these parallel stories about vigilante groups on both sides of the border.
While its subject matter entails major issues—including border security and the drug wars—Cartel Land is actually a character-driven film about the two incredibly complex men who are leading these groups. The film became a verite portrait of these two men and the movements they lead. “I’m fascinated by what provokes men and women to take the law into their own hands,” said Heineman. “We see the drug war glorified in TV, movies and media coverage. I really wanted to bring a human face to the subject. There’s this conflict in the country next to us, Thousands of people ‘disappear’ every year. We fund the war with our consumption of drugs. I wanted to show how the drug war is affecting everyday people, the response of those people to fight back, and what happens when citizens take on that fight.”
What Heineman discovered was an eye opener. “The story in Mexico took an unbelievable arc that I never imagined when I started,” he related. “I originally thought I was telling a story of good versus evil, citizens rising up against the murderous villainous cartels. But the story shifted and became murkier, darker. It turned into a much greater story in scope where the lines between good and evil became quite blurry. It was a complicated story to navigate.
“Even in that part of Arizona, you feel like you’re on the edge of the world, a lawless zone controlled by cartels,” continued Heineman. “This was amplified extraordinarily when I went down to Mexico. I wasn’t prepared for some of the situations I wound up being in—shootouts in the middle of streets, a meth lab, risky situations that end up being sort of the crux, the meat and flesh of the film.”
That meat and flesh helped Heineman last year earn the prestigious Courage Under Fire Award from the International Documentary Association. “One of the things I love about documentaries is the opportunity to sort of dive into a world I don’t understand—to gain access to that world, to be in that world, to live in that world.”
A return to Sundance
Cartel Land debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It marked a return engagement for Heineman at Sundance who back in 2012 was there to premiere Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare. Heineman and Susan Froemke directed and produced Escape Fire, which examined the country’s healthcare crisis, underscoring a needed shift from disease management to prevention, and to placing focus on patients rather than profits. Inspired in part by Donna Karan and her Urban Zen Foundation, the documentary followed dramatic stories of patients as well as of healthcare leaders who are striving to transform the system at the highest levels of medicine, industry, government and even the U.S. military.
Escape Fire also marked the debut of Aisle C Productions, an Ogilvy Entertainment unit that was established to develop and produce original, non-branded entertainment.
Several years prior, Heineman made his first major impact as a documentarian, teaming with Matt Wiggins to direct the 2009 release Our Time, a feature-length film about what it’s like to be young in America. Heineman and his colleagues drove around the U.S. in an RV for three months, meeting a cross-section of youth to get a better handle on what today’s generation is about.
Eventually getting Our Time in front of some HBO execs, Heineman wasn’t able to get the network to buy the film—but HBO liked what they saw enough to hire him for a series called The Alzheimer’s Project, which brought him together with noted documentarian Froemke (an associate producer on the famed Grey Gardens, and one of three directors on the Oscar-nominated Lalee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton). The Emmy-nominated HBO series The Alzheimer’s Project aired in May 2009. Heineman and Froemke later reunited for Escape Fire.
As for what’s next, Heineman wasn’t at liberty to yet discuss publicly any films he has in the offing, only noting that he’s developing one project with producer John Lesher whose credits include Black Mass, Fury, and the Best Picture Oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
Lesher is also playing a role in Heineman’s foray into commercials and branded content. The director has joined the roster of Superprime Films, a spot/branded entertainment company in which managing director Lesher, managing director/EP Rebecca Skinner, and managing director/sales Michelle Ross are partnered.
“What I love about filmmaking is how it shows me that there are different ways to tell a story, including commercials and short-form content,” affirmed Heineman. “Through Superprime, I hope to continue to challenge myself as a filmmaker and as an artist. I’d also like to continue making documentaries, perhaps even moving at some point into narrative feature filmmaking as well.”