It’s a weary old truism that popular revolutions generally end up betraying those they were initiated to defend. But knowing that in advance doesn’t make Mexican drug-war doc ‘Cartel Land’ any less tragic and captivating. Essentially, it’s the story of Dr José Mireles, a small-town surgeon who, along with his fellow villagers, took up arms against the Knights Templar drug cartel who were making their lives a misery. Buoyed by early successes, their Autodefensas organisation swiftly expanded to neighbouring settlements before coming into conflict with corrupt local law enforcers.
But of course it’s not that simple. Who armed the Autodefensas in the first place? Were they really only in it to protect ordinary people, or is there a darker motive here? And is Mireles truly just an avuncular, moustachioed medic and family man who’d had enough?
Granted unfettered access to the key figures in Autodefensas, and at no little personal risk – he gets into the middle of at least three running machine gun battles – cameraman and director Matthew Heineman has created a riveting story of how, with awful inevitability, power always corrupts. Not all of it works – a secondary narrative following the leader of an American vigilante group patrolling the Mexican border feels bolted on to please the home crowd – but there are scenes here unlike anything you’ve seen. Timely, thoughtful and supremely well-constructed, we’d be stunned if this isn’t the doc to beat on Oscar night.