What would you do if criminals terrorized you and your community and there was no government to intervene? That question hovers over “Cartel Land,” Matthew Heineman’s immersion into anti-cartel vigilantism on both sides of the US/Mexican border. In Arizona, Tim “Nailer” Foley takes his armed band of volunteers into the desert to intercept drug runners and human traffickers. Meanwhile in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Jose Mireles has organized fellow citizens into the “Autodefensas,” a paramilitary band determined to take back communities from the cartels.
Embedded for weeks in both groups, Heineman recorded his experiences with a first-person immediacy that has the visual intensity and narrative surge of a film by Kathryn Bigelow. Which may be why she signed up as executive producer to help promote the film after she saw it last January at the Sundance Film Festival, where Heineman won the directing award and special jury award for cinematography in the US documentary competition.
Heineman talked about his film by phone while waiting to participate in a Q&A after a screening at the AFI DOCS festival in Silver Springs, Md. “Cartel Land” opens Friday at the Kendall Square Cinema.
Q. When the bullets started flying, did you think this might not be such a good idea?
A. This film was a crazy, wild adventure to make. I’ve never filmed in war zones before. I found myself in shoot-outs between the cartels and the vigilantes, witnessing abductions, torture, things I could never imagine. Originally this film was going to be a good versus evil story, and very quickly I realized that it was more complex than that. The story we ended up with was much different than the story we started with.
Q. Yet it plays out like a tautly constructed narrative. How did you pull that off?
A. In the editing room my priority was to allow the audience to go on the journey that we went on. All the moments we thought we knew what was happening and the rug was pulled up from under us. Allow the audience to follow the crazy trajectory the same way that I experienced it.
Q. Would you say that the militancy of the Arizona group is more paranoid than realistic compared to the one in Mexico?
A. On one level the film is a character study of the leaders of these two groups, these two very complex men. Both of whom are 55 years old, both of whom believe the government failed them. Both of whom have taken the law into their own hands to fight for what they believe in. But the circumstances are quite different. In Mexico, the violence is real — 80,000 people killed since 2007, and 20,000 disappeared. Whereas in Arizona it’s theoretical. We aren’t seeing those deaths happening at the border, it’s more the fear that this war will sweep across our borders and their goal is to stop it.
Q. Do you think your next project will be something less stressful?
A. My mom wants me to do something on bees. But I’m not sure that’s going to happen.
Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.