#3 - Dr. Jose Mireles (center), in CARTEL LAND, a film by Matthew Heineman
Dr. Jose Mireles (center), in Cartel Land, a film by Matthew Heineman opening in SF on July 10

When my son was in middle school his class took a weeklong field trip to Michoacan State, Mexico. I didn’t think twice about it at the time: after all, they weren’t going to Ciudad Juarez, the noughties hotspot for drug cartel activity and mass murder —  so what could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, as it happened — but these days, my son’s old school no longer spends time in Michoacan. The cartels have since extended their grasp throughout rural Mexico, and Michoacan in particular is no longer considered safe for nice middle-class Americans: in January alone, more than two dozen people were killed there in clashes between drug smugglers, federal police, and local vigilantes known as autodefensas.

Enter Cartel Land (opening at Sundance Cinemas Kabuki in San Francisco on Friday, July 10 — East Bay playdates are unlikely to follow). After a brief introduction to Michoacan’s top meth cooks, the film (directed by Matthew Heineman and produced by Kathryn Bigelow) plunges us into the world of the autodefensas and – in what ultimately serves as an unnecessary diversion – that of the ‘patriots’ who patrol the Arizona side of the border.

The film’s primary focal point is Jose Manuel Mireles, a splendidly moustachio’d doctor who helped establish the ‘self-defense’ forces that stepped into the void when local and federal police failed to control the infamous Knights Templar cartel. His autodefensas took the law into their own hands, gaining considerable (though not universal) support by killing, kidnapping and torturing purported cartel members.

Cartel Land does an excellent job portraying this struggle, and the film doesn’t shy away from the moral difficulties raised by the autodefensas war against the cartels. On the one hand, the government was clearly unable to protect the people of Michoacan — on the other, Mireles clearly had no problem being judge, jury and occasional summary executioner.

Heineman’s film is much less successful and much less interesting when it travels north of the border. Here, a macho dude named Tim Foley and the heavily armed white men of Arizona Border Recon patrol the desert in search of stray Mexicans. Foley goes to great lengths to appear reasonable, but when one of his little buddies proclaims “you can’t put two races in one country,” you get the feeling Border Recon may be harboring some unpleasant individuals.

Foley asserts he’s doing his part to fight the cartels, but in comparison to Mireles, he’s mostly playing soldiers. The only interdiction we see him make is that of a coyote and the half dozen sad-sack peasants he’s trying to smuggle into the US. There’s nary an ounce of cocaine in sight, and despite his hyperbolic language the ‘threat’ in Arizona doesn’t seem real.

This split personality prevents me from giving a full-throated endorsement to Cartel Land, and the Bigelow connection is troubling (the primary conduit for the CIA lies featured in last year’s Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow may be angling to be the right-wing’s Michael Moore). That said, Heineman put himself in great danger to film the autodefensas, and the final result is one of the most kinetic and exciting documentaries of recent memory.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...