[WATCH] Emmy nominee Matthew Heineman (‘Cartel Land’) on risks of documenting drug cartel wars

“It was a terrifying film to make, there’s no way around it,” admits director Matthew Heineman as we chat via webcam (watch above) about his documentary “Cartel Land,” which was nominated for an Oscar last winter and is now up for five Emmys, including Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. It tells the parallel stories of two vigilante groups pushing back against the violence of Mexican drug cartels: Arizona Border Recon, a self-recruited border-patrol group led by military veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley, and the Autodefensas, a rebel organization in the Mexican state of Michoacan led by physician Jose “El Doctor” Mireles.

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“I’m not a war reporter. I’ve never been in any situation like this before,” Heineman reveals about the high-stakes production. “The film led me to meth labs in the dark desert night, places of torture, shootouts in the middle of the street — I had no experience … but at the same time I felt it was a really important film to make, and I was willing to take those risks because I believed in the story.” But there’s more to the film than just peril. It’s also “a character-driven film about the leaders of these two vigilante groups.”

In addition to his nomination for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking as a producer of “Cartel Land,” Heineman himself contends for three other awards: Best Nonfiction Directing, Best Nonfiction Cinematography and Best Nonfiction Editing. The film’s last bid is for Best Nonfiction Sound Editing, which is the only nomination Heineman doesn’t share in. “This was a passion project,” he explains of his multifaceted commitment to the film. “It’s a verite film. It’s an experiential film in which I was embedded with my subjects for almost a year, so whether I liked it or not I was forced to wear many different hats. It’s one of the things I love about documentary filmmaking.”

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