ENTERTAINMENT

Sundance documentaries portray Mexican drug violence

Director Matthew Heineman speaks to audience after premiere of "Cartel Land" at the Sundance Film Festival.

Director Matthew Heineman speaks to audience after premiere of "Cartel Land" at the Sundance Film Festival.  (Angela Santos)

The issue of drug violence in Mexico hit the big screen this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, with the premieres of two documentaries - "Cartel Land" and "Western"- that provide a surprisingly intimate look into the lives of people living on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

“Cartel Land” focuses mostly on the violence, as it portrays the chaos from an on-the-ground perspective, showing real-life scenes of shootouts, torture, and chilling images of loss and betrayal. Positioned as a good vs. evil themed story, “Cartel Land” follows a group of vigilantes in the state of Michoacán that band together against the local Knights Templar cartel.  

When they leave behind their vigilante status to turn into a government-sponsored entity, it becomes increasingly clear that the once grassroots “Autodefensas” group has direct links to the local cartel.

Director Matthew Heineman, who knowingly put himself in life-threatening situations, said he was mesmerized by the fact that cartels could be so closely tied to the authorities.

“That sort of quest to truly understand who these guys were and what was driving them was what drove me,” he said.

The audience seemed to appreciate Heineman’s intrigue.

“The biggest thing for me that made [“Cartel Land”] different from other documentaries is it really showed that the biggest obstacle in changing not just the drugs, but the corruption in Mexico is that the division between good and bad is very hard to distinguish in Mexico,” said Raul Lopez, who is from Aguascalientes, Mexico, after watching the film.

“Western,” co-directed by Bill and Turner Ross, takes a more indirect approach at the drug trade issue. It mostly follows the mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas and a rancher whose cattle import business has been temporarily halted due to clashing cartels just across the Rio Grande in Piedras Negras, Mexico. With the looming danger as a backdrop for the film, the directors insert the audience in the everyday lives of hardworking people of both cities.

Although some residents of this border region may not always see the violence so directly, the film shows how the cartel fighting plays a role in their lives — introducing a sort of modern “wild-wild west” story.

“We would rather present that experiential capsulation of time, place, culture, lifestyle for people to get a sense, and sort of walk a mile in those shoes,” Turner said.

Mexican members of the audience told Fox News Latino that, beyond good storytelling, they value the fact a conversation about the matter is taking place.

“I think that there are some very interesting issues going on so near to the U.S. and it’s a big deal,” said Moises Gutierrez, a native of Mexico City. “It makes me feel good that someone could take interest into that,” said he said.

“I honestly appreciate that people from outside Mexico are concerned about the issue involving Mexico and the drug trade,” he added.

The Mexican drug trade is not an unfamiliar topic at the Sundance festival. Just two years ago, “Narco Cultura,” a documentary around the culture of drug violence that gained national attention after it premiered in Park City.

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Angela M. Santos is a freelance reporter based in Utah.

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