An alumnus of Sundance Institute’s artist labs and a two-time Festival participant, Matthew Heineman has been making nonfiction cinema for a decade. Now, alongside fellow Sundance Documentary Film Program-supported filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (The Look of Silence), Heineman is in the running for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. His film Cartel Land, which has been honored with a DGA Award and the prestigious Polk Journalism Award, is a deeply disturbing and wildly entertaining vérité film about the international drug war, set at the U.S.-Mexico border. We reached the director by phone in Los Angeles one week before the February 28th Academy Awards.
How did you get started making documentaries?
Matthew Heineman: I studied history in college and, like most history majors, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. In my senior year, I thought maybe I wanted to be a teacher, so I applied to Teach for America. Most people don’t know you can get rejected by Teach for America, but I was one of the lucky few; I got rejected in the final round. So I was scratching my head and trying to figure out what to do. Some of my best friends and I were sitting around and we hatched an idea to drive around the U.S. for three months interviewing kids from all walks of life to figure out what our generation is about [which became the film Our Time (2009)]. We wrote to a bunch of corporations to try to get sponsorship money. We had no idea what we were doing. We bought a video camera, a how-to-shoot book, and set out on a cross-country journey, hitting all 50 states, interviewing people from Mark Zuckerberg to drug dealers to cancer researchers. Through this process, I learned as I went. I learned by doing and failing and I fell in love with filmmaking.
I’m not a religious person, but I had a very spiritual moment in New Orleans three months after Katrina near the end of our trip. I was in the 9th ward accompanying this man who was going back to his house for the first time since the hurricane. To be with this guy during this dramatic and emotional moment – to interact with him through the lens and capture this moment – I sort of felt like, wow, this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. Ten years later I’m still making films. I feel incredibly grateful, incredibly honored to be able to do what I do – to be able to tell people’s stories, to enter worlds I would otherwise never get to see, and to have people share their lives with me.
Do you take inspiration from other nonfiction films and filmmakers?
I don’t think there could be a more exciting time to be a documentary filmmaker. The barriers to entry have been lowered; the avenues for distribution have greatly increased. There’s a real love and interest in the documentary form. One of the things I love about docs is how malleable a form it is. There are so many amazing films that came out this year that push the genre in different directions. Every time you watch a film, you learn something from it and it changes you. It affects you both as a human being and a filmmaker. Maybe you can tell I don’t want to pick favorites.
Audiences and critics have remarked that Cartel Land feels a lot like a narrative feature. Are you influenced by particular fiction films and filmmakers?
I didn’t set out to make Cartel Land feel like a narrative feature. I wanted to try to use narrative techniques and shoot it, edit it, and produce it in a way that felt like you have a front row seat to the journey of our characters.
In a lot of docs, including ones I’ve made previously, there are so many things that take you out of that immersive experience – whether it’s “talking head” interviews, stats, cards, animation. Of course, these are important techniques; there’s no one-size-fits-all rule about how to make a doc, and that’s why I love making docs. But for this film, I wanted the audience to go on the journey that I went on. I didn’t want to be a character in the film – I don’t find myself that interesting – but I wanted you to feel like you were there, with a ground-level view of the drug war.
The drug war is covered all over the media. Everyday you open the paper in Mexico, there’s headlines and photos of dead bodies. In many ways it’s been glorified in movies and TV shows. I wanted to put a human face to this conflict, to show how this violence is affecting everyday people, to show how everyday people are rising up to fight back, and to show the ramifications of what happens when citizens take the law into their own hands.
Cartel Land recently topped the ITunes documentary charts in Latin America, which means lots of people are watching the film at home on computer screens. Is it important for your work to be seen in theaters?
I think as documentary filmmakers, we have to wake up to the reality that the world is changing. We should embrace every form of distribution and not be beholden to the old way. The number one goal of any documentary filmmaker is either to get lots of eyeballs on their film or to make a difference – preferably some combination of the two. However that happens is wonderful. That said, I don’t know if I’ll ever have a film as cinematic as Cartel Land, based on the drama of what unfolded before the camera. Obviously, I would prefer people to watch it in the theater, but I’m not precious about that in any way. I’m just happy people are seeing the film.
We fought really hard to get the film shown in theaters in Mexico at the same time it was released in the States. Soon after that, the film was heavily pirated. Every bodega in Mexico had a bootleg copy of Cartel Land that was playing on the screen inside the bodega. In an ironic twist, the cartels are the ones that control the black market DVD market. So, the cartels were profiting from a movie about themselves.
How did Sundance Institute’s support help drive this film toward completion?
Sundance has been absolutely amazing to me as a filmmaker and an artist, starting with Documentary Film Fund grants for my previous film Escape Fire [co-directed by Susan Froemke], which premiered at the Festival. For Cartel Land, participating in a producer lab and the Catalyst Forum gave me a huge boost of confidence that we were on an interesting path. With Catalyst [which brings together creative investors with Sundance-supported filmmakers], it helped us finish the film. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for those programs. And of course, the Festival was phenomenal for the film. I’m indebted to Sundance for encouraging me, giving me confidence to do what I do, and giving me a platform to launch my previous two films in a big way. I wouldn’t be where I am in my career if it wasn’t for Sundance.
What’s next for Matthew Heineman?
I’m excited to keep making films and to push myself. With Cartel Land, I really wanted to reinvent myself after Escape Fire, and – without giving too much away – I’m developing a new project that will hopefully do that in a different way. I definitely was bitten by the bug of Cartel Land – not necessarily by the danger, but by the unpredictability of the story and the excitement of following a vérité story in real-time as it’s unfolding before you. That’s the type of film I’m working on right now and those are the types of films I want to keep making.
Cartel Land is currently streaming on Netflix and is available through a number of other digital platforms. Click here to learn more.