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“Cartel Land” review. Oscar documentary series

Mexico is a hot political topic in the US these days. Illegal immigration and the drug trade are always the forces behind the conversation. Cartel Land provides us an inside look at the border conflict from the perspective of two very different vigilante groups fighting against the drug cartels that have had a huge role in creating this mess.

On one side of the border, we have an American “militia” group fighting to enforce laws that the government seemingly can’t or won’t enforce themselves. The film examines this side of the story primarily through the perspective of one man, Tim “Nailer” Foley. He and his cronies fit the stereotype of the anti-Mexican movement; angry, white, Fox News watching, gun toting men out to do their patriotic duty. But Foley is characterized as more than that; he’s also a dedicated father and a child abuse survivor who feels compelled to do the right thing even if it means risking his own life.

On the other side, in Mexico, we have Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles. He’s the leader of the Autodefensas; a paramilitary group that strives to fight the cartels by any means necessary. They are fighting for their people, their country, and their right to live in peace.

Two sides, fighting for the same thing, but never the twain shall meet.

Although the film does try to give both sides equal footing, most of the real action happens in Mexico with the Autodefensas. Their story starts out heroically; Dr. Mireles and his forces flush out cartel forces from a small town, storming in and being welcomed as liberators. Dr. Mireles is known far and wide and regarded as a hero and an icon. Things turn pretty dark from there.

After a suspicious event takes Dr. Mireles out of the picture for a while, the leadership of the Autodefensas passes to his #2 guy (known as ‘Papa Smurf’). Under his leadership, the Autodefensas adopt very questionable strong-arm tactics and start to resemble the very bad guys they’re supposedly working against.

This is also where the action in the film really kicks up. The brave cameramen capturing the footage get all up in the mix, running through the ramshackle streets of Mexican towns while gunfire peppers the air. Cartel thugs are caught, roughed up, and sometimes “disappeared”. But it’s not always clear that the victims of this violence are actually guilty of anything.

Mixed with this action are stories of the poor Mexican citizens caught up in this drug war. Through close-up interviews, we hear tale after tale of family members killed, mutilated, kidnapped, and raped. Cartel Land does a fantastic job of humanizing the injustices suffered by ordinary innocent people caught up in the drug trade. They are poor and they are helpless and they just want peace from horrors most people can’t even imagine. Is it any wonder that they’d try to escape any way they can?

There’s a classic line in Nolan’s The Dark Knight script (another story about a vigilante): “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” That is the perfect way to describe what we see documented in this film. The environment that our protagonists work in is toxic, permeating everything from local law enforcement to prisons to politics. They are up against insurmountable odds. And, at the end of the day, they are human. Who can stare into the heart of darkness every day and never lose faith?

Cartel Land provides more questions than answers. How did we get to this point? How can we ever fix it? Who can we ever trust to handle it? For this film, where everyone who thought they had the answers falls far short, the questions prove more enlightening.

You can watch Cartel Land on Netflix. Read my other reviews of Oscar nominated films: Amy, What Happened, Miss Simone, and Winter on Fire

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“Winter on Fire” review. Oscar documentary series

Winter on Fire is an incredible look at the Ukrainian protests of 2013 and 2014. For 93 days, an immense movement of Ukrainian citizens from all walks of life fought against the threat of Russian political domination. If it had been a peaceful event, perhaps it would have gone down as merely a footnote in history. But a heavy-handed government escalated the situation into a deadly brawl that is immortalized in this fearless film.

The first thing that hits you when you start watching Winter on Fire is how very personal it is. The movie uses a mix of citizen journalism via cellphones and the footage from professional journalists who were right in the thick of things, even when bullets started flying. You see everything right up close, close enough to see every facial expression, hear every yell, and experience the fear and chaos.

The first quarter of the film quickly sets the scene: the Ukrainian President makes a back-room deal with Vladimir Putin that cozies up to Russia. But a very large portion of the Ukrainian citizenry wants to join the European Union and put Russia firmly in the rear-view mirror. The events cause a surge of anti-government sentiment, protests start, and the government sends in troops and special forces to stomp on the resistance.

Those efforts backfire, as they always do eventually. But what makes the Ukrainian protests so remarkable is how swiftly and forcefully the citizenry hit back. They take over the Independence Square in Kiev, and set the stage for a brutal conflict.

Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine before and after the conflict

Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine before and after the conflict

As the resourceful and highly organized protesters put up barricades made of wood, wire, and anything else they can find, there’s a strong Les Miserables vibe, and even one of the protesters mentions that it feels more like an 18th century defense than a modern day one. But the thematic comparison helps connect this struggle to the French Revolution, and all the subsequent revolutions it inspired.

Despite the beautiful display of human spirit and perseverance, most of the time this is a film of ugly and uncensored brutality. The beatings of the early days of the protest give way to shootings, with snipers picking off hapless citizens armored only with flimsy metal pots and thin sheets of aluminum.

There are several scenes where the first-person footage shows us a Ukrainian citizen get shot by sniper fire, fall down, and die. The daring up close and personal camera work makes it feel like you’re right there next to the man, watching him breathe his last breaths.

Later, when the tides turn and the throng of protesters overcome the government forces, there’s a haunting shot of a citizen striking one of the cops who had lost his helmet. Blood spurts. Skull fragments fly into the air. He drops to the ground in a heap, motionless. The frantic crowd of protesters, garbed in makeshift armor and weaponry, swarms past his body, on to the next fight.

It’s so real it’s surreal. For most of us, these kinds of scenes only play out in movies and video games.

Winter on Fire unwittingly and unintentionally becomes a film about the horrors of war. No sane person can watch this movie and ever gleefully celebrate any declaration of combat. This is vibrant, hopeful human life extinguished right before our eyes in a way that the US Armed forces doesn’t allow embedded journalists to show. It is a civil war for a nation that should be unified in their culture and traditions. Instead they are fighting among themselves and wasting their most precious resource: the lives of their young people.

Those people died for the most precious of human ideals: freedom. But was that really what they accomplished in the end, or simply a brief respite?

If there is a weakness in the film, it’s the limited political context surrounding the events. There’s only a brief description of the political environment at the beginning of the film, then it’s all focused on the chaos of the protests. The Ukrainian situation was (and still is) much more complicated than a simple matter of one shady politician. More information about the political and cultural forces surrounding the world outside the protests would have been really helpful. But I think that can be forgiven since the producers wanted to have full focus on the remarkable battles between the common people and the government agents who were supposed to be protecting them.

The result is a story that could have been taken right out of the pages of the V for Vendetta graphic novel. People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.

You can watch Winter on Fire on Netflix. For my reviews of other Oscar-nominated documentaries, check out my review of Amy, What Happened, Miss Simone, and Cartel Land

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“Amy” Review. Oscar-nominated documentary series.

The next entry in my series on this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary feature is Amy, a well-crafted film that is like watching a beautiful Rolls Royce crash in slow motion.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably old enough to remember the meteoric rise to stardom that Amy Winehouse experienced, which makes watching this movie so surreal. It can seem like it was so long ago, when in reality it’s only been a little over a decade since her album Back to Black threw her into the global spotlight.

And it was that spotlight that killed her.

Amy is, put very simply, a movie about a troubled but extremely talented young woman with personal demons that were made infinitely worse by the pressures of stardom. You can’t come away from this movie without thinking that if only a few things had been different – if she had gotten treatment earlier or she didn’t get married or if her father hadn’t been her manager – that Amy would still be alive today. And that’s the true tragedy that this movie reveals. We all know how it ends, but it’s very sobering to see how many times it could’ve ended so differently.

The film tells the story of Amy’s life from the beginning, through a remarkable amount of video footage that spans years. It really seems like there was a documentary of her life being filmed since she was a teenager. We’ve lived in a digital age with ever-present cameras for a long time now, but no other film really drives that fact home like Amy. We get to see her grow from a plucky teenager to a worn out adult through camcorder and phone footage that is flawlessly edited together with professional shots and paparazzi snaps. The end result is as eerie as it is effective.

Music drove Amy’s life, and it drives this movie too. From her young days starting with a small label, to her explosive rise to the top of the global charts, we follow Amy as she writes her lyrics based on whatever is happening in her life at the time. All of her songs are about relationships: with her friends, with her family, with her boyfriend (and later husband), and even her relationship with drugs and alcohol. This film cleverly and carefully puts the song lyrics into the context of the story we’re seeing unfold on the screen, and that technique goes a long way towards giving us a very intimate and revealing picture of who Amy was and what her art meant to her.

But the art soon takes a back seat to the drama, and it’s almost painful to watch the last third of this film. As we witness Amy’s long battle with bulimia, drug/alcohol addiction, and a destructive relationship with her enabling husband, the story becomes less about her amazing musical talent and more about problems that could have been fixed with more consistent and stern guidance in Amy’s life. You do definitely see some of that in the movie, as record executives, Amy’s friends, and even therapists try to put her on the right path. But, as is mentioned in a very early part of the movie, Amy was the kind of person who desperately needed someone to tell her no. Her parents were never those people in her childhood, and not quite in her adulthood either.

Nobody really comes out looking good in this movie. Amy’s father comes off as a greedy opportunist, her former husband looks like an enabling self-interested d-bag, her mother comes off as loving but completely ineffectual, and Amy herself appears incapable of maturing past being the petulant young lady whose parents couldn’t control her.

But, most of all, it’s people like us that come out looking the worst. As I saw the paparazzi descend on Amy like vultures time and time again, as I watched late night talk show hosts make fun of her in front of millions, as I watched and remembered the entire world turning against this poor woman who clearly needed help, I couldn’t help but feel that we were all complicit in this. So often in our quest for idols, we lift our stars up to heaven and then tear them down and bury them when they don’t live up to our lofty ideals; offering no help or solace, just judgement. Amy shows us the other side of that experience, and it’s never flattering.

You can watch Amy for free on Amazon Prime. Check out my review of another Oscar-nominated doc, What Happened, Miss Simone