Heineman shot the footage, and the scenes provide a very intimate look at the process of the illegal drug trade - including close ups of meth being cooked in the Mexican dessert. The first question of the evening, "How did you get access to the inner workings of major drug cartel people? How scared were you?"
"The more I was invested, the more obsessed I became with finding out the story. At, first it was good versus evil, like a western, black and white. The lines became blurry, I stayed with it until I got some answers. There's been coverage, but it's been glorified. I didn't want talking heads or officials, I wanted real people to create a window."
Cartel Land follows two men. One is a Mexican doctor who inspires the people of Michoacán to take up arms to defend themselves against the extortion and violence of the drug cartels. The other is a man who has rallied fellow Americans to guard the border against Mexicans bringing drugs into the U.S.
Heineman said that one of his goals was to find the ramifications when citizens take the law into their own hands.
Shooting over nine months, he took a lot of time getting to know his subjects. "I had no agenda. If you end up with the same story you started with, you're probably missing something." He said he was open to characters changing and allowed the roller coaster that ensued.
When he first began researching south of the border, he was told about a "Doc with dark eyes, who was known for his unbelievable charisma, people flocked to him like Moses. He has personal flaws, that's what I wanted to show. I didn't want a neat box with a bow."
First audience question, "Did you worry about legal issues, about self- incrimination? How did you avoid being part of the story?" Heineman answered with a question - "Are you a lawyer?" Yes," answered the guy in the audience.
The director answered, "Yes, it's a hard, complicated film. You don't ask the guys in the middle of a shoot-out to sign a release."
As alliances were always shifting, it was hard to decipher. Heineman said at times, he didn't know who he was dealing with, a member of a cartel or auto defense. "I pushed myself," he said. Another audience question, "I'm a fellow journalist. You put a camera on them and they were reprehensible."
Heineman said, "It mattered a ton that the film was released in Mexico, it was released the same day as it was in the US. I went to the premiere in Mexico, in June, it was incredibly emotional." A woman attending the premiere in Mexico asked the director why he, as an American, had the right to tell these stories. Heineman answered, "It's about how you relate to human beings."