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Matt Heineman ‘05 Up for Docu Oscar

This Oscar season is a good one for the College. In addition to Tom McArdle ‘91’s nomination in the Editing category, Matt Heineman ‘05’s film Cartel Land (2015) has been nominated for Best Documentary. Here’s the competition:

Matt Heineman Oscars.jpgMatt Heineman Profile.jpgAt the College, Matt was a history major and a recruited lacrosse player. He appeared in 47 games over four seasons,. He had wanted to teach, but Teach For America did not want him, so he and three friends embarked on a 90-day cross country trip. Matt had never picked up a video camera nor taken a film class until that point in his life, but the group visited 48 states and interviewed dozens of millennials in an effort that resulted in his first film Our Time, which he finished while working as an assistant editor for NBC Sports. Matt then offered the film to HBO, which didn’t like it enough to buy it, but admired it sufficiently to offer Matt a job. He worked for two years under director Susan Froemke and producer John Hoffman on The Alzheimer’s Project, learning his craft in the process. His next project was Escape Fire, The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare (2012), an Emmy-nominated documentary about America’s broken, costly healthcare system. He followed up with Cartel Land, which his website describes as follows:

With unprecedented access, CARTEL LAND is a riveting, on-the-ground look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy—the murderous Mexican drug cartels.

In the Mexican state of Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as “El Doctor,” leads the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the violent Knights Templar drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Meanwhile, in Arizona’s Altar Valley—a narrow, 52-mile-long desert corridor known as Cocaine Alley—Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American veteran, heads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, whose goal is to stop Mexico’s drug wars from seeping across our border. Filmmaker Matthew Heineman embeds himself in the heart of darkness as Nailer, El Doctor, and the cartel each vie to bring their own brand of justice to a society where institutions have failed.

From executive producer Kathryn Bigelow (THE HURT LOCKER, ZERO DARK THIRTY), CARTEL LAND is a chilling, visceral meditation on the breakdown of order and the blurry line between good and evil. At the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Heineman received both the Directing Award and Special Jury Award for Cinematography in the U.S. Documentary competition.

In an interview with Anthem about the filming of Cartel Land, Matt showed an admirably thoughtful self-awareness. An excerpt:

The places I pushed myself into, the footage that I was able to get, and the positions that I found myself in by the ninth month was a lot different than the situations I would’ve felt comfortable pushing myself into the first month. For better or worse, I think that’s one of the scariest things about reporting on something like this. You’re constantly balancing the fact that you’re becoming more and more used to being in these situations while acknowledging that this complacency is what leads to bad decisions. Even though I became more and more comfortable filming in dicey situations, even though I pushed myself further and further as the film went on, you still have to have your antennas up at all times, especially in this dark and murky world of vigilantism.

What a fine example Matt is of a liberally educated person: he graduated with no film-making skills, but he obviously knew how to learn, and when his time in Hanover ended, his education in the cinema began. Of course, the knowledge that he needs to make documentaries is a great deal broader than manipulating a camera: it includes thoroughly studying a situation, earning the trust of subjects, developing and telling a story in words and images, and organizing the entire project as a business enterprise. Such abilities come from a deeper and broader education than can be obtained in film school.

Addendum: Like Cartel Land, Escape Fire was widely praised. Matt talks about his background and the latter film in a C-SPAN interview:


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