Originally published by The New York Times
The director Matthew Heineman has an uncanny ability to get his camera into difficult places. For his Oscar-nominated documentary “Cartel Land,” he embedded himself with armed vigilante groups fighting the Mexican drug cartels. For “City of Ghosts,” he filmed a group of Syrian journalists in Raqqa who risked their lives to expose ISIS atrocities.
His cameras have been just as intrepid for the Showtime documentary series, “The Trade,” which returns Friday for its second season. People often ask Heineman how he gets such intimate access, he said Monday over afternoon coffee. But the access is the essence of the job; he wouldn’t bother without it.
The challenge now may be accessing people’s living rooms. Season 1 tackled the opioid crisis, which for all its horrors is not especially polarizing. But Season 2 goes deep into the dangers facing Central American migrants — a subject about which many Americans appear to have made up their minds.
“I think the first priority with this show,” he said, “as with anything I’ve ever done, is to try to take an issue that people think they understand, that’s often plastered across the headlines, and to try to humanize it. To try to put a human face to it.”
In conversation, Heineman eschews political talk — his job, he says, is “to show and not tell” with as much nuance as possible. To that end, he and the series’s showrunner, Pagan Harleman, went broad, sending journalists all over the map, north and south of the border.
One team embedded with Border Patrol officers and Homeland Security agents in McAllen, Tex. Another tracked investigations into Naasón Joaquín García, who has been charged with running a child pornography and sex trafficking operation from his Mexico-based global megachurch.
Another group, led by the Emmy-winning journalist Monica Villamizar, followed a young woman named Magda and her family on their long journey from Honduras to the U.S. border — much of it atop a freight train — after Magda’s husband was murdered.
“I clicked with the family, and we started just by trying to be with them through the really hard time, the funeral,” Villamizar said by phone. “And then we just spent time with them and realized that Magda was in real danger.”
Villamizar and the others spent more than a year and half following leads and earning trust. That kind of long-term investment in a single project, she said, was something she had never been able to make before. But the attachments she formed also made the project tougher.
“To be honest, it was very hard — it was painful in a psychological way,” she said. But in the end, she added, “I was very happy to be able to be given this opportunity because as a Hispanic reporter working in the U.S., I always thought the immigration was something that I really wanted to take an in depth look at.”
In a cafe in midtown Manhattan, Heineman discussed the scope of the four-part Season 2 and the challenges of doing justice to such a complex subject. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Some viewers will be more willing to see the opioid crisis in humanitarian terms than they do the migrant crisis. What’s missing from the discussion of migrant issues that you try to get at in this series?
For one, the migrant crisis and anything involving the border between us and Mexico has been highly politicized. What I’ve tried to do in all my projects is make something that’s apolitical. I believe it’s the job of a documentary to create discussion, to create debate. You can’t just preach to the choir. You have to, hopefully, allow both sides to come to the table and be understood.
That’s one answer. The other is: I think that over the last couple years, when people talk about the migrant crisis, it is so often relegated to the border and to legislation in Washington, and the humanity is lost in the discussion. So I feel like that was our job — to bring back the humanity into the debate.
What are some parallels you see between the two crises?
We are tied to Mexico and Central America whether we like it or not. People for decades have immigrated, have been smuggled from Central America — frankly, from around the world — through Mexico into the U.S. This is not something created by our current political climate; this is something that’s been going on for a very, very long time. It’s part of the ecosystem of our country.
But crossing the border used to be much safer. It used to be run by mom-and-pop shops, often family-owned, literally, even a decade ago. Now almost everything that goes across the border, whether it’s drugs or humans, is controlled by the cartel. Now you’re a commodity. You are out in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night with people with guns and masks, and that’s not necessarily a position you want to be in.
Are there elements that will surprise people who take the more liberal-minded position in the immigration debate?
You’re trying to make me say political things, and I hate talking about politics. I think that every person who works in law enforcement isn’t evil. We follow Homeland Security personnel, we follow Border Patrol personnel attempting to fight human smuggling, human trafficking. We’re also trying to humanize their perspective and where they’re coming from. One of our characters [a Homeland Security investigator] is of Mexican heritage, and he deeply empathizes with the people coming northward. I feel like it’s my job to try to break preconceived notions of who people are or their motivations for doing what they do.
Still, the politics are fraught. Did your relationships with law enforcement require a lot of trust-building?
Absolutely. We knew that law enforcement would be a big part of the story; we had a lot of connections that we built in Season 1. But as always, it takes a long time to actually get cameras rolling and to get into the places you want to get into. You can’t just helicopter in and out. You need to spend weeks and weeks, and months and months of time with these characters to develop the rapport, to develop the trust, to become a part of the fabric of their daily lives, so that you can capture real human moments. One of the benefits of long-form documentary filmmaking is that we have the privilege of time. With so many other forms of journalism, you have one day, two days to get a story.
How did you find Magda? Did you commit early on to following her and her family, come what may?
With Magda, we were filming in San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, when her husband was murdered by MS-13. We had no idea where that story was going to go. Little did we know, it would become this epic journey of escaping the violence that killed her husband, and all the trappings that it comes with — having to deal with smugglers and abandoning friends and family members. Magda’s story is really the through-line for all four episodes.
We’re constantly debating and discussing, and nothing we do is scripted, nothing we do is planned. When I was 21 years old, a mentor of mine in the film world said that if you end up with the story you started with, then you weren’t listening along the way. I think that’s good advice for life; I think that’s good advice for filmmaking. Don’t be dogmatic, be open to the story changing. Be open to wonderful accidents of life.
So many things could have happened on Magda’s journey. I’m thinking of the scene in Episode 2 when they hop the train, right after we’ve learned how many people die by falling off. To say nothing of all the kidnappings.
These are very difficult films to make, but the difficulty pales in comparison to what our subjects go through on a daily basis. I derive so much inspiration and hope from the people we film, who are going through such life-altering circumstances or journeys, or life threatening situations, or overcoming certain things. So yes, this is a show about difficult subject matter. But I think audiences — as did I and everyone who worked on this series — will find enormous hope and inspiration in the perseverance of the human spirit, which just permeates almost every one of our characters.