When German Cabrera narrates his life in The Meddler (Alex Roberts & Daniel Leclair, 2020), he posits himself as a man on a mission. He may be a dumpy middle-aged mechanic in a polo shirt, fishing vest and dad cap – a father of five from a run-down neighbourhood in Guatemala City – but, in his mind, he’s a virtuous vigilante, the crusading hero of his own story. ‘They call me The Meddler,’ he says – so named, supposedly, for going into ‘places where he doesn’t belong’.
Cabrera is essentially a pro bono stringer for news networks, an ambulance chaser and real-life NightcrawlerThe title of the great Jake Gyllenhaal–starring film (Dan Gilroy, 2014) about a morally bankrupt stringer working the streets of Los Angeles. who comes running, video camera in hand, when the police scanner reports on violent crime. That’s a near-nightly occurrence in a city in which life is cheap, corruption is rife and police are a mixture of clueless, powerless, paid off and scared. It’s a Guatemalan Gotham (‘In 2013, there were 2100 recorded homicides in Guatemala City,’ an opening title card reads. ‘98% of these crimes were unprosecuted. It was the 12th most violent city in the world’), and The Meddler is the hero twenty-four-hour news networks deserve.
‘I believe God has put me on this Earth for a reason. To shine a light on our injustice. To stop the violence before it arrives at my family’s door,’ Cabrera states, seeming, at times, as if he’s playing a character: a solitary man of integrity in pursuit of justice. In some ways, this documentary – made in fits and starts, over seven years, by a US/Australian filmmaking crew – matches the tenor of Cabrera’s words. It’s often scored (by Stephen Rae) and edited (by Rodrigo Balart) like an action thriller, with the danger and lawlessness of Guatemala City’s nocturnal underworld played up. For much of its scant seventy-one-minute running time, The Meddler wants to believe in its eponymous figure, wants to buy his self-spun mythos. Yet, along the way, the filmmakers also do things that no genre movie would, deliberately blurring the lines between wrong and right, revelling in moral murkiness, and fingering both themselves and viewers for their complicity in this whole filmed entertainment – the film becoming a study of the power of the camera and the nature of voyeurism.
A key scene in this regard – a turning point in the narrative of the movie, its making and the audience’s relationship with the depicted subject – comes in a sequence midway through the film, when we see him chasing a woman down the street with a metal pole, something that’s even more disturbing to witness on screen than it is to read in print.
By then, the Cabrera we first met – the family man, a religious figure who gives his footage to networks for free, who pursues only truth and justice – has already been called into question. Seeing him leap into action quickly feels like watching someone acting out a male fantasy. He’s now separated from his wife, with intimations of violence between them. He’s lost his family due to what he confesses is ‘an addiction’: spending every night out filming. No longer having a nagging wife, though, Cabrera rationalises, means he can film whatever he wants.
He’s doing this in a new role, another created media identity within The Meddler / The Meddler. After years of videoing, Cabrera has become ‘The Night Watcher’ on news network T13 Noticias, a minor celebrity who delivers his footage to late-night viewers. Due to the dictates of television viewership and the demands of providing content, the subjects of his gaze change: he’s no longer videoing the victims of violent crimes, demanding police action and justice on behalf of a frightened community. Instead, he’s turned into a low-life muckraker, filming drunks, pimps, sex workers for the titillation of viewers who want a taste of forbidden night-life. It feels entirely like exploitation, rife with class politics – like a contemporary Guatemalan parallel to the white-trash parasitism of lowbrow syndicated American television fare like Cops or Jerry Springer in the 1990s.
The evocation of Cops strikes at a key suspicion of any film about vigilantism, be it fiction or non-: that this is really someone playing out their police fantasies (‘My car is fitted with lights and sirens so I can move like a cop,’ Cabrera says aloud), minus any pesky restrictions or responsibilities. ‘When you feel the camera in your hands, you forget everything,’ Cabrera says, early in the piece. ‘You forget about your family. The camera becomes your shield. You feel like a hero.’ Behind that shield, he starts to seem less virtuous crusader, more standard crooked cop: harassing citizens for being intoxicated; profiling kids by their outfits (‘I’ve filmed people doing nothing, but the way they’re dressed tells me they’re criminals’); meddling not with the powers that be, but with people on the streets who might just be having an argument. ‘It’s my duty to expose people stepping outside the law,’ Cabrera says, which is a far cry from shining a light on violent crimes, their victims and a system that so rarely finds perpetrators.
Once he becomes known as The Night Watcher, people start pushing back on him filming them, on his right to do so. Usually they’re drunk, but Cabrera is drunk with power – which leads to the moment when, in response to a woman who dares talk back to him, he starts pestering her with a metal pole, eventually chasing her down the street like he’s chasing off a feral dog.
Interestingly, in the first cut of The Meddler, Roberts (an Australian filmmaker who’d travelled through Guatemala as a twentysomething backpacker) and Leclair (an American photojournalist who spent years working for Reuters in Guatemala) left out that sequence – in part, because they were worried that it might make their subject too repellent to audiences. But it was Cabrera himself who called them out on it. ‘He was like: “Why is that scene not in there?”’ recounts Roberts. ‘He knew we were there to shoot it, and didn’t think that, in that moment, he was being portrayed or perceived in a weird or a bad way.’ After that, the filmmakers vowed to just portray their Nightcrawler ‘as honestly’ as possible, not ‘worry[ing] about what the audience thinks of him’.
Receiving the footage – shot by Leclair and co-cinematographer / co-producer Darren Hauck – back in Sydney, Roberts had a ‘more objective view’ of the film’s central figure than his collaborators, who’d known and worked alongside Cabrera in Guatemala. Viewing the raw material, Roberts essentially served as a proto-audience, the ambivalence he felt foreshadowing that of future viewers. ‘That’s how I felt receiving all that footage,’ he recalls. ‘I’d see things and think, “That’s really great” – where he’s helping homeless people, or he’s using video for a crusade for justice. But then I’d see other things and think, “Oh, now I’m not sure anymore.”’ Roberts nonetheless sees this uncertainty as an asset: ‘That’s what the film does: it shows you these very different sides to him.’
When the Australian-based director first met the other filmmakers in Malawi, while they were all working on separate projects, he was seduced by tales of Cabrera, seeing him almost as ‘this superhero character’. Soon enough, though, Roberts started to see the film’s subject as ‘a bit of a pest’. The moment when The Meddler’s ‘nobility goes out the window’, for him, too, is when he wields the metal pole. ‘That’s the turning point for sure, where the pendulum swings back the other way, and you’re no longer sure how you feel about this person,’ Roberts offers.
Viewers may have similar questions about The Meddler itself as well as its filmmakers. Roberts admits that the film carries the same ‘element of voyeurism’ as Cabrera’s video vigilantism, having suggested in a previous interview that the production is ‘voyeuristically looking at a voyeur’.Alex Roberts, quoted in Michelle Wang, ‘“Like a Voyeur Watching a Voyeur”: An Interview with Alex Roberts and Daniel Leclair’, Melbourne International Film Festival website, 21 August 2020, <https://miff.com.au/blog/view/6035/alike-a-voyeur-watching-a-voyeura-an-interview-with-alex-roberts-and-daniel-leclair>, accessed 9 November 2020.
The filmmakers use a device in which they cut between their footage of Cabrera filming and his own, the slight shift in perspective speaking volumes. They never try and retain fly-on-the-wall, observational purity: one memorable moment finds Cabrera lecturing Leclair about recording audio and being reactive, fleet-footed enough to run or chase at a moment’s notice.
In many ways, it’s all a cinematic exercise in rubbernecking: tailing a guy who’s crossing literal/figurative lines by walking into crime scenes. The footage can be brutal: through the lenses of both Cabrera and the production, we see dead bodies, people bleeding, distressed relatives wailing. Crowds forever stand around and watch, symbolising both the role of the spectator and a societal normalisation of violence and death.
Things take another genre-movie turn – this time, it’s personal! – when Cabrera’s absent father is arrested for, he says, ‘molesting a girl’. Cabrera instantly believes his dad is innocent, and sets off for Nicaragua, where his father lives: ‘I have to help my dad. He’s my blood. If every day I’m helping strangers, how could I not help my own father?’ So he and his eldest son, Kevin, drive 900 kilometres through the night, through El Salvador and Honduras, to get into Nicaragua. At the border, Cabrera calls himself a ‘reporter’, and though it’s ultimately a failed gambit – he needs permission from the consulate, which he doesn’t have; so, after a week holed up in a motel on the border, he reluctantly turns back – his choice of proffered occupation betrays his self-conception.
Cabrera effectively wants to be an investigator: interviewing suspects and witnesses, demanding to see evidence. We see him, in subsequent months, on the case, through footage often captured on hidden camera. ‘We are going to the scene to see if the witnesses are telling the truth,’ he says, a gumshoe whose mode of investigation obviously carries echoes of doorstepping journalists. ‘If my father is guilty, then he must pay. If not, then he must go free,’ Cabrera solemnly intones – the upshot being that he believes himself to be the ultimate arbiter of truth and justice, his camera a tool of divination.
Of course, Cabrera’s belief that the justice system – in Nicaragua, as in Guatemala – is inept and corrupt is hardly contradicted by the hidden-camera footage we see of his father’s hearing, which takes place in a tiny, run-down shithole office, with the accused wearing a blue singlet, face bruised from in-prison beatings. His father pleads guilty in order to strike a plea bargain, and this narrative closes as quickly as it opened. ‘I believe my father is innocent,’ Cabrera laments, ‘and I feel like I’ve failed him.’
In this moment, Cabrera feels both humanised and demonised, a figure of hubris whose heart is, in its own way, in the right place. That’s part of The Meddler’s greater profiling – its titular subject a figure of action whose actions are questionable, someone whose addiction to danger is both admirable and deplorable. It’s a moral study of noble intentions and ignoble behaviours; the ideals one has, and the failure to live up to them; the gap between intentions and actualisation.
While the filmmaking can feel incomplete (sometimes, whole years pass between edits; it’s a narrow look at a diverse country; and, by having Cabrera hold the narrative, there’s no attempt at objectivity, only subjectivity), The Meddler manages to address many themes in its brief running time – and, more so, manages to create a genuine sense of unease in even the most hardened viewers. There’s a feeling of real danger in the air: both in front of the camera, like when Cabrera finds the dismembered corpse of a bus driver dumped on his driveway as a warning from local gangs; and emanating from behind the scenes, like when a people smuggler tried to strongarm the pair, on the Honduran–Nicaraguan border, into transporting immigrants through Guatemala and into Mexico, and Leclair no longer had the excuse of working for a wire service as a bailout. ‘This time, I wasn’t working for anyone, so I had no excuse, no way to get out,’ Leclair says, ‘I was going down as far as this thing was going to go.’
Cabrera’s response, on seeing his portrayal, was wishing it was less personal, more violent. That reaction to The Meddler was symbolic of the complexity, and contradictions, of The Meddler. He reasoned that the film was about the spate of violent crimes in Guatemala City, and that audiences really needed to see and feel those horrors. But, ultimately, he just thought it’d make a more entertaining movie. ‘He’d love to have more action and violence in there,’ Leclair relays.
Showing its antihero as a flawed man with a failed marriage, a jailed father, pliable ideals and questionable morals, after all, doesn’t live up to the vigilante mythos of The Meddler. As his final words in the film – voiced over footage of him loading a gun, though spoken as if he’s standing on the roof of a skyscraper, overlooking a lawless city he’s out to bring order to – Cabrera pronounces: ‘I believe everyone in this world has a purpose. You have to follow your instincts. And mine pulls me to this city. I’m not afraid to die on these streets. This is where I belong.’
|1||The title of the great Jake Gyllenhaal–starring film (Dan Gilroy, 2014) about a morally bankrupt stringer working the streets of Los Angeles.|
|2||Alex Roberts, quoted in Michelle Wang, ‘“Like a Voyeur Watching a Voyeur”: An Interview with Alex Roberts and Daniel Leclair’, Melbourne International Film Festival website, 21 August 2020, <https://miff.com.au/blog/view/6035/alike-a-voyeur-watching-a-voyeura-an-interview-with-alex-roberts-and-daniel-leclair>, accessed 9 November 2020.|