Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Film review: Unwrapping the drugs debate

Siobhan McGuirk reviews ‘Cocaine Unwrapped’, a documentary that asks good questions but avoids too many answers

July 4, 2011
4 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


  share     tweet  

In the UK, debates over illegal substances swirl across the front pages on a near daily basis. Coverage ranges from rising bloodshed in Mexico to the resignations of British government taskforce investigators whenever knee-jerk policy decisions undermine their research.

Popular films like Traffic and, more recently, Carlos further emphasise the international scale of the narcotics industry. Cocaine in particular is well understood as having severe and tragic local impacts wherever it is produced, trafficked, traded or used. Yet consumption continues to rise, across all socio-economic strata and particularly in the west. More careful examination of the issue is urgently needed.

New documentary Cocaine Unwrapped is a sure-footed step in the right direction, casting a wide net to examine the wheres, whys and hows of the trade while avoiding the sensationalism that often dogs debate.

Director Rachel Seifert mixes reportage with interviews and observational documentary footage to build an appropriately complex and layered picture of the cocaine industry. She carefully probes politicians, dealers and users alike and seemingly refuses to assert any straightforward solutions. Between the lines, however, it becomes clear where accountability for the myriad consequences of the trade might lie.

The wilful ignorance of city slicker casual users in London, revealed in voice over alone, is one recurrent motif. Elsewhere, the devastating impact of gung-ho, US-sponsored coca crop destruction in Columbia is contrasted with Bolivian efforts to respect the cultural significance of the leaf for indigenous communities – while recognising that alternative, legal markets must be cultivated if sales to cartels might lose its appeal to poverty stricken farmers. There is a strange, if unintentional, irony in the idea that commodity markets may prove a way out.

In Mexico, military incursions into towns situated along smuggling routes have left local populations abused and disempowered, an impact replicated in unemployment-ravaged urban centres in the US, where violent state-sponsored police crackdowns exacerbate cycles of crime.

Carefully unfolding and juxtaposing testimonies, statistics and images, Seifert allows the human cost of various ‘wars against drugs’ to be counted. Her film undeniably raises important points for any informed policy debate to consider, though it might have gone further in some areas.

The legalisation/regulation debate is skipped over, despite the obvious implication that prohibition isn’t working. This is arguably a sensible move, considering that any relevant discussion would require hours of screen time. Though popular among some commentators, it is an incredibly messy proposal that would require intricate, coordinated planning, deep social adjustment, the implementation of retrospective justice and international trade agreement, among a host of other conditions which cannot be taken lightly.

Addressing the issue would require the film to take a moral stance on cocaine use per se, beyond the context of lives ruined by its journey to the user. Cocaine Unwrapped, perhaps aiming not to alienate any viewers on such grounds, not least western users whose buying habits can most directly impact the trade, avoids the question.

Also largely left out of the equation are the incredibly wealthy, major cartel players, who make billions of dollars, year on year from cocaine, in addition to other lucrative criminal activities. The amount of complicity they can buy – from local police chiefs to high-ranking officials – is practically immeasurable and it is not only in this film that they seem somewhat untouchable.

It would be unfair to ask that Cocaine Unwrapped cover everything, and any frustration over what could have been said stems from the questions the film poses, rather than any shortcomings. The film offers a coherent, patient and much needed survey of a global issue in which accountability is misplaced and ignored and action regularly taken without analysis or care for the exacerbation caused. In emphasising the complexity and complicities of a global issue, Seifert has produced a film that demands to be widely seen.

‘Cocaine Unwrapped’ was premiered at the London Open City Documentary Festival, and is now being released online and around the country. For further details see www.cocaineunwrapped.com

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally


10