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.


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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


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.