At the Documentary Edge Festival: fringe communities and marijuana decriminalisation.
The bleak landscape of those living in the Svalka, one of the biggest rubbish dumps in Europe doesn’t make for pleasant viewing. But in patiently documenting the life of those living in these conditions, Hanna Polak’s Something Better to Come is a rare glimpse of a fringe community in poverty. The structure of the film is mostly formless, though it loosely follows 11-year-old Yula as she grows up to become a young woman, covering a timespan of 14 years. While it never achieves the epic intimacy of Michael Apted’s Up Series, there’s the sense that she’s a protagonist who developed organically along with the filming, rather than being handpicked as the subject from the start. The earlier sections of the film, for instance, have a wider focus on the community as a whole. It’s only in the latter parts that Yula takes the spotlight, burdened with an unexpected pregnancy and forced to take serious steps to ensure the safety of her child’s future.
Polak manages to avoid falling into the trap of merely documenting misery, giving us glimpses of innocence and playfulness throughout the film, not just the relentless hunting for scraps to survive. Wisely, she also never resorts to any directorial flourishes that might detract from the truth, relying solely on her straightforward handheld camerawork. This isn’t entertainment; it’s real life. But that’s not to say there aren’t some startlingly evocative images throughout the film. A howling dog on top of a mountain of rubbish against a backdrop of countless crows can’t go without mention, captivating for all its portent.
In the end, you’ll be glad to know, Yula herself manages to find some semblance of comfort, or at least the normal life that she always longed for. It happens abruptly in the film’s epilogue, so much so it’s almost hard to believe. And while it doesn’t mean happily ever after, or come close to answering any questions about the lives of all the others, it’s the closest thing to a real life fairytale for someone from such bleak conditions. The title of the film, derived from a quote by Maxim Gorky, describes the beating heart of the film. No matter how miserable things get, no matter how low these people’s expectations of life sink, there’s always that hope that things will get better, and that’s what we live for. It might be a glib message to the average person, but it’s this belief that keeps the people in Polak’s film pushing onward.
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Though it’s not the first documentary on marijuana decriminalisation, Arik Reiss’s Druglawed localises its concerns to New Zealand society and history. And, in doing so, shows us how we stepped into the moral crusade against narcotics to begin with. Beginning with Mother Mary Aubert, it posits the idea of how differently marijuana and its practitioners might be perceived today had New Zealand not stepped into Nixon’s ill-fated War On Drugs. In doing so it exposes the damages inflicted by this policy and the ingrained prejudices of society at large. Druglawed makes a practically airtight case for marijuana decriminalisation, and is at its most forceful when the drug is compared statistically to alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs.
The fundamental question becomes why alcoholism is everywhere, almost to the extent that it’s encouraged while marijuana use remains a crime. The drunken, debauched, and violent Otago University orientation week celebrations are an effective example, which this documentary exploits. While hordes of drunken teenagers antagonise a small army of policemen amidst the mayhem of burning cars and trashed student flats, one street over a small group of activists casually and peacefully share a joint.
It’s a film that encourages a more enlightened view of marijuana use, portraying it as a miracle drug for the terminally ill and a relatively harmless recreational activity for the responsible user. On this level, Druglawed is perhaps too one-sided. All of its interview subjects, which include professors and health professionals, are consistently, even passionately, in favour of decriminalisation. Less than a minute is devoted to the potential harm it can cause to sensitive individuals. All that said, Druglawed justifiably and proudly wears its bias in order to combat the gross political resistance it flies in the face of. Quotes and footage of Richard Nixon’s bravado and vitriol are almost enough in themselves to represent this opposing and ultimately ill-founded perspective. Within the context of recent New Zealand history, the lack of attention given to the subject of legal highs also seems like a missed opportunity, but a minor quibble given the documentary’s impressive historical scope.
Whether or not you are personally for or against marijuana, Druglawed is an urgent plea to everybody in this country to reclaim basic freedoms—to follow our trend of being a nation who are ahead of that pragmatic curve, rather than behind it.