Rachel Seifert explores the overt and hidden costs of the ‘war on drugs’ in her documentary essay, Cocaine Unwrapped. From the environmental and human costs of the drug war in South America and beyond to the impacts of incarceration and street violence, the film is a meticulous portrayal of an intractable international problem with cocaine as one of the world’s prime drugs and most dangerous commodity.

The controversial, multibillion dollar “war on drugs” led by governments in the USA and South America is the subject of Rachel Seifert’s documentary, Cocaine Unwrapped. Travelling from the streets of Baltimore to the violent suburbs of Juarez, Mexico, the film ventures deep into the coca producing regions of Bolivia and Colombia, bringing forth an urgent story of crisis proportions. With remarkable access to both powerful players as well as powerless victims, the film questions the ethical premise guiding the “war,” while simultaneously presenting constructive alternatives to the current policy approach.

Seifert presents a compelling case to question the contemporary validity of the outdated “war on drugs” policy initiated by US President Nixon in 1971, and devised during a vastly different socio-economic reality. the film opens on the streets of Baltimore where urban decline has replaced the middleclass prosperity of suburban neighbourhoods, accompanied by large-scale unemployment and poverty. Retired policeman Franklin identifies the underlying problems such as lack of education and career opportunities, conditions that have steadily worsened over the last three decades in American society. Using long distance telephoto cinematography, the camera captures street drug deals amongst the young, mostly black population. It’s worth drawing a parallel with The Interrupters (2010, Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz) which explores similar subject matter of escalating, drug-related violence and the high incidence of teenage murders amongst the youth of Chicago. Both works identify the failure of conventional law enforcement and suggest a complete reanalysis of this issue from a socio-economic perspective instead of a criminal justice one. Using hard facts, Seifert critiques US domestic law enforcement and judicial systems which have resulted in nearly half a million mostly African Americans prisoners being incarcerated on drug-related charges in American jails. She gains access to Erik Thompson, a convicted drug dealer in the Maryland Prison Facility who suggests that the social costs of incarceration in the form of ongoing stigmatisation and disadvantage are perhaps greater than any benefits of this  form of punishment.

Using a comparative approach, Seifert constructs an optimistic narrative which is at once critical of the impacts of the hard line ‘war on drugs’ while also offering alternative models which are proving more effective. Using the examples of Colombia and Bolivia, the narrative explores the dissimilar policy approach employed by the two nations. With financial support from the US, Colombia is waging a violent, indiscriminate attack on rural farmlands in the hope of targeting coca plantations. The camera accompanies army regiments at work, manually destroying coca and food crops, while also abusing the human rights of the farmers. There is a desperate and hopeless feel to the whole operation as the camera focuses on the helpless farmers who watch their food crops razed to the ground. In addition, aerial pesticide sprays finish off anything that is left standing.

Cocaine Unwrapped, directed by Rachael Seifert

Seifert uses patient, close-up camerawork in combination with mobile tracking shots to transport the viewer into the heart of this story as well as creating empathetic portrayals of the farmers. At the same time she includes voices of the Colombian soldiers who describe the unpleasant physical and emotional challenges of destroying livelihoods, thus exploring the paradox that both the farmers and the Colombian army are in fact minor pawns in a larger game being played by nations at a global level.

In many respects, the film has a wide canvas and successfully draws connections between the Drug Policy discourse as well as the unintended consequences of the policy implementation. The serene, rural Colombian landscape of flowing rivers and green forests is contaminated by the aerial pesticide sprays, and local doctors note a rising incidence of sickness amongst the residents. This harks back to the American experience with DDT in the 1950’s where the pesticide was employed without sufficient scrutiny of the harmful human consequences, resulting in its subsequent ban. However, equally harmful chemicals continue to be sprayed in Colombian villages. The essay-like narrative of Seifert’s film delves deep and wide to also analyse the civil consequences of draconian State actions; large-scale displacement, social fragmentation and the alienation of peasant farmers from the authoritarian state all resulting in conflict and Guerrilla surges. Farmers testify that they have actually turned to coca farming following the heavy handedness of the army.

«nearly half a million mostly african americans prisoners being incarcerated on drug related charges»

Rachel Seifer

Seifert now offers an alternative to this ineffective approach through a study of the Bolivian experience where the nation has rejected the universal global model of fighting drugs, instead adopting a local, consultative approach, thereby significantly reducing coca production. In stark contrast to the dissonance in Colombia, the narrative incorporates the cohesive and positive dialogue between the citizens and their leadership at town meetings. While the war on drugs is debated even amongst mainstream news media in the USA such as CNBC1 and Fox News,2 Seifert’s arguments progress beyond examining the causes of the problem or merely criticising the policy implementation. The focus on alternative models which seem to partially resolve endemic problems of drug production and violence – a constructive use of the documentary medium. Importantly the filmmaker successfully moves beyond analysis by offering direction towards a resolution. The film hints at US culpability in the ongoing domestic tensions within Colombia and Mexico. Opposition leaders from both nations are openly critical of US interference in state policy through its funding of the war on narcotics. The film suggests a murky nexus between politicians, drugs and corruption through the Mexican experience where US funding has created civil warlike conditions involving the army, drug lords and political opportunists.

«patient, close-up camerawork in combination with mobile tracking shots»

The narrative continually returns to the individual stories of those caught in the midst of the warfare, underscoring a sensitive intimacy even within the complex subject matter. Aesthetically, the film cinematically depicts the built and natural environment while using probing cinematography to capture revealing, unscripted moments of interaction between the film subjects. Seifert also uses dark, ambient music to evoke an apocalyptic mood within the film, however, often the visual strength of the film seems sufficiently suggestive. Statistics and expert voices are used to examine the role played by global historical, political and economic factors within the current crisis. Along with drug conglomerates, Western nations are also implicated as they provide the main markets for illegal drugs and the narrative repeatedly highlights the ‘denial’ strategy of Western consumers who refuse to acknowledge their own role in the problem. This opinion is held across most of Latin America. While the war on drugs continues much like any conventional war, those caught in the crossfire are easily dismissed as ‘collateral damage’ and it is these casualties that are uncovered by Seifert. The film boldly presents an alternative, modern and humanitarian lens through which to view the complex subject.
1 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43248071/ns/ us_news-crime_and_courts/t/global-war-drugs-hasfailed-key-panel-says/

2 http://www.foxnews.com/world/2011/06/02/majorpanel-drug-war-failed-legalize-marijuana/


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Shweta Kishore
Kishore is a writer, documentary filmmaker and Features Programmer for the Human Rights and Arts Film Festival, Australia.