The Meth Epidemic: confrontational documentary doesn’t quite go far enough in investigating a major social problem

Carl Byker, “The Meth Epidemic” (2011)

Having seen and reviewed “Winter’s Bone” last year, I was intrigued to find out more about the methamphetamine addiction epidemic rife in the United States since so little about methamphetamine abuse appears in the Australian mainstream media apart from public broadcasters like ABC and SBS. This is in spite of some information I found on the University of South Australia website which says that methamphetamine use in Australia is the highest in the English-speaking world (see http://www.unisa.edu.au/news/2011/210611.asp). Byker’s documentary for PBS Frontline couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The film follows the history of methamphetamine abuse and addiction in the US since the late 1960s when it was the drug of choice for biker gangs and was associated with the counter-culture, and the direct and indirect devastation the drug can cause to individuals’ health and psychology, and to their families and communities.

Put together fairly simply, the film mixes voice-over narration which lays out the structure and direction of the documentary’ coverage with interviews with medical researchers, police officers, counsellors, an ex-addict and representatives of pharmaceutical companies who either confirm and pad out the narrator’s statements or, in the case of the drug firms’ spokespeople, indict themselves as indifferent or caring more about their firms’ profits than about the effects their products might be having on families and society. The film pulls no punches in demonstrating the immediate effects of on-going meth abuse on users: one interviewee, Bret King, of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon state, hit on the idea of publishing before and after mug shot photographs of meth addicts to show the effects of the addiction on people’s health and appearance and the photographs shown in the film, all very close-up, can be very graphic.

More indirect effects of meth abuse get less attention and are more spoken of than demonstrated: police and social worker interviewees confirm the drug is associated with increased rates of crime, particularly property crime, and domestic violence. The descriptions and anecdotes alone are fairly gruesome so perhaps there’s no need for the physical evidence! The film then explores the issue of the supply of meth and how political control of the supply can be used to reduce the number of new addicts and control levels of addiction among current addicts. The film focusses on how pharmaceutical firms, in their quest for profits on cough medicines (which contain the active ingredient ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, similar in structure to meth and often used to create the stuff), have lobbied politicians against bills proposing to increase regulation of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

Though the film does a detailed job of how the supply of meth can be controlled and denied to drug cartels, it does very little to show how and why people start using meth in the first place. Do people take it up because it increases concentration, self-confidence, bravery, sociability and sexual libido and suppresses appetite? It would have been worth some time for the film-makers to ask addicts and ex-addicts why they started using meth. Are people persuaded to take up meth in a party environment, do they start using it to conform with a crowd at school or college? We might also consider factors like social and economic background: are people in a certain social class or in areas of high unemployment, widespread poverty and few social services more likely to abuse meth? If factors influencing demand are not addressed, then controlling and restricting the supply of meth is only half the answer to controlling meth abuse. People may simply gravitate to a meth substitute whose supply may not be so easily controlled if the original reasons for meth addiction go ignored and aren’t dealt with.

There are further issues associated with meth abuse the film doesn’t touch, such as the fire danger to families and their neighbours that arises when people cook meth in kitchens using chemicals that become flammable when in contact with meth, causing explosions and house or apartment fires; and the poisoning of the building, the property and the soil, possibly even underground water. This is an issue briefly touched upon in Debra Granik’s film “Winter’s Bone” in which the main character investigates the burnt-out ruins of a house that used to be a meth lab while searching for her father. It becomes apparent that meth abuse is more than a public health and social problem; it is a potential environmental problem that could ruin soil, water, vegetation and animal life and make land unusable.

The film does an excellent job of showing how pharmaceutical firms’ indifference to the meth abuse problem in pursuit of sales and profits adds to the problem itself, and how politics itself is all too often dominated by self-interest and influence by lobby groups with loads of money. Unfortunately the scope of the film remains very narrowly restricted to the issue of controlling the supply of meth and not investigating the environment that encourages or causes people to take up meth and other drugs in the first place. Also the political and economic systems in place that allow drug firms to ignore the problems and devastation their products cause to individuals, families and communities should be challenged. Even the fact that we have ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and other drugs that have the potential to be misused in dangerous ways in non-medical contexts should call into question the kind of medicine and the approach to treating sickness and ensuring good health we have and use in modern society. Wouldn’t it be great if there were no need for people to use cough medicines – because people have been taught and trained to keep their bodies healthy and well?

WikiSecrets: questionable motives and agenda in documentary that smears whistle-blower

Marcela Gaviria, “WikiSecrets” (2011)

Took in this documentary on SBS1 last night on the case of Bradley Manning, the US soldier arrested in May 2010 f0r allegedly passing confidential US national defence information to the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks. The documentary mixes interviews with various talking heads including Wikileaks main man Julian Assange, close associates of Manning himself and the odd interviewee or two who probably are more deserving of time in the slammer than Manning.  Manning himself is not interviewed. The documentary covers the soldier’s background in a general way before detailing his involvement in the US army as an intelligence analyst and how he was able to download masses of classified information and US diplomatic cables and pass them onto to others. Correspondent Martin Smith acts as narrator as well as interviewer and together with voice-over and interviews puts together a story in which a troubled young man, at odds with his society and in particular his employer, gets some kind of revenge on the bullies who have tormented him over the years by leaking secrets that will embarrass them and the government that condones what they have done to him even if it means risking his country’s security.

Lasting an hour, the documentary has an earnest style and is put together simply with some live-action recreations of what Manning might have done mixed in with interviews and some film clips. This simple style gives the documentary an air of sincerity and objectivity that disguise its aims. Issues such as the importance of national security over transparency, accountability and the public interest are presented simplistically in a way that suggests American people’s interests and the need for openness in a democracy are subordinate priorities to the needs of the US government, whatever they are (which the documentary won’t tell us, obviously). The overall view is that Manning has done wrong and should be prosecuted for jeopardising US national interests. But as Assange himself more or less says to Smith, the best way to protect secrets is not to have them in the first place. What he also could have thrown at Smith (who seems antagonistic towards Assange compared to his gentle treatment of other interviewees) is that if the US government needs to keep secrets, then what for? If the secrets are to protect the public, shouldn’t the public know what they’re being protected against?

The documentary suggests that Manning’s homosexuality played a large part in his alienation from the US military and its culture, in particular its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which prevents gay men and women from being open about their sexuality. This “blame the victim” stand conveniently lets the hierarchy within the US military and the US Department of Defense off the hook for not changing the culture of the armed forces to be more inclusive and accepting of people who are otherwise capable of carrying out military duties. Manning is portrayed as a loose cannon at war with inner demons which he may have had but this skewed opinion does not necessarily have any bearing on why he decided to download particular data in vast quantities and feed information to Wikileaks. Most likely in his work he saw evidence of illegal activity and other acts that compromise democracy and freedoms as set out in the US Bill of Rights and that his sense of right and wrong led him to act as he did. Usually when people are bullied or discriminated against in ways Manning might have been, and counselling has had limited success, they turn to drink, drugs or suicide; in some very rare cases, they may carry out acts of sabotage or violence against the people who have bullied them.

Manning’s present incarceration and abuse are treated cursorily in the film; Smith doesn’t mention the name of Manning’s lawyer let alone speak to him. The documentary fails to say that during his time in solitary confinement, Manning was humiliated by being forced to appear naked during inspections, was often deprived of sleep or had his prescription glasses taken away from him

There is no mention in the documentary of what Manning might have seen, heard or experienced in Iraq that led him to do what he did. Apparently to Gaviria and Smith it’s as if the sufferings of Iraqi civilians and the hardships of US and other soldiers and their families count for very little against the embarrassment Manning might have caused his government. There is no mention of people who might have died because of Manning’s actions. The film even fails to make much of a case against Assange for not redacting the names of informants and others on US diplomatic cases and other classified documents. People may have died as a result of Assange’s decision but no names are brought to his (and our) attention.

Ultimately viewers are no closer to knowing what Manning actually did that was wrong other than to follow his conscience. Manning may have committed a crime or crimes but the documentary doesn’t reveal what they are. Viewers learn very little about Wikileaks itself and what it actually does; most of what the documentary reveals about the organisation is petty differences between Assange and his deputy Daniel Domscheit-Berg who left Wikileaks to set up OpenLeaks. Assange’s responses to Smith’s questioning are brief compared to some other interviewees’ responses which suggest some creative editing has been used to make the Wikileaks founder look bad.

What also makes “WikiSecrets” look bad is its failure to compare Manning’s actions with that of the person who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity to the Wall Street Journal as a way of punishing her husband Joseph Wilson for reporting that Niger was not exporting uranium to Iraq in the 1990s. Manning’s “crimes” start to look more like the whistle-blower actions they are. The person who leaked Plame’s identity is guilty of a crime for the same reason “WikiSecrets” attempts to paint Assange in a bad way over his initial refusal to redact the names of informants: Plame’s exposure potentially put the lives and careers of diplomats, businesspeople, workers and others plus their families, not just informants, at risk. One has to question the motives and agenda behind the making of “WikiSecrets” in this light.