From Drug Lords to Sea Monsters

in 23rd Tromsø International Film Festival

by Maria Ulfsak-Sheripova

The competition program in Tromsø consists of a range of international films having their Norwegian premieres at the festival. Amongst a diverse selection of films, two documentaries were presented: both well-made and interesting, but in a way the polar opposite of each other. The title of Matthew Cooke’s How to Make Money Selling Drugs exactly describes the first half of the film — which really is about how to become rich by dealing drugs. It is a provocative and satirical look at the subject matter, a 10-step DIY guidebook. Cooke talks to a variety of dealers, experts and cops to give the viewer clear instructions on how a simple street drug dealer can work his way up to becoming a real drug lord.

The second part of the film drops the irony and looks more seriously and very critically at the drug policy in the US, especially the drug criminalization laws. It is clear that popular HBO series like The Wire and Breaking Bad have had a strong impact on popular culture and demystified the drug business by showing it in new ways. The Wire, considered one of the best TV dramas of all time, has been a source of inspiration for the makers of How to Make Money Selling Drugs — the series is frequently referenced in the film and David Simon is one of the interviewees, along with Susan Sarandon, Woody Harrelson, Eminem and others.

The film is actually quite similar to Eugene Jarecki’s documentary The House I Live In, which won the jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 — even parts of the archival footage and quoted facts are the same (both films also use David Simon as a source). But while Jarecki’s film is a very personal and serious one, targeted mostly at festival audiences, the entertaining packaging of How to Make Money Selling Drugs is a smart way to get wider audiences to think about this very important topic. Cooke’s film is in the format of a conventional US documentary: framed as a video game with lots of flashy on-screen graphics and a fast pace that, along with well-known faces appearing onscreen, should ensure success in the US and overseas. Even though How to Make Money Selling Drugs might not offer strikingly new information, it is intelligent, well-argued and looks at its subject matter in depth.

The second documentary film in the competition program, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan (France/UK/USA), is the exact opposite of How to Make Money Selling Drugs. The film, made by two artist-filmmakers from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnographic Lab, is experimental both in form and content, crossing borders between documentary, visual art and anthropology. With absolutely no talking heads, archival footage, stylish on-screen graphics, or a wish to be popular, Leviathan is a revolutionary documentary. It is a film made on a fishing boat with more than ten small digital cameras, and it follows man and nature in a way that has never been seen in cinema before.

The film can be interpreted as an anthropological study, as a look at the commercial fishing industry, as an environmentalist eco-documentary, or as a meditation on the topic of survival and existence, even the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life. Leviathan takes place in the North Atlantic and offers the viewers the chance to see and hear the confrontation between the sea and machines, to follow a breathtaking and hypnotizing stream of sound and images. The film is disturbing and frightening at one moment, then beautiful and poetic the next. But Leviathan is surely one of the most interesting cinema experiences of the year — with an emphasis on the word “experience”.

Edited by Lesley Chow