Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Reviewing VICE's Documentary: "Russia's Deadliest Drug"

Recently I've noticed a lot of reposts of a 2011 VICE documentary on Russia. It's called "Russia's Deadliest Drug" and looks into how Krokodil, a moon-shined heroin substitute made from over-the-counter drugs and household items, is destroying many lives in Russia's east. The documentary is a kind of follow-up to an investigation the magazine launched into the teenage heroin epidemic in general with a reporter, Alison Severs, being sent to Novokuznetsk in Siberia. (Please be aware this documentary is NSFW and could be considered to show disturbing footage. I have reposted it below, but please be advised it depicts scenes of drug abuse.)

VICE does a pretty good job to raise awareness of the shocking epidemic of krokodil and its effects on Russia as a whole. The human angle on the story is touching and bravely shown with the VICE team being unafraid to approach addicts, follow dealers round an out-of-town market, and enter the premises of the evangelical Christian groups who try and resolve the situation. VICE works most effectively when dealing with these kind of stories. Alison Severs was a great choice of host as, unlike the documentaries hosted by VICE co-founder Shane Smith, (which I must add I am also a fan of - they're well-made and humorous) there was less danger of a big, gonzo-journalistic personality getting in the way of the object. She was a good interpreter for a Western audience. Her stylish clothes contrast interestingly with the decrepit tower blocks and discarded syringes of her surroundings and there is a real sense of her being out of place which added a degree of tension.

As a student of the Russian language I especially appreciated the little things like not dubbing over the interviewees in English. The subtitling and translations seemed fine and the camera-work and editing were intelligent. Especially for the online documentary format a good sense of plotting is highly important. The documentary was logically structured and had great pace.

Only at a few points did the documentary become problematic. A scene in which the camera crew, packed into a tiny LADA, were supposedly followed by Kazakh drug dealers was exciting albeit short in actual evidence. I understand how frightening that must have been for all involved, and am pleased it was left in the final cut, but making accusations of drug-trafficking and linking them to a country is pretty serious. This could almost do with another investigation but VICE seemed more concerned with building a mid-documentary set piece to construct for the trailer. This must be the limit of a magazine like VICE. It is able to produce a short documentary aimed at a young audience and keep it engaging and relateable, but it is ultimately unable to raise awareness of an issue in a fully mature manner. This is where a full BBC or Al-Jazeera investigation would be preferable, picking up where VICE left off or over-simplified.

Still, I like the level of risk taking by VICE reporters. It reminded me of the equally brilliant expose of North Korean labour camps in Russia's Far East that saw Shane Smith and crew having to strike deals with local gangsters to get in and out of forbidden sections of Siberia. (link:
Derelict Building photo: creative commons Denis Defreyne
The conclusions the documentary draws are pretty smart. It shows not only the direct effects of the drugs on users (the famous rotting of the skin that the drug takes its name from) but also on their families and friends. It also shows other social problems that begin to appear around cases of extreme substance abuse. Prostitution, at one point intimated as child prostitution, is supposedly stumbled upon by the filmmakers.

The terrifying reality for many Russians living outside of the relatively privileged "Okrugs" of European Russia is that the government seems to be doing very little to combat this epidemic and these social issues. The Kremlin often seems more wrapped up in pushing bizarre anti-gay laws and hosting competitions and sporting events than improving the lives of its citizens. Russians in the documentary blame corruption but there is a sense of neutrality  and the documentary goes some way to show how hard it is for the Russian authorities. Not only do they have to fight the influx of opiates from an unpoliceable southern border but they also have to vie for power with the myriad of strange religious groups that take in addicts in the guise of rehab clinics. It is sad from both an Athiest or Christian background that the only way out seems to be through a cult.

With times still tough for foreign charities and aid to get into Russia to offer help, this is an often ignored and serious issue that some of our media's mainstream papers and TV stations simply have no time or space on the news agenda to cover.

(thanks to Fiona Potter for bringing this to my attention. Read more of Fiona at her blog: