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Documentary offers look at drug, weapons trade

September 29, 2008

Documentary follows drug, weapons trade

When assistant communication professor Rob Wells and his colleagues in the School of Arts and Communication launched MediaLab in 2006, they figured larger projects like feature-length video documentaries would happen sometime in the future. “It would be nice,” he recalled thinking. “Someday.”Thanks to some tireless – and inquisitive – student journalists, that “someday” happened much sooner than anyone might have expected. At 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, at the Museum of Science and Industry in Seattle, MediaLab will premiere the documentary “Illicit Exchanges: Canada, the U.S., and Crime.” The ambitious hour-long film – MediaLab’s second in as many years – looks at how drugs and weapons affect the citizens of the two nations.

“For us, this is a film about community as much as it is about the drug trade,” said Julie Olds ’09, the lead researcher on the project. “ We want to ask ‘how responsible are we?’”

The project had its genesis when Wells heard a Canadian police officer say, as an off-handed comment, that 80 to 90 percent of the guns in Vancouver, B.C., originate in the United States.

“It got me thinking,” Wells said. “So we got in a minivan and started asking questions.”

Were it that easy. Wells and the MediaLab journalists put together a game plan of how to tackle such a massive project – it wouldn’t be just guns, but guns, drugs and other criminal activities that affect the two countries.

“How does [this activity] relate to the relationship between the two countries,” Wells asked. “What about the threat we pose to each other?”

By January of 2008, the journalists were driving up to Vancouver about every other weekend to conduct interviews with law enforcement and border officials, the U.S. and Canadian consulates, drug user advocate groups, gang task-force members and then some.

They piled in the minivan again in May, when Wells, Olds, videographer and editor Melissa Campbell ’10 and researcher Shannon Schrecengost ’09 drove to the east coast to conduct research and interviews in Washington, D.C., Toronto, Ottowa and points elsewhere. They were gone for nearly a month.

They researched the “grow-ops” of Surrey, B.C., the houses that are used as indoor marijuana farms. They walked East Hastings Street, the spot in Vancouver where those with multiple addictions gather and are marginalized. They participated in a ride-along in Toronto that resulted in a high-speed car chase. Gritty stuff.

“We were really able to see how drugs and violence affect people,” said Campbell. “And it isn’t all one-sided – there’s a real conflict here. We [the U.S.] have a problem too, and it is affecting our neighbors. We have to account for that.”

Even with the premiere a few weeks away, the student journalists are putting the finishing touches on the project. Assistant videographer and editor Emilie Firn ’09 is working away in the editing bay, and Krista Gunstone ’09, MediaLab general manager, along with senior designer Lauren Buchholz ’09, are working on the promotional materials and the Oct. 4 big event. Everything points to a successful premiere.

According to Wells, that is a testament to nearly a year of very hard work. “We are blessed with students willing to work hard,” he said. “And they are willing to ask the big questions.”

Big questions. Big tasks. Big rewards.

“Everything about this project is student driven,” said Campbell. “We all just can’t wait to step back, look at the big picture and say, ‘look what we did.’”