Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 80 min
Years in the making, this punchy and enjoyable feature documentary from Ron Mann, Canada’s foremost non-fiction pasticcio artist, is a funny, sardonic and openly partisan look at the history and evolution of marijuana legislation in the United States. Like Mann’s earlier Comic Book Confidential (1988)and Twist (1992), Grass focuses both on a frightened mainstream reaction to a cultural phenomenon and an overzealous, single-minded crusader.
Mann begins by outlining the history of pot use in the United States at the turn of the century and the ways in which anti-marijuana laws of the time were as much about controlling minority ethnic groups as they were about controlling the weed itself. He then focuses on Ted Anslinger, an American scientist who clearly modelled himself after J. Edgar Hoover and became the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (serving from 1930 to 1962). Anslinger convinced the U.S. government (with no scientific evidence to back his claim) that marijuana was a dangerous drug that led users to violence, insanity and heroin addiction – and also made them more susceptible to the lure of communism.
Drawing from a wide array of archival materials, film clips and legal documents, Grass is as meticulously researched as it is consistently entertaining. Upon discovering the lack of a complete history of marijuana legislation, Mann – whose films typically celebrate alternative cultures and their own hidden histories – devoted five years to conducting research at more than two hundred sites, including Pennsylvania University, where he spent weeks sifting through the Anslinger archives.
Mann, partly through his generous and skilful use of film footage from the anti-marijuana campaign, establishes that the war on grass is essentially a war of propaganda. In response, he presents his filmas a finely crafted piece of counterpropaganda, revealing how drug laws act as a primary support system of the very problem they are supposedly designed to combat. Grass charts the terrible loss in imprisoned lives and billions of dollars spent fighting a drug that refuses to go away.
Featuring narration by actor and pro-hemp activist Woody Harrelson, fun Pop Art graphics courtesy of underground comic artist Paul Mavrides and a soundtrack that is at once tongue-in-cheek and provocative, Grass ranges across a variety of misconceptions and fallacies that have made marijuana the scapegoat of a costly and widely criticized government drug policy. The film was released in Canada and the United States, enjoyed positive reviews and healthy box office returns, and won a Genie Award for Best Documentary.