Exile Nation – An Oral History of the War on Drugs & The American Criminal Justice System [Review & Full Film]

Posted: July 22, 2012 by Esteban in Film Freaks
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Film Written and Directed by Charles Shaw

Review by Jessica Sanders

“The War on Drugs killed John Belushi.”

Lynette Shaw was on an Angel Job – a mission to sit with an at-risk celebrity or rock star in an attempt to quell the impending nightmare of a drug overdose through the healing application of chicken broth and pot.

It didn’t work.

Shaw admits to once being gripped by a lasting and intense guilt over the death of comedian John Belushi – but no more.

In Exile Nation, Writer / Director Charles Shaw introduces us to myriad personalities: experts, therapists, ex-addicts, cannabis advocates, prisoners, and families torn about in the name of the War on Drugs. Though their personal testimonies vary greatly and in fascinating strides, they all seem to be pointing to one great, illuminated beacon in the darkness that is ignorance: “The War on Drugs is a Big, Fat, Fucking Failure” it pulses. “Let’s try something else — anything else” it pleads.

And at least a few people have seen the light.

The U.S. contains 5% of the earth’s population, yet houses 25% of the earth’s prisoners. Although we Americans rank TWENTY FIFTH globally in math comprehension skills, the folks pontificating in Exile don’t think that’s any kind of excuse. Much of the documentary focuses on the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders. By all reasonable estimations, the so-called War on Drugs has been anything but. The various testimonies in Exile offer compelling arguments and persuasive data to support that, yes, there is a war: on reason, on rational analysis, on freedom, on the disadvantaged and desperate, on truth.

Although Cannabis has a lower potential for addiction than cigarettes or alcohol, Exile is rife with personal accounts of non-violent individuals and their families suffering devastating blows after becoming personal targets of the War on Drugs for their use, cultivation, or proximity to pot. Writer / Director Shaw does a fine job of presenting factual information alongside personal account. The faces in these snapshots do not belong to ravenous, frothing-at-the-mouth monsters. They don’t belong to one demographic, nor can they be easily categorized or discredited. And although several experts suggest that the War on Drugs seeks to create an illusion of “otherness” — an oversimplified mentality in which we imagine drug-users to be hazardous, criminally-minded degenerates — that theory only holds, well… In theory.

What do we do when mothers, fathers, teenagers, those stricken with HIV and Multiple Sclerosis, seek to alleviate their pain through the consumption of various drugs into their own systems? Is the Penitentiary actually compelling anyone to seek penance, or are we just breeding harder, wiser criminals? In a society where Abstinence-Based Programs are floundering with long-term sobriety results, why do we not allow alternative rehabilitation methods like the curiously successful and miraculously expedited effects of Iboga Therapy on opiate-addicts? If the War on Drugs has failed, wouldn’t it be logical to enter into a dialogue centered around seeking and implementing new systems of education and and an alternate approach to drugs in general?

While most of the individuals featured in Exile do not purport to hold immediate solutions, a member of the Drug Policy Alliance summed it up rather nicely: “We are the people who love drugs, the people who hate drugs, and the people who don’t give a damn about drugs. But we believe there’s gotta be a better way to deal with drugs.”

As an Oral History, Exile Nation accomplishes exactly what is necessary: It creates an environment ripe for discussion, honest dialog, brainstorming, truth-seeking, and establishment-challenging. The film opens with the declaration that: “Never in the civilized world have so many been locked up for so little” or, as one man recently observed in the aftermath of the Aurora massacre: “James Holmes was able to legally buy 6000 rounds of ammo online and Tommy Chong was put in jail for selling bongs.”

Anyone with a healthy curiosity in our prison systems and the War on Drugs at large can glean illuminating, striking information from this film. The current system is fucked, it proposes, but education is power and knowledge can set change in motion. And if there’s anything to be taken away from the mountain of personal revelation, historical account, and statistical evidence presented in this film, it’s that something needs to change–and fast.

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