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Strung Out: Tackling the war on drugs

  • Docs & Debates panel after Strung Out

British Council continued our Wide Angles: Doc Debates series in partnership with Picturehouse Central on June 29 with the UK premiere of Nirit Aharoni's Strung Out. Ian Sandwell reports on the post-screening panel tackling the issues around addiction.

British Council and Picturehouse Central were proud to present the UK premiere of Nirit Aharoni's Strung Out to continue our documentary screening strand, designed to showcase outstanding works from around the world that inspire conversations about global issues.

Aharoni's raw and unflinching directorial debut tells the story of a group of young women living on Tel Aviv's streets trapped in a spiral of addiction, casualties of heroin and prostitution. Their only chance at life lies behind 'The Door of Hope', a safe haven for drug-addicted prostitutes which provides some respite from their destructive lifestyle.

Will Massa, Senior Programming Manager, Film, British Council, moderated the post-screening panel, and praised the film for being "brave and harrowing, but ultimately poignant and moving".

Aharoni acknowledged how "difficult" the film is to watch and stated that it's not meant to be easy. "My point of view is that the addiction is not only for the drugs - it's the addiction to a way of life," she noted. "Solving this problem is a very serious matter because once you get addicted and into this lifestyle, it's very, very difficult to get out of it."

The filmmaker added that it's often a "one-way ticket" once women fall into the cycle of prostitution and drug addiction, continuing that she wasn't sure which element comes first.

Making the film for Aharoni was about trying to understand her biological mother, who she first met when she was 18 and hasn't wanted to talk about her past. "I didn't want to make an activist film. It was about emotional situations and feeling neglected, left out, and trying to deal with those matters from the heart," she explained.

"My mother calls me when there's a holiday or something emotional happens. This is the relationship we have, if she needs to call me, she does. I don't have a way to reach out to her. It's very difficult to talk to her about her past and very stressful so, because of this, I tried to relate to it in the lives of the women in the film."

Calls for change in policy

Danny Kushlick, founder of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, argued that the current policy to criminalise those who take drugs isn't working. "It's not a war on drugs, it's a war on people," he said.

"The drug war exacerbates all the issues people arrive with. The link between sexual abuse and drug addiction is very strong, and that's what you've got to deal with. The idea of then criminalising the people who are then symptomatically trying to treat their distress is abhorrent. It's obscene."

Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release, agreed. "When we identify someone as a criminal merely because of their drug use, we then shift them into a much more punitive relationship with health services," she explained.

Citing the example of Russia where services such as needle exchanges are banned, Eastwood noted that the problem also hits closer to home: "Even in this country, there's a very punitive relationship between treatment providers and with people who are accessing services, where they have to meet conditions that nobody else seeking treatment would have to meet. The policy environment then creates this harmful approach that undermines human dignity more broadly, but also public health."

Eastwood continued by stating that current policy in the UK is more prohibitionist than aimed at reforming, despite claiming that the politicians know it is a failed policy and only responding when it becomes a visible problem, like currently in Ireland with a big street drug-using scene.

Kushlick believed that when it comes to politicians, how much power they have directly affects how much they aim to change drug policy. "My sense of what happens is that when politicians are backbenchers, their sensibilities are primarily focused on the needs of citizens," he expanded. "As they climb up the great pole, their commitments are all to their own power, their own party and their own class."

But he was keen to point out the example of Copenhagen, Denmark, where they have "hardcore harm reduction" such as places where users can inject street drugs but in a clinical setting.

"What you see if people who are accepted and loved for who they are, and these people clearly a lot of the time are very difficult to love. The services are run by extraordinary people who have much bigger hearts than I have, and they do it in a way that looks after people, and people die a lot less," Kushlick said.

"Here, we have one of the highest death rates in Europe, 3,500 people died last year. That's what out policy does: it kills people."

Our Wide Angles: British Council Doc Debates strand will continue to champion both international and UK-produced documentaries at Picturehouse Central, the state-of-the-art flagship venue in Piccadilly Circus. Each screening will be followed by live debates featuring expert commentators and audience engagement. For updates on titles and speakers, stay tuned here or check Picturehouse's monthly brochures and website.