The films of Ron Mann featured prominently at this year’s Biografilm Festival in Bologna, Italy. His 1999 documentary, Grass, hilariously outlining America’s on-going war on Cannabis played to a full audience and received a deafening applause during end credits. I wasn’t familiar with Mann’s work up until this screening, and I’d entered the theatre with knowledge of the film’s title alone. When I noticed a somehow out-of-place Ron Mann emerge out of nowhere, through a side-door, among a crowd of film enthusiasts buzzing around, his hair was wildly unkempt and he had a frantic look in his eyes.
His introduction to the film was brief. But he described a time he got high and crawled under a table. Another story involved his friend’s prison trauma following his arrest for possession and placement in jail among hardened criminals. He describes this as part of what motivated Grass, feeling somewhat politicised and more inclined to highlight the history of cannabis and America’s increasingly hysterical attitude towards its use since it first came to be.
Mann’s documentary highlights an American war which cost billions. Cannabis was introduced to the United States around the beginning of the 20th century by Mexican workers in the Southwest. Anti-pot behaviour started to emerge as a result of racist, anti-Mexican attitudes adopted by white Americans at the time. Harry J. Anslinger is a prominent face in the documentary, waging a sensationally questionable battle against the drug from the early 1930’s. This was around the time that laws against cannabis were placed under federal control. When New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia commissioned a revealing investigation that led to the conclusion that Anslinger may have been exaggerating a tad, Anslinger dismissed the evidence, preferring to continue his damning campaign.
Grass is separated into stages. As history unfolds, various claims made by the federal government are put forth, dividing Mann’s timeline effectively. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics insist upon peculiar and nonsensical truths regarding cannabis use – if you smoke grass you will become insane, you will become a murderer, you will become a communist (!), you will become a heroin addict, you will become a brain-dead slacker. No, Anslinger. YOU just don’t have a clue.
The film is never really promoting the use of Cannabis. Instead, it attempts to highlight America’s attitude that condemnation and imprisonment may be the solution to whatever strays from the status quo. For American conservatism, pot-smoking led to change – something republicans have been afraid of forever. Everything was a result of Cannabis. Gene Krupa and those entertainers, with their ‘Satanic music, jazz and swing’, interracial intimacy, hippies, everything. The Bureau were just loading the use of cannabis with as many evils as they could muster up, while none of these guys could really claim to understand the true effects of the drug.
Grass proves itself to be a snappy, artistically-driven, verging-on-scholarly attempt to emphasise just one of America’s many futile wars – complete with absurd prejudices, ignorance, lack of reason and opportunism. Ron Mann effectively brings to light a devastating attack on civil liberties and an on-going war to stop something of relatively small importance on any sensible scale.