Review: ‘The Hemp Revolution’

Imagine we had a plant crop at our disposal that can be produced cheaply, sans pesticides or pollutant consequences, one that provides near-endless sources for food, fiber, textiles, fuel and medicine. Who'd be stupid enough to demonize such a substance? The accusatory answer is found in "The Hemp Revolution," which makes a convincing case for hemp as potential cure-all for many global woes.

Imagine we had a plant crop at our disposal that can be produced cheaply, sans pesticides or pollutant consequences, one that provides near-endless sources for food, fiber, textiles, fuel and medicine. Who’d be stupid enough to demonize such a substance? The accusatory answer is found in “The Hemp Revolution,” which makes a convincing case for hemp as potential cure-all for many global woes.

Ordinarily crafted but compelling doc has been a surprise success in San Francisco; other limited theatrical gigs should follow. But don’t hold your breath waiting for this unabashedly partisan effort to show up where it might be most apt: on U.S. public broadcast.

The problem with cannabis sativa, natch, is that its flower and leaves can be turned into the psychoactive drug marijuana. Experts criticize the ongoing U.S. “War on Drugs” (complete with excerpted TV address by President Bush) and substance’s placement on federal “Schedule 1” list of least-tolerated drugs, alongside heroin. Latter status curtails its investigation even in clinical research.

But evidence of marijuana’s risks to mental or physical health is threadbare; alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and other legal entities rate far worse. Perhaps more disturbing is notion advanced here that U.S. crackdowns have created a violent criminal “black market” at home, while pressuring countries like Lebanon and Nepal to dismantle hemp industries that played a crucial, multi-use part in their fledgling economies.

Most fascinating seg suggests the 180-degree turn from our own once-booming hemp production (Thomas Jefferson was an early booster) resulted from subterfuge — the emergent 1930s petrochemical industry, seeing organic hemp as a direct competitor in the manufacture of fuel, paper and other products, may have fostered the new “demon weed” identity. Yet hemp can be cultivated to omit THC (its psychoactive element).

Countries like Australia and Holland are currently developing means to exploit this rich resource, whose uses go back almost as far as history itself. Hemp’s fibers make superior alternatives to wood and cotton; its edible seeds are rich in protein; THC itself is unparalleled in treating glaucoma, chemotherapy nausea and many other ailments. The plant doesn’t deplete soil, and its products are biodegradable. The list of advantages goes on and on.

Archival stills and old footage (including a later-suppressed WWII government “Hemp for Victory” film, and camp classic “Reefer Madness”) chart cannabis’s up-and-down role in U.S. history, while contempo worldwide authorities sing its various praises. Most entertaining (and radical) is ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, who views “Just Say No” campaigns as a logical extension of longtime Western/Christian opposition to individualistic spirituality. As a means of religious sacrament (as well as more practical applications), THC goes back to earliest civilizations on several continents.

“Revolution” manages to cover much ground cogently, in smartly paced form. Vid-shot footage is poorly transferred to 16mm, however, with ghost images and distorted color. Several slow-mo sequences with a “psychedelic” tilt (scored to inanely preachy songs by various artists) look particularly bad. Producer-director Anthony Clarke (also involved with acclaimed docs “Cover-Up” and “The Panama Deception”) narrates in routine TV newscast fashion.

Given pressing concerns about forest depletion, pollution, et al., hemp clearly deserves a close new look. Whether U.S. anti-drug hysteria will ever allow such clearheaded scrutiny is, of course, another matter entirely.

The Hemp Revolution

Production

A Tara Releasing presentation. Produced, directed, written by Anthony Clarke. Co-producers, assistant editors, Arvind Condon, Rohan Fisher.

Crew

Camera (color, vid-to-16mm), editing, sound, narration, Clarke; research, Jack Herer; music, Jackson Browne, Yothu Yindi, Sirocco, Stephen Housden, Anthony Clarke, Melissa Raser, Dinesh Moylan, Richard Brunsma. Reviewed at Red Vic Movie House, San Francisco, Dec. 2, 1995. Running time: 72 MIN.
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