Ice Wars: ABC doco lifts lid on our worst drug problem
Even if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad, you will probably know Vince Gilligan’s groundbreaking TV drama is the story of Bryan Cranston’s character Walter White. Cranston was widely lauded for his portrayal of the struggling high-school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer who turns to a life of crime in the badlands of Albuquerque, New Mexico, becoming a master chef of deadly blue meth to secure his family’s future in the face of his impending mortality.
Gilligan says the character popped into his head “in the proverbial flash of lightning and took hold of my imagination” and, as a writer seeking inspiration, he turned to a storyline around methamphetamine. Ten years ago, when he had the idea, “it seemed like somewhat untilled ground” in TV and movies.
How it’s changed in the wake of the success of Gilligan’s series. Meth labs have become as familiar to crime fiction readers and TV watchers as seedy police interrogation rooms with transparent mirrors, the serial killer’s black balaclava and the alienated poetry of ubiquitous night street scenes, those surfaces straight out of an Edward Hopper painting.
As revealed in the new ABC four-part documentary series Ice Wars from Northern Pictures, executive produced by Alex Hodgkinson, Karina Holden and Sue Clothier, ice labs are just as prevalent in this country, a criminal industry hidden largely in plain sight, gimcrack labs set up just about anywhere — in houses, sheds, granny flats and apartments. The only giveaway: the fumes. Vapours, and spillage associated with cooking meth can be toxic and explosive, hazardous to children, adults and the surrounding neighbourhood.
The premises making ice are volatile, occupied by amateur scientists dealing with dangerous chemicals made from a fairly simple recipe found on the internet. Also known as shabu, shard, tina and glass, ice can be produced in as few as six to eight hours using apparatus that can be quickly dismantled and stored or moved to avoid detection.
Ingredients commonly used to make ice include paint stripper, red phosphorous, hydrochloric acid, anhydrous ammonia, drain cleaner, battery acid, lye, lantern fuel, and car antifreeze.
“You wouldn’t go and drink a bottle of nail polish remover but these are the kinds of chemicals used to make these drugs,” says NSW Drug Squad commander Tony Cook, one of the many senior police who co-operated in the project.
Also featured are health workers, medical professionals, scientists, judges and users, their families and friends, whose health and relationships are being destroyed by this insidious drug.
Australians are now the world’s second highest users of ice and it has overtaken ecstasy, cocaine and heroin as our drug of choice, second only to cannabis. And as the program demonstrates so convincingly, it’s an issue we face like with no other drug.
Ice Wars is a mammoth, immersive production that began when Clothier was researching a story for the ABC series Changing Minds some years back, filming at Liverpool Hospital’s mental health unit, a 93-bed, locked ward facility. She was alarmed by the fact that most admissions were as a result of psychotic episodes brought on by taking ice.
Wanting to “put a spotlight on this awful drug”, after 12 months’ negotiation (“the production discussions colourful and plentiful, and the consent process rigorous”, says Hodgkinson), the team gained the unprecedented co-operation of NSW Police, including from its Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad, local area commands and Forensic Analysis Unit.
The team decided to follow the unfolding action of the frontline responders, coupled with stories from the community to provide a comprehensive look at the complexities of the drug issue. As one might expect the legal processes involved in the series were long, arduous and complicated, specialist lawyers reviewing footage and stories and advising on legal issues as the shoot developed.
The filmmakers were after the visceral, the immediate; the dangers and hazards of ice’s manufacture, distribution and use.
“Our cameras were there as they planned and executed drug busts, roadside random drug tests, disposed of the clandestine labs and other aspects of policing not seen before on TV,” Clothier says.
“The NSW Drug Squad hadn’t let cameras in previously, but the police needed to get the message out about the destructiveness of ice,” Hodgkinson says. “As they say, it’s not a problem they can police their way out of, it needs a whole of community approach.”
The NSW Drug Squad provides the core of the series, the cops not the heroic action figures of fiction but functional, competent and caring. As The Wire’s David Simon said of the police he drew on as models for his great series about the US drug war, “They have the same demeanour as an emergency room nurse, or a physician, or a mortician or anybody who’s dealing with death, where death is the currency.”
The ice trade is growing faster than any other black-market economy, Hodgkinson says, and the fallout is all around us, so documenting the work of those trying to stamp it out is a timely and relevant series concept for TV.
“The episode arcs and narratives spread like tentacles from the ice operations we filmed to explore the science of ice, the mental health and community safety aspects, and drug court.” For research, Hodgkinson says she watched “every documentary I could find for research, but Ice Wars is pretty unique”.
I’ve certainly never seen anything like it and it’s a masterclass in factual filmmaking.
The producers set the stakes from the start with a graphic, fast-moving montage introducing the characters and addressing the political dimensions, featuring direct address, voiceover, sound bites, grabs of later in-depth interviews, aerial drone shots of locations that will be visited in graphic detail, and jagged action shots of police tactical squads in action.
Ice Wars is narrated in a crisp, withheld style by Joy Smithers, not only objectively moving the action at times but giving voice to the internal struggles and existential dilemmas of the characters we encounter.
The first episode looks at where ice comes from — how it’s made and what kind of people benefit from its sale — centred around the raiding and dismantling of a small lab in southwestern Sydney where ice is found, along with an incriminating note, shotgun barrels and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
We then meet the patients of first responder Ashley Barker, who manages the Blacktown Access and Assessment Health Team, and Aaron, a long-time user, ice a salve for the effects of mental illness.
At one point Aaron delivers an extraordinary paranoid monologue, arms outstretched like a Christ figure, threatening to snap children’s necks, blow out brains. It’s like something from a local TV version of the confronting US series True Detective — surreal, alien, horrifyingly comic in fact, and sad.
The series goes on to cover the shocking dislocation in our regional towns caused by the drug blight; the way first responders manage the local ice problem; how organised crime imports the drug into the country; and its spread in the hospitality and construction industries, as well as the military. The cinematic approach ranges from public affairs-style doco to cinema verite to docusoap, with touches of police procedural and action movies providing impetus and straddling the line between the stories, told from several sides, and examinations of the structural problems involved in dealing with ice.
This superbly produced series fits into a long tradition of documentary in the Griersonian model (early British filmmaker John Grierson not only coined the term documentary but was the great apologist for its necessary social significance), even as it borrows from the potential of reality TV at its most factual, carrying with it a load of sociopolitical purpose.
It wants to tell us important stuff, fill us in, dramatise the issues through observation and skilful filmmaking, as it serves the idea of civic education and public concern.
The committed filmmakers behind Ice Wars give us an intense and at times highly moving work of TV journalism and social argument that evokes empathy and anger as much as it opens our eyes to a scourge and a blight.
But we will need to wait until the series’ conclusion to see just what structural and political solutions they might wish to argue for in this seemingly endless debate about how to conduct the so-called war on drugs.
Ice Wars, Tuesday, 8.30pm, ABC.