In a time when too many documentaries exposit their own process on screen, Cocaine Prison doesn’t share enough. Or maybe it shares too much without being explicit enough with the whole situation. Director Violeta Ayala and producer Dan Fallshaw apparently were teaching English in Bolivia’s San Sebastian prison when they started filming the story of two of its inmates, both of them serving for their involvement in the cocaine trade. In the doc, one of them mentions that Ayala and Fallshaw are teaching them and have provided them with video cameras for self-documentation, but the way he puts it, this seems like an exclusive privilege given only to these two men.
Without spelling out what’s going on behind the camera, the access is curious and sometimes suspicious, especially as it comes off that the filmmakers are meddling in their subjects’ lives, whether merely helping them in their education or going as far as influencing their story. Learning afterward (via the doc’s film festival guide synopsis) the true circumstances doesn’t alleviate every concern but it does explain their point of entry. Meanwhile, our being made aware of Ayala and Fallshaw’s camera sharing in the film does offer a moment of complicated ethics in the meta-narrative when possession of the equipment gets one of the two prisoner subjects, Mario, in trouble.
Outside my contemplation of the making of the film, Cocaine Prison is pretty incredible when it’s just following a harrowing yet surprisingly upbeat character drama. The doc begins as a family story, introducing siblings Daisy and Hernan, whose parents work a coca farm in Bolivia while the kids study in the city. But then Hernan winds up at San Sebastian after being caught during his first stint as a drug mule (as it plays in the film, the turn of events seems like it happened after production had begun with simpler interests). There, we meet Mario, Hernan’s older roommate, a husband and father who otherwise had a similar experience with drug bosses exploiting poor desperate individuals.
From there, with four years worth of footage and plot points to get through regarding the three characters, the film is compelling if not always focused. There are times when Cocaine Prison goes to the edge of issue-doc territory with its showcasing of the increasingly overcrowded prison and its portrayal of the problems of the Bolivian judicial system, particularly involving the drug trade, that are causing that overcrowding. But then it settles, preferably, on following Daisy down a dangerous path in her attempts to get her brother released or just sharing Hernan and Mario’s good times and bad times behind bars. It’s not your typical doc fixated on the negatives, aiming to showcase a hell on earth situation.
That’s especially the feeling with the final moments, which bring another sudden turn of events. Unlike the way the start of the narrative is manipulated by the filmmakers, the ending is totally out of their control. Fortuitously for them, given that it provided the doc with an ending, as well as for its characters, and ultimately for the audience, too. Cocaine Prison is far from perfect, and oftentimes it’s frustrating in its uncertain direction and objective. A lot of what works about the film is because of the appeal of the characters, while fate steers some additional distinction. But Ayala and Fallshaw and their team of editors do deserve credit for cobbling together the material into such an engrossing package.