Aspen Times Weekly: Trailblazing the Pot Beat in ‘Rolling Papers’
If You Go…
What: ‘Rolling Papers’ at Aspen Filmfest
When: Saturday, Sept. 26, 2:30 p.m.
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
How much: $15 GA; $12 Aspen Film members
Tickets: Wheeler Oepra house box office; www.aspenfilm.org
More info: A panel discussion with filmmakers and local marijuana experts will follow the screening.
On New Year’s Day 2014, media from near and far descended on a snowy Denver to capture a spectacle: the first legal sales of marijuana for recreational use.
Most crews left soon after. But one group of Denver-based filmmakers stayed on the story for a full year, following the staffers at the Denver Post as it became pot’s paper of record. The resulting feature-length documentary, “Rolling Papers,” screens Saturday at Aspen Filmfest.
“There were a bazillion cameras out there,” director Mitch Dickman recalls of the day pot went legal, “and we said, ‘Uh-oh, there’s a lot of competition.’ So we hung with it the whole time and over that year all the other feature documentaries fizzled out.”
“Rolling Papers” is about journalism as much as it’s about marijuana. It doesn’t retread the same issue-oriented territory of, say, Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s “Weed” specials on CNN or “Pot Barons of Colorado” on MSNBC. Instead, it follows the Post’s inaugural marijuana editor, the laid back and professional Ricardo Baca, as he takes the paper into uncharted territory. He and his staff chase hard news stories that inspire state regulators to take action, he hires pot critics to review strains, he launches the pot-centric Post website The Cannabist, and he becomes punchline fodder for the likes of Stephen Colbert and Bill O’Reilly.
The film opens with comics cracking jokes about the Post’s announcement that it would be hiring a marijuana editor.
“It was bizarre — the whole year was bizarre,” says Baca. “Imagine you get this job and it’s already been talked about on the ‘Tonight Show’ and ‘SNL’ and all of a sudden you’re on ‘Colbert’ and ‘The View.’”
The tone of the movie in many ways reflects The Cannabist site itself — aiming to be both entertaining and informative. It includes earnest journalism on the nascent post-prohibition era alongside lighthearted pothead lifestyle narratives. And it never takes itself too seriously: throughout the film, whenever a strain of cannabis is mentioned, it cuts to interstitial shots of those buds spinning on a shag carpeted carousel with a blare of dubstep or heavy metal music.
The film premiered at SXSW in March in the 600-seat Vimeo Theater and is in the midst of a continuing festival blitz that’s included the Independent Film Festival in Boston, Hot Docs in Toronto and Telluride Mountainfilm. It was bought by distributor Alchemy after its premiere and will be in theaters and on-demand in early January 2016.
“Rolling Papers” got rolling near the end of December 2013, when Baca — on his way to a taping of “The Colbert Report” — got a call from producer Britta Erickson. She had abandoned an earlier film about Colorado’s medical marijuana boom, and made “Convention” about the Rocky Mountain News and the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.
“She said, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea, would you be up for it?’” Baca recalls.
The idea was to be a fly on the wall at the Post for the first year of legal weed. The Post OK’d the project, allowing the film crew to tag along with Baca, his colleagues and The Cannabist’s colorful freelancers. Little more than a week after the call to Baca, Dickman and his small crew were embedded with him.
“It was essential to us at the Post that we did this right,” says Baca. “That if we were going to take part that we do it in a way that was ethical and just. We didn’t want anything to do with the creative process. We wanted them to have full creative freedom.”
The filmmaking team went in without an agenda.
“We knew we wanted that first shot of January 1 when it became legal, but we wanted to let it unfold organically,” says producer Katie Shapiro, who also works for Aspen Film and writes for The Cannabist. “We were learning as we were filming about what was going on here.”
The movie — with producers also including documentarian Daniel Junge — sets aside questions about whether or not marijuana should be legal, assumes the debate is over, and benefits from seeing the new landscape through the even-keeled Baca, who was the Post’s music editor before he was tapped to be its pot editor. (“He covered the music scene for many years, so we knew he was familiar with marijuana,” Post editor Greg Moore quips.)
“Rolling Papers” plays out largely as a group portrait of the team the paper assembled under Baca to cover the issue. There’s the straight-laced reporter John Ingold and the bespectacled investigative journalist Eric Gorski (a scene featuring Gorski interviewing an Oompa Loompa at a 4/20 celebration in Denver is a classic fish-out-of-water cinematic moment).
Baca’s search for pot critics offers some of the richest material in the film. Jake Browne seems like he’s about to go off the rails, but turns out to be a discerning reviewer with a sommelier’s taste and a pothead’s slacker pride (he comically Googles “investigative journalism” on the way to an interview with a black market dealer). Brittany Driver reviews and also writes about being a parent and pot smoker, and gets painted in a harsher light by the filmmakers. Her story highlights the still murky legal landscape for users of the still federally banned drug. Though she smokes legally in Colorado, she does so under a persistent fear that Child Protective Services will take her son away because of her blogs and use in the home while caring for the toddler.
“This is my primary concern, that someone won’t show up in the middle of the night,” she says in the film.
Another critic, Ry Prichard, gets a career windfall as pot goes legal and he is hired to photograph and write about strains by growers, but notes that he doesn’t have any pot in his home due to similar fears about his family.
The movie’s six-figure budget enabled the “Rolling Papers” crew to accompany Baca on a reporting trip to Uruguay, which legalized marijuana nationally last year and offers an alternative model to Colorado’s. It brings
viewers to the first post-prohibition Cannabis Cup competition and the Denver’s first legal 4/20 parties and briefly touches on the aftermath of a high college student falling to his death from a hotel balcony. But there is little conflict in “Rolling Papers.” A bit of drama is injected by Whoopi Goldberg, who agrees to write a bi-monthly column for The Cannabist after Baca appears with her on “The View,” but then publicly backs out.
Playing out against the backdrop of the grim economic state of American newspapers and fears of a Denver Post sale, the documentary makes an argument for the essential need for good journalism. “Rolling Papers” follows Baca on the beat as he exposes the lack of accountability for potency labeling of edible pot products, for example, and he writes a series of stories that inspire action on state regulation (his recent work on pesticides is having a similar impact).
“This is the first place in the world this is happening,” Baca says in the film. “So it’s a total clusterf—k in terms of how labeling should work, how testing should work, and right now it’s ever-changing.”
Despite the messy, on-the-fly nature of legal pot’s implementation, when the year and the film come to an end, Colorado’s cannabis experiment turns out not to have fundamentally changed much about Colorado. As Baca puts it near the conclusion: “The sky didn’t fall.”
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