Cocaine is Watching You


The documentary Dutch Cocaine Factory is a secret history in lines and layers captured on tape.

By Steve Korver, 06-03-2008, Amsterdam Weekly

     
AmsterdamWeekly_Issue10_6Ma‘I call it a pro-paranoia,’ says film-maker Jeanette Groenendaal over a cup of tea in her first floor apartment at the bottom of Oudezijds Voorburgwal. And it’s certainly not paranoia but fact that her living room offers an excellent view on the long history of cocaine in Amsterdam.

‘See the bridge?’ She points to the right. There are drug deals going on there all the time. But that’s always been normal for this neighbourhood. Even now, when the city is busy making a museum of this area and trying to control everything with hundreds of security cameras… Oh wait, and see that guy! In the smart suit? He’s a real big user. An artist.’ She laughs.

‘And see that building,’ she points left towards Zeedijk 16 on the corner of Kolksluis. ‘That was the home and office of the doctor Jose Alvarez, one of the first big importers of coca leaves during the late 19th century. There he had a laboratory where he made and sold all his medicines. Even the canal water itself tells a cocaine story. They use them to measure the changing rates of cocaine use by a test that identifies a special acid released in the urine.’

Groenendaal premiered her ‘docutective’, Dutch Cocaine Factory, at the IDFA festival last November and its success now has it touring the country with a stop-off in Amsterdam on 8 March.

‘I was originally inspired to make the film by my rich friend Arend, who has been high on cocaine for forty years. He was just a guy enjoying the Dutch liberal drug policy—you know, the Herman Brood generation. Only difference is that Arend is still alive. But things change fast. Suddenly in this new society, where everything is controlled and checked, he became a suspect.’ Arend’s eventual arrest, which was documented by the 16 security cameras he had installed in his house, forms the compelling introduction to the film.

While having all those cameras might be a sign of his paranoia, a friend thinks differently: ‘I wouldn’t call him paranoid. He’s more of an observer of society. And since he’s been high for so long, he has a very interesting philosophy on observing society.’

‘But when I went to his trial, I did get paranoid. There I saw all these transcripts of telephone conversations I had with him as a friend. Word for word. And meanwhile, I’m living in a district with hundreds of cameras. So I started to make connections and decided to do more research and take my camera with me.’

And lucky for the viewer, Groenendaal’s research went beyond just talking with the quite scary-looking Arend, currently out of prison. She learns from criminal lawyer Leon van Kleef about the Netherlands being the most wire-tapped country in the world and the extent he has to go to guarantee a private conversation—his favoured technique is attending tango salons.

Meanwhile, Ton Nabben, an anthropologist from the University of Amsterdam’s Bonger Institute, explains how in the late 19th Century, the Dutch discovered mines in Peru where the workers chewed coca leaves and were then able to work for hours with little food. So they brought these plants to Indonesia to grow on huge plantations. East India Trading Company ships then brought tons of these leaves to Amsterdam where they were processed at officially sanctioned cocaine factories.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the Netherlands was the biggest producer of cocaine products in the world. ‘That is until,’ Groenendaal says, ‘the US got jealous of all this money the Dutch were making and introduced the Opium Law in 1936.’

Groenendaal continues, ‘So there I was. My friend was in jail. And learning this history of Holland that nobody knows. Everybody thinks we got rich on cloves and coffee. Plus I was still wondering about all those security cameras around us. People thought I was crazy. But I saw both elements as being about control. Not only the control that addiction has on users, but the control the government employs on people who are seen as the criminals. And that leads to the question: who’s controlling the controllers?’

And the connections continued… At the Tropical Museum after a long search, she found a picture of one of the local cocaine factories on Schinkelkade. Then later at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, she found out that the Colonial Bank, the institution that backed the historical Dutch cocaine trade, paid for most of the building of the Tropenmuseum. ‘So you could say it was built with drug money,’ laughs Groenendaal.

And how’s Arend? ‘Still complaining that the quality of the cocaine continues to get worse,’ laughs Groenendaal. ‘I’m now thinking that maybe the best idea is to make coca leaves a Fair Trade product.’

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