When Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) seniors Julie Olds and Shannon Schrecengost and junior Melissa Campbell enrolled for college, they didn’t realize that their studies would ultimately include high-speed police chases, visiting marijuana growing operations and interviewing homeless drug addicts on the street. However, that’s exactly what these three intrepid filmmakers did, and more, to produce the documentary “Illicit Exchanges: Canada, the U.S. and Crime,” scheduled to premiere Oct. 4 at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.
Produced by these three students and others involved in PLU’s award-winning student/faculty research program MediaLab, this original documentary examines how law enforcement, community activists, social service providers and other concerned citizens on both sides of the border are coping with the challenges of crime.
PLU Communications Professor Robert Marshall Wells was the students’ advisor and mentor for the project, the idea for which developed from an off-hand comment he heard two years ago from a detective in Canada who said 90 percent of the guns used in the commission of crimes in Vancouver and western Canada can be traced back to the United States.
“As a former journalist, that comment made my ears perk up,” Wells said. He recounted the story to his students and they ran with it.
“The scope we initially looked at was the issue of U.S. firearms flooding the borders and going into Canada and the increase in violence in Vancouver that hadn’t been seen before,” Olds said.
“From there we found the connection between guns and marijuana because we found that marijuana is often used to exchange for American-made guns,” Campbell explained. “We looked at how that influences communities and the relationship between the U.S. and Canada.”
Olds said the team began their research last January in Vancouver, B.C., to interview people about the influx of American firearms crossing the border into Canada. The students quickly learned that America’s large export of guns is directly connected to Canada’s underground export of the strain of marijuana known as “B.C. bud,” which in turn fuels gang activity, violence, drug addiction and poverty.
“We couldn’t separate them - they’re all interrelated,” Olds said.
From there, the team went on a cross-country research expedition. Between January and August 2008, Wells and the three students traveled coast-to-coast along the American and Canadian border, the longest unfortified border in the world, gathering footage in New York, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Detroit and Washington, D.C.
“We wanted to look at the entire border, and make this a story not just about the Northwest but beyond to an international audience,” Olds said.
They interviewed people on both sides of the issue, from government diplomats and law enforcement to heroin addicts living on the streets of Vancouver’s east end. The young filmmakers pride themselves on how they did more than passively interview people; they entered the frontlines of the battle, so to speak.
“When we were in Ottawa we were able to go on a ride-along with the Canadian police and it was amazing,” Campbell said. “I was in a high-speed chase, watched a gang member be arrested, and rode through the worst parts of the city.
“We weren’t just interviewing police officers, we were with police officers. It was just really fascinating to be so intimately involved in that aspect of the documentary.”
Olds agreed. “We tried to interact with everyone at all levels because we didn’t want this to be a documentary that only touched the surface or addressed one aspect. We wanted to get a well-rounded understanding and to tell the story from each person’s perspective.”
“We want to give people something to think about,” Campbell said. “We really tried to make this as objective as we could by looking at the issues from all sides.”
Senior Emilie Firm was videographer and editor for the project. She recalled the drug raids she filmed, the prison she visited and other “stuff I’d never think I’d be doing” in order to make “Illicit Exchanges.” She said she learned a lot through the first-hand experiences and meeting people she normally wouldn’t come into contact with.
“A lot of people are brought up to believe that someone who does drugs is a bad person, but they’re not. They just made a bad decision at some point and now they’re addicted and can’t get away from it,” she said.
Wells said there’s a good chance “Illicit Exchanges” may be shown on public television, following in the footsteps of MediaLab’s very first documentary released last year, “Building Connections: Reclaiming Lost Narratives of the Alaska-Canada Highway.”
“My goal in these series of documentaries is to heighten awareness,” Wells commented. “We quite often take our neighbor to the north for granted. It is in many respects like us and we face many of the same challenges, but at the same time they have their own culture.”
The professor said he’s quite proud of what his students have accomplished. “PLU is a small school but the students there are of the highest quality and genuinely nice people who are engaged in the world around them. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to work with every one of them.”
“Illicit Exchanges” will be screened at 2 p.m. Oct. 4 at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, located in McCurdy Park at 2700 24th Ave. E. Admission is free. A panel discussion will follow with the filmmakers and many of those who were interviewed for the film.