When Vice Came to Swansea

From Planet 236

by Mark S. Redfern

Mark S. Redfern won our 2019 Young Writers' Essay Competition. In his winning essay he argues that a globally popular Vice documentary, repackaged for YouTube, gives a condescending and sensationalist angle on Swansea’s heroin crisis, and has left a poisonous legacy in capturing for posterity humiliating depictions of the protagonists, and misrepresenting working-class Welsh culture. This essay subsequently won the 2020 WalesPENCymru Emyr Humphreys Award.

If you’ve watched a couple of videos on YouTube from the hip, cool, edgy media outlet Vice, chances are you’ll get some recommendations for their most popular videos in your sidebar. The Cannibal Warlords of Liberia. Suicide Forest in Japan. The Biggest Ass in Brazil. Their reach is global and they love taboos. One of the most eye-catching videos has the ominous title Teenage Heroin Epidemic. The thumbnail lures watchers in with a picture of a gaunt man strung-out, dosed off his skull on smack. Drooped eyelids. Mouth agape. He couldn’t tell the difference between Vice’s camera lens and a rubber duck.

Above: Swansea panorama © Matty Ring (CC BY 2.0) https://bit.ly/33yPtkG

Above: Swansea panorama © Matty Ring (CC BY 2.0) https://bit.ly/33yPtkG

The hour-long documentary is a story about young people living precariously around Swansea, balancing their addictions and personal lives without money or shelter. It’s called Swansea Love Story, made for Vice in 2010 and repackaged for YouTube under a more provocative title. The film has had millions of views and is one of the most popular documentaries of Vice’s entire library. The YouTube version continues to attract many comments from across the globe, including thousands from 2019 alone – some express sympathy for the participants in the documentary, but many ridicule them, their accents, Swansea and Wales. Other viewers attempt to trawl for the documentary protagonists on Facebook, to see how they are doing now. The documentary is an overlooked landmark for the portrayal of Welsh culture in the media for all the wrong reasons. It is indispensable as a case study in cack-handed poverty porn, laying bare how we are viewed by the London-centric media class. The directors, Andy Capper and Leo Leigh, donned their pith helmets and went hunting for a story in the badlands of Swansea.

The thumbnail is taken from a sequence in the first five minutes where the subjects shoot up behind a rubbish bin. It’s graphic. Long-time user Andrew nods from the dope in a side-alley after he injects. When he regains some brain function he stumbles onto his mountain bike and zig-zags off into the distance. This gross-out sequence is the hook of the documentary. The rest of the film revolves around the abusive relationship of Cornelius and Amy, the titular Love Story. The filler scenes woven throughout, however, betray how the producers really view Welsh people and their culture.

To begin with, the fringe characters are treated as the oafish comic relief throughout the documentary. When we first meet recently clean Lee he struggles to figure out how to attach his lapel mic. The producers splice in a blooper where he tries to put this alien device to his ear like an earpiece. During the introduction to another offbeat character, Clint, he farts. The producers paste this in for comedic effect whilst he’s talking about the addiction destroying his life. ‘I just want the chance to be a daddy, yeah? It wouldn’t be fair on my children if I was to go: “Oh, that’s my daddy that is.” “Ah, but your daddy’s a junkie!”’, he says later. Months after the film was made, Vice journalist Alison Severs contacted Clint to write a follow-up. He was clean but told Severs that his kids had been ridiculed in school as a result of his portrayal: ‘Last year, when we made the film, my kids’ friends were calling me a “druggie” and giving them hassle in the playground.’1 Indulgent close-ups of him injecting heroin probably didn’t help his family problems either.

Some might suggest the gags were just ham-fisted levity, though the producers don’t sound too empathetic. Capper wrote about the closing scenes, in which a withdrawing user called Kristian tags along: ‘While we were shooting them on the beach Kristian kept puking up and then going: “It’s all right boys,” in this weird camp voice. The shots were (black) comedy gold but didn’t make the cut in the end.’2 Jokes can make a difficult subject easier to digest, but this is just mockery.

Aside from the main characters, the producers also visit places around town that are supposed to be typical of modern Wales. In a segment outside Swansea train station we see a hostile crowd ready to ruck, and a few, unclear shots of an anti-racist counter-demonstration. The event is later described by Capper in an article published on CNN’s website as the camera crew having ‘stumbled into a race riot’,3 making it sound as if this was a common occurrence around town. By all accounts, in reality the one-off protest was small and organised by an impotent gaggle of Welsh Defence League hooligans, an offshoot of the much more popular English Defence League. The BBC estimated that the counter-demonstration attracted around 200 protesters against the demonstration, dwarfing the estimated 60 WDL protesters.4 The documentary gives little indication of this context.

Prior to this, the cameras had visited a traditional working men’s club. Decent ways to earn money, like manufacturing and labouring, have been replaced by hard drugs and debasement, the men tell us. There is then a smash cut to the local strip-bar where young women wrapped in fishnets perform for punters under strobe lights. Everything that the old guard of the working class despises goes on there, with the club even operating out of a renovated factory as a final insult. Interviews with the dancers show they are more than happy with their career choices, and that their mothers and grandmothers envy their confidence. Nevertheless, promiscuity and sexual vulgarity have often been the backbone of the ‘chav’ stereotype. We’re shown the dissonance between the old, refined, dignified working class of the city and the debauchery of the new generation. Although the condescension of the old working men appears to be the punchline, the overall thrust of the documentary is that drug-taking and sexual degradation is the instinctual Welsh reaction to poverty. The pretence on the part of the producers that their film offers a comprehensive picture of working-class south-Walian society as a whole (rather than a problematic portrayal of the lives of a small minority) is accentuated by the incongruous footage and audio of Dunvant Male Voice Choir singing Si Hei Lwli Mabi alongside some of the most desperate scenes of drug use.

The most uneasy sequences are shown as the film draws to a close. In one uncomfortable scene, Amy, drunk and off-guard, reveals harrowing details of how she was sexually abused as a child, and her mother’s complicity in it. Some may see the capturing on film of such a heart-breakingly painful disclosure as the sign of a great journalist, yet the underlying problems in Welsh society that explain why Amy has been forced into such an unhealthy lifestyle because of her childhood are left unexplored. Maybe this was too much of a downer to mention. When slotted into a documentary whose other set-pieces are fascist marches and vodka-drenched strippers, the details of abuse are just another attraction in this horror-show.

Not long after the film had been released South Wales Police swept in and collared twenty-six drug users from around Swansea town centre, among them Cornelius. ‘It took our film for the authorities to do something about the heroin use in Swansea,’ said one of the directors, ‘and this isn’t the best way’.5 So what went wrong? Hearing Capper and Leigh speak in promotional interviews makes them sound like Jane Goddall coaxing the apes down from the canopy. Capper said to WalesOnline: ‘I suppose outside of drug workers, other addicts or the police there’s no-one around to show them a friendly face or even look them in the eye. So they welcomed us – we were a novelty to them, I guess.’6 When looking into the backgrounds of the directors we start to understand that their lives are also a novelty to the vast majority of Welsh people.

Capper was the co-director of the Vice brand in the UK. He spent his formative years at Scarisbrick Hall School, Lancashire. The edgy journalist listed his activities in the school in his profile on LinkedIn: ‘Being yelled at. Glue sniffing.’ His parents wouldn’t have wanted him to squander his time there; an education at Scarisbrick Hall would nowadays set you back a cool £11,000 a year. Capper’s privilege pales in comparison to the cushty childhood of his codirector. Leo Leigh is the son of wealthy award-winning film director Mike Leigh, and he was sent to a swanky private school too. Leigh boarded at Northease Manor School in East Sussex, with fees now almost triple that of his colleague.7 When Leigh the Younger spoke to the Guardian about his blossoming film career, just starting out with Swansea Love Story at the time, he came across as totally unaware of his luck: ‘You know what, films are either good or they’re not. I don’t think people are going to say, “Well his films are shit but his dad is Mike Leigh,” and give me loads of money.’8

Ignorance of working-class life has led them to rely on crude stereotypes. Documentaries like Benefits Street or Skint play to classist tropes and Swansea Love Story follows many of the same beats. Despite sequences that attempt to convey tenderness and sympathy, Vice ultimately portrays Cornelius and Amy as obnoxious criminals, Lee as a moron, and Clint as a buffoon; without full exploration of the struggles these people faced from early childhood. Labelling a film a documentary tells viewers that these depictions are truthful. And as to the society that produced these characters, the best explanation that Capper and Leigh could scrape together were vague references to Thatcher and capitalism washed down with an obligatory visit to a disused colliery. Our presence on the UK stage is so insignificant the entire essence of Welsh society can be summed up in a few trite platitudes.

The BBC later made a much grimier film that managed to be more sympathetic. Producers followed three men in the depths of their addictions, once again, around Swansea. Anxiety, abscesses and amputations may have all been on show for the camera, yet the core message of the documentary, part of the 2016 Drugs Map of Britain series, was that alienation was one of the main drivers behind long-term drug abuse. Somehow, Leigh thinks that his approach to Swansea Love Story made it a real thought-provoker too. Speaking to the Evening Standard, he gave himself props for doing immersion journalism so well: ‘You live with the subject and get a more balanced picture, putting in the human emotions and personalities that tend to get washed away in the news reports.’9 The resulting film shows no signs of this.

But what can we expect? Vice’s style, after all, is sensationalism. Blood-and-guts guerrilla filmmaking is their hallmark, and in her book Merchants of Truth, Jill Abramson gives the true essence of Vice’s brand as ‘half-baked reportage on depraved situations’.10 Advertisers seeking to reach the youth crowd are attracted to Vice; their edgy reporting has won them the lion’s share of the market. YouTube has found their content so useful in drawing viewers to their platform that they were paying Vice ‘tens of millions’11 of dollars to host their documentaries on the platform. Being outlandish pays the bills and the exotic degradation of Swansea’s heroin subculture was perfect for the commissioners back in London. Humiliating depictions of people at their lowest ebb therefore can be replayed into perpetuity, often long after they have turned their lives around.

The lives of those on Swansea’s streets are light-years away from the gilded habitat Leigh and Capper came from. This is one explanation for why the protagonists of the film are portrayed as creatures of council estate swamplands. Another is the bombast of Vice’s signature style. Add to this the dire representation of Welsh culture on the UK and world stage and it’s a calamity (MTV’s The Valleys and Dirty Sanchez are not-so-proud national moments). In Wales, the news media landscape is scant, to say the least. What little reportage on drug users there existed was surely dwarfed by this cartoonish, low-effort project. There is no recourse to counter the myths Vice has broadcast across the globe either. Even Vice’s Japanese site has published the film. The false image of Swansea, and by implication Wales as a whole, is that of a poor nation that in times of recession has taken to drugs and depravity like a starving lion to a gazelle.

Wales doesn’t need dirty-realist B-movies to tackle drug-related deaths. It needs drug law reform and decriminalisation: drug consumption rooms, improved access to heroin-assisted treatment (the prescription of substitutes such as methadone) and to rehabilitation and counselling services. It needs a news media that can highlight issues of drug harm to stimulate debate on solutions. Until then, we are at the mercy of companies like Vice making films so lucrative, yet so repugnant and morally desolate, there’s not a lot else to compare them to but hipster variants of the Bumfights producers and iconic bear-baiter Jeremy Kyle. The need for law reform and a responsible media approach is now ever more urgent. According to Public Health Wales, drug fatalities are at record levels, with deaths from drug poisoning increasing by almost 80% in the last decade – and Swansea has the highest rate of deaths in Wales.12

Capper mentioned in an interview to IndieWire in 2012 that there was a Swansea Love Story, Part 2 in the works.13 If you see him and his hunting party prowling the streets, camera locked and loaded, you must run for your dignity.