(2021) Documentary (Pacoline) Felicia Carbajal, Joyce Centofanti, Cheryl Mumzer Goldman, Pearl Moon, Chiah Rodrigues, Sue Taylor, Karyn Wagner, Dani Burkhart, Eileen Russell, Monique Ramirez, Liz Poindexter, Lori Ajax. Directed by Chris J. Russo
We have a tendency to use marijuana as something of a punchline, socially speaking. It brings visions of stoners getting an urgent case of the munchies at 2am after a day smoking weed and navel-gazing, laughing at jokes that nobody but other stoners understand, and high-tailing it (pun intended) to Taco Bell for all the gorditas they can afford.
With California legalizing cannabis for recreational use, there is a seismic shift taking place among the growers of the plant. Heretofore small growers essentially ruled the roost (many in Humboldt County, a beautiful redwood-dotted mountainous region), Proposition 84 – which was promised to keep big agribusiness out for at least a year after the prop went into effect – presented the largely outlaw culture of Humboldt and Mendocino counties a confusing maze of bureaucracy and paperwork that soon, it becomes clear, is meant to pave the way for Big Agra to take over.
While the perception that cannabis culture is largely male-dominated, there are a surprisingly large percentage of women who have been involved in the industry and this documentary from first-time feature filmmaker Russo (not related to the Russo Brothers of the MCU so far as I know). Some have been involved with the business for decades, like farmer Chiah Rodrigues, a second generation farmer whose parents were both part of the counterculture; she runs a farm with her husband who prefers to spend time cross-pollinating and cross-breeding different strains of marijuana to produce a superior bud. Then there are the Bud Sisters, long-time friends Pearl Moon and Joyce Centofanti, who joyfully partake of their own product and have become civic leaders in Humboldt for their passion for the business. There are also relative newcomers to the table, like Karyn Wagner, a former New York restauranteur who switched coasts to be with her pot-grower husband and after his untimely death, sought to create branding for her product, calling on her experience in the dining industry. A newcomer to the industry is Sue Taylor, a retired Catholic school principal who hopes to open a dispensary in Berkeley that caters to seniors and would also serve as an education center into the benefits of cannabis, but has to overcome the hurtles of dealing with a bureaucracy that is anything but helpful. Finally there is the energetic Felicia Carbajal, a Latin and queer activist looking to raise the profile of people of color within the industry where they are grossly underrepresented (as they are in most businesses that provide opportunities for success).
As with most documentaries that follow multiple subjects, your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on how you relate to the individuals depicted in it. For me, I found the Bud Sisters to be absolutely delightful. They would definitely be a hoot to hang out with, although it would be dangerous to me as I am, regrettably, allergic to cannabis. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be entertained, and so will you be, listening to their irreverent attitudes. You also feel for the small farmer like Rodrigues, who is seeing a lifetime of work going up in proverbial smoke as she sees the writing on the wall; the legalization brought a dramatic drop in price, as well as the dangers posed by the recent wildfires in California. Some of the old-timers speak of their way of life disappearing, but that was inevitable, just as the invasion of large-money interests into the industry is inevitable. It is extremely likely that the small grower won’t survive when you have a deep-pocketed business able to operate at a loss for years while driving the competition out of business. That has how capitalism has worked for centuries.
This is largely an anecdotal documentary; it doesn’t delve deeply into facts and figures, mostly following along its subjects and taking what they have to say as gospel. Also, while the movie is marketed largely as a celebration of women in the emerging industry, more attention seems to being paid to the fact that they are LGBTQ in some cases or people of color in others. We don’t really get a sense of what being a woman brings to the table of the cannabis industry that is different than what a man brings. You get a sense that all of the people here portrayed are champions of the medicinal values of marijuana and are genuinely interested in helping people even more than they are making a profit, but I’m sure there are some women in the industry who are entirely profit-oriented and it would have been nice to hear from one of those, particularly a young person as most of the subjects in the documentary are middle aged or older.
At the end of the day, you do get some insight into the disquieting prospects the small farmers face in the teeth of big business and big government bureaucracy (California is notorious for making its citizens jump through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops in order to get anything done) and in that sense, is a fairly universal message for anyone who is thinking of operating a small artisanal farm. The insights on that end are worth looking into, but otherwise I would have been a little happier had the documentary dropped perhaps one or two of the subjects and focused more on the Bud Sisters, Rodrigues and Taylor who I thought were the most interesting subjects.
The movie recently made its world premiere at the Hot Docs festival in Canada, and Canadian readers can stream the film from their website which can be found here. Keep an eye out for it as it should be making the rounds of film festivals throughout the summer and fall.
REASONS TO SEE: The Bud Sisters are absolutely and irrepressibly charming.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of drug use (as you might imagine) as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Proposition 64, a ballot initiative legalizing recreational use for marijuana, passed on November 8, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evergreen: The Road to Legalization
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest