Television

Ganja Queen

Schapelle Corby's difference and distance from her cellmates are reinforced throughout Janine Hosking's shrewd and compelling Ganja Queen.

Ganja Queen

Airtime: Monday, 10pm ET
Cast: Schapelle Corby, Mercedes Corby, Ron Bakir, Robin Tampoe
Network: HBO
US release date: 2008-06-30
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Baby, sweet baby, bring me your gift.

What surprise you gonna hit me with?

-- Lucinda Williams, "Essence"

Schapelle Corby went on holiday in 2004. At the time, she was 27, working in her parents' fish and chips shop in Tugun, Australia, enrolled in a beauty therapy course. Her father had been diagnosed with cancer and she was caring for him; she hoped to get some time away before her father's condition worsened. When Corby landed in Bali, she was arrested. Her boogie board bag, it turned out, was packed with nearly 10 pounds of marijuana.

Incarcerated in Kerobokan Prison to await trial, Corby was instantly anomalous -- a white woman among indigenous criminals, an Australian citizen and English-speaker surrounded by Indonesians. As her own "hidden camera" footage reveals, she shares a cell with multiple women who handle their calamitous straits variously -- dancing, chattering, and praying. "These girls are crazy," Corby states, not quite joking.

While her observation reinforces Corby's difference and distance from her cellmates, it also indicates the focus of Janine Hosking's shrewd and compelling Ganja Queen, premiering on HBO 30 June (it's a shorter version of Schapelle Corby: The Hidden Truth, which aired on Australia's Channel Nine 22 and 23 June). Corby's case is disturbing not only because the Balinese judiciary is opposite of Australia's (the Balinese court needn't prove her guilt; rather, she must provide a convincing other case in order to establish her innocence), but also because her own support system is so dysfunctional. Her strangeness in this strange land makes for riveting viewing, for Corby is buffeted by assorted forces, sometimes literally, as the unruly press throngs her each day she is delivered to the courtroom during her trial.

Even as it boasts "unprecedented access" to participants in the case, the film remains focused on Corby's plight, without interviewing the prosecution, prison representatives or judge. (It does offer a brief testimony by a customs officer, I Gusti Nyoman Winata, concerning what he saw on opening the boogie bag, as well as his memory of Corby's response to seeing the marijuana.) Lacking cultural or political context, the documentary creates a sense of Corby's alienation and fearfulness. In this way, the film appears at times a cautionary tale of the sort offered by National Geographic's tourists-in-trouble series, Locked Up Abroad. But it's also a study in ignorance, presumption, and incomprehension, the many ways that Corby's family, attorneys, and most fervent financial supporter, Ron Bakir, handled and mishandled the case.

Hosking spent three years following her subjects, and provided Schapelle with the hidden camera for her diary-like footage. The film, scored with emotive guitar (as well as Lucinda Williams' beautifully gnarly "Essence"), presents a range of contradictions and conflicts, as these led to the "Verdict That Polarized a Nation": Corby was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment (this after the prosecutor had asked for the death penalty). Early scenes allow family members to describe what happened. Mercedes is horrified, looking back, that she didn't bring more than $140 with her to the police station when her sister was arrested. While the film shows customs area footage, including Schapelle's frightened face, Hosking asks Mercedes, "You know from living here that things can be fixed and sorted, but you only had a little bit of money with you?" But if the system might have been worked, the film also notes that potentially evidentiary surveillance video was either missing or destroyed and that "Countless hands touched the drugs during the evidence throughout the arrest; neither the vacuum sealed plastic outer bag nor the untouched inner bag were fingerprinted."

Confronting this systemic chaos, the defense team is mostly funded by Bakir, who is introduced in a frankly bizarre assembly of his TV ads (he sells cell phones, via a manic persona, "Mad Ron") and his mother's baffled approval ("Maybe," she muses, his drive to help was "something from god to him"). Members include attorney Robin Tampoe (who proffers the theory that Australian luggage handlers put the drugs in Corby's bag) and criminologist Paul Wilson. In his expert opinion, she's not the "usual drug mule," as she has "no history of drug addiction or severe financial embarrassment." He also believes she's not "intelligent" to run such a scheme, though the film never shows him interacting with her.

Ganja Queen for the most part observes events and characters without judging. That said, there are apparently enough bad actors to go around, on all sides, from the shady Bakir (shown making deals or demands on his cell phone, whether driving his car or walking around his backyard swimming pool) to Corby's stepfather expressing his outrage when asked about his past experiences with drugs ("You ever had a puff on a joint?" he taunts the interviewer, "What about you, Mr. Cameraman?).

The trial itself, tracked by the day, provides plenty of harrowing imagery. Most of this involves Corby's efforts to keep herself together in the face of all manner of disasters in her case. She can't understand the legal processes (her young female translator frequently holds her hand as she explains what's happening); her increasingly distraught mother, Rosleigh accuses demonstrators outside the courthouse and then a TV reporter of spreading lies ("Karma comes around to naughty dishonest people!"); and Mercedes is accused in the press of selling drugs in the surf shop she runs with her Balinese husband, Wayan Widyartha. Reporters, Mercedes says, are calling her friends "to get dirt on me."

The story is complicated by the fragmented front put on by Corby's supporters. Primarily, they point to the ridiculousness of trying to smuggle drugs in this fashion; they also note that her bag was not locked, that she's too "ordinary" to have conjured such a plan, that her younger half-brother might smoke pot, that an inmate in Australia overheard two other prisoners claiming the drugs were put in her bag by mistake. None of these stories coheres into "proof," and late in the case, Bakir tells a reporter that the prosecutors sought out bribe money, a report that enrages authorities and for which he must apologize publicly.

Such complications are enhanced by the film's cleverly arranged split screens, showing multiple players simultaneously, with recurring close-ups of Corby during court proceedings, her red face and attempts to breathe through her mouth actually painful to watch. Recently hospitalized for depression and weight loss, Corby to this day maintains her innocence and so refuses to apologize for the crime (one route to request mercy from the court). At the same time, at least one poll in Australia suggests a majority of people believe she is guilty. The film doesn't provide grounds for a certain judgment either way. Instead, it indicts the bumbling of legal and media systems that have left the case appear so unresolved even as it is ostensibly closed.

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