Film Reviews


Most of the interview subjects in Jonathan Blank's documentary Sex, Drugs and Democracy don't look much like libertines. We see a prostitute here, a hippie or a Rastafarian there, and a couple of artsy types, but most of the Dutch folks Blank shows us extolling the merits of the Netherlands' political philosophies are government officials. They're dour, gray-haired people in conservative suits who look like they should be teaching Calvinist theology or selling life insurance or, at the most frolicsome, watching Lawrence Welk.

Instead, they're teaching--and, maybe, selling, as well--the idea of a society based on the maximum tolerance possible, for all behavior. Prostitution is (in effect, if not technically) legal, as are "soft" drugs such as marijuana and hashish. The country's minuscule number of heroin addicts (20,000 out of a population of more than ten million) are provided with clean needles, methadone and so forth. Capital punishment is unconstitutional. Universal health care is affordable.

Many of the officials express distaste for activities like prostitution and pornography. But every single person in the film insists that the Dutch approach to these matters--live with them, put up with them, keep an eye on them instead of forbidding them--makes for a healthier, more comfortable, less volatile society. They cite some fairly convincing evidence: the low prison population, abortion rate and teen pregnancy rate; the high standard of living; and the relatively safe streets. If it were my job to review Dutch society, on the basis of this film, I'd be tempted to give it three and a half stars. Sadly, I can't say the same for the film itself, which has no more cinematic grace than a travelogue--it's rambling and poorly organized, full of graphic footage of sex shows and two-foot joints. It's too hyperactively edited to be seductive or visually exciting. It also contains a lengthy digression on the Dutch government's support for the hemp industry. The politics of hemp are an interesting subject, but only distantly related to issues of personal liberty.

Still, there's no denying the satisfaction of seeing a portrait of the sort of society that causes American conservatives to run bleating in terror. And to see this liberal's idea of Utopia appear to work. The women, gays and nonwhites interviewed claim that discrimination is not a significant part of their lives. The interviewees, one after another, even express fondness for the police, who place recruiting ads in gay magazines ("We like young men as much as you do"). The Amsterdam police commissioner wonders aloud whether perhaps it wouldn't be better to legalize cocaine and heroin as well as hash. In spite of the positive things they say about their work, the prostitutes do seem a little wistful, but no more so than, say, assembly-line workers or data-entry clerks might if they were interviewed. It's less clear, of course, whether Dutch-style reforms would be an effective prescription for what ails this country--we don't have their homogeneity of culture, or their gun control. And it appears we aren't likely to anytime soon. Sex, Drugs and Democracy may give rise to an odd response in the art-house audience: To the American-liberal sensibility, it seems almost indecent for people to be so thoroughly satisfied with their government. That's a middle-class reaction, no doubt--no one with a heart could stack it against the absence of people shooting each other in the street--but the Dutch idea of fun is so civic-minded and hygienic that it seems, almost, a little square.--

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead