Joint Effort | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Joint Effort 

Documenting the Super Bowl of Pot

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By Mike Sula

Doug Wolens's parents were always supportive. "I remember one year when I was in college I was growing some pot in the backyard and my father was so mad," he says. "But by the end of the summer he was out there watering it."

His father couldn't possibly have seen what was coming. The son of a children's wear salesman and an office worker from Deerfield, the 38-year-old Wolens wrote, directed, and produced Weed, a documentary about Americans getting high at Amsterdam's annual Cannabis Cup, a contest organized by High Times magazine in which "judges" pay $100 for the privilege of voting for the best pot, hash, and coffeehouses in the city. The film opens this weekend at the Village North.

During the five-day event Wolens and his crew visited all 56 participating coffeehouses and interviewed over 300 people. "Everyone had a joint in one hand and a joint in the other hand and a joint in their mouth," he says. His cinematographer didn't indulge. "Oftentimes she had to hand me the camera and go outside. Once she started to fall over, and I had to grab the camera from her." Wolens and his wife, Claudia Kussano, smoked every day at the festival, but Claudia hasn't taken a hit since.

Wolens says he's always wanted to be a writer, and he thought about pursuing an MFA in fiction after graduating from the University of Oregon in 1981. But his parents wanted to know how he was going to pay for it. "Coming from the suburbs, I was like, 'Well, aren't you going to pay for graduate school? Don't you just keep paying?'" They did agree to pay for school, but only if he studied something "worthwhile." So Wolens went to law school, initiating a 12-year creative hiatus that essentially made him miserable. He practiced business law in New York for eight years, then moved to San Francisco with his first wife, a market analyst, and worked in asbestos litigation. "I appreciated understanding the Constitution and how laws evolved, but I hated the practice. I hated the bosses and the screaming and the pressure to make a dollar rather than help the client."

After his marriage broke up, he asked himself what would make him happy and realized he still wanted to write. He enrolled in a screenwriting class at San Francisco State University and enjoyed it so much he quit his job. "I remember Christmas was coming up and I got a really measly little bonus and I just said fuck it." He took a basic filmmaking class and in 1993 completed his first short, Happy Loving Couples, which ended up going to Sundance.

After two more shorts and a losing battle with a feature-length script, Wolens took a vacation in Europe. While in Amsterdam, he and Claudia, a jewelry designer, were unable to find a room because all the hostels were filled with Cannabis Cup judges. That's when he came up with the idea for Weed. "I found it really curious that all these people would come to this event rather than just come to Amsterdam at any other time." Wolens had to coddle the organizers at High Times, who refused to help fund the project but eventually gave him press passes for the following year.

Strapped for cash, Wolens could only afford to shoot on video. Given his subjects' sensitivities, it turned out to be a blessing. "There were a bunch of people there shooting on film," he says. "They had lights and crap and they'd walk into these little shops and blind people who'd just put out their joints right away. What I'd do is walk in with my wife and my tall, good-looking cinematographer, and I'd go up and get some pot, roll a joint, pass it around, and then I'd pull out my camera and start talking."

Wolens returned home with 25 hours of footage that he admits was mostly comprised of useless babbling. "I knew the film was there. It was just needles in the haystack. So I started transcribing it all and taking out those juicy little pieces and pasting them together on paper." The result is a rapid series of interviews with dozens of American judges whose comments are surprisingly intelligible, if not sober, for a bunch of potheads. Weed isn't exactly a knee-slapper on the order of Up in Smoke or Reefer Madness. It manages to draw out conflicts between pot connoisseurs complaining about commercialization at the festival and merchants hawking expensive hemp fashions. Wolens says his treatment of these conflicts has earned him the enmity of the publishers of High Times. "They were mad because it's honest," he says. "It would have been really easy being funny and making a film that mocks these people, but I couldn't do that."

Nevertheless, he says, most people turn up at his screenings stoned, and afterward somebody always wants to know how they can be a judge. Hemp activists always come and set up information tables. And then there are people who respond to the film by musing, "Remember when we used to get high?" At Weed's Chicago screenings there will be a fourth group: "My parents are going to bring a lot of their friends," Wolens says. "When I changed from being a lawyer to a filmmaker my parents were really upset. But they said good luck, and they've always been behind my films. This one was kind of tough for them because of the subject matter, but they like it because I made it. That's what a parent thinks." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Doug Wolen photo by Alain McLaughlin.

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