Vice leverages Zealandia series to explore New Zealand’s synthetic cannabis problem

2017 saw the news fill with stories about synthetic cannabis as it’s believed the drug is responsible for the death of 25 people in New Zealand.

 At the time, Vice journalist James Borrowdale was investigating the deaths and when former Prime Minister Bill English responded to the rise of synthetics by saying that “personal responsibility” was the best defence against addiction, Vice decided to create an antidote to the idea. It wanted to establish how and why this drug has become responsible for the deaths of New Zealanders in unprecedented numbers and reveal the raw reality of the crisis.

Step in Vice New Zealand’s Zealandia series that launched last year to tell unique Kiwi stories that don’t make headlines in mainstream media. Its episodic documentary-style was decided to be the right way to present the investigation and Syn City, which was released today, is the result.

The 18-minute documentary follows 20-year-old Tammara, a former addict, as she grapples with her recovery from a drug that has dominated her life for six years. It also meets Trey, another former-user whose 17-year-old friend died after smoking synthetics, as well as family members, a former dealer, police, customs officers and an emergency medicine doctor/toxicologist. 

Producer Ursula Williams says moving to an audio/visual form of storytelling rather than continuing the written journalist investigation created a more powerful story, as it allows audiences to see and hear from the horse’s mouth and see the physical context these issues occur inside. 

“That’s not to say that written form journalism isn’t amazing, but I think in a case like this, seeing and hearing from these individuals and personalising these stories is a good way to facilitate a more aware conversation.”

And for Syn City, the conversation she hopes to see started is one about what society can do to facilitate a better tomorrow for those who have been impacted.

However, William says the audio/visual content requires care and an understanding of what the participants want to get out of telling their story and time needs to be spent with the participants before the cameras came out.

In that time prior to filming, she and Borrowdale worked to create trust and rapport with the participants so what was five days of actual shooting on the ground turned into a few months of production. But for Vice, she says it’s an important part of keeping away from watercooler chat and telling the stories of those on the fringes.

It’s a similar sentiment to that of Vice New Zealand’s head of marketing and business development, David Benge, who when the Zealandia series launched last year, told StopPress it would invest time and resources into telling stories that matter to New Zealanders through the Vice lens.

“There’s no one else in New Zealand that tells those stories in the way we do,” he said.

Already, the Zealandia series has looked at how art, dance and performance offer a community for LGBTQ Maori and Pacific youth in Auckland’s Underground Vogue Scene, and visited the Mahana commune in the Coromandel Peninsula to hear from one of its remaining members in The Last Man on Mahana.

Those episodes have clocked up over 3.5 million views on Facebook and The Last Man of Mahana has also seen over 1.3 million views on YouTube.

They’ve also played a role in Vice receiving up to $74,675 from New Zealand On Air to produce three more 20-minute episodes for Zealandia. Following the announcement of the grant, head of content at Vice New Zealand Frances Morton told StopPress it’s a great achievement and is one that recognises Vice’s role as a local broadcaster.

And having previously worked with Vice on Auckland’s Underground Vogue Scene as well as the Mad Pride and Feed The Flame videos, Williams adds the funding has been an enabler for Vice allowing to it step up to longer form content. She also credits New Zealand On Air for being supportive but hands-off in terms of the editorial direction.

Syn City is currently being shared on Vice.com and it’s hoped the episode will also be able to air on Viceland. The 24-hour TV channel on Sky launched at the end of 2016 with shows like WeediquetteCyberwarBlackmarket and Big Night Out.

While the channel is programmed in the UK, US and Canada, Morton says the local team wants to have New Zealanders on the screen and it has the freedom to put local content in available spaces.

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