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film review

Citizen Marc is a documentary about Canadian pot activist Marc Emery.The Canadian Press

Pre-eminent among the questions raised by Citizen Marc, Roger Larry's vexingly fascinating non-fiction biopic about jailed pot activist Marc Emery, is whether the importance of a cause can transcend its crusaders, especially when those crusaders are difficult to like .

It's also a question Larry's documentary not only raises but actively pursues, opting for a movie that is as much about the London, Ont.-raised libertarian stunt activist's life and high times as it is Emery's signature cause (decriminalizing marijuana) and effect (being extradited to the U.S. on charges of drug trafficking). The result is a movie that manages to both spark one's righteous indignation at the man's status as Canadian state-delivered prisoner in a Mississippi prison while confronting you with possibly the most narcissistically self-loving camera subject this side of Donald Rumsfeld in Errol Morris's The Unknown Known.

Arguably the most important figure in the marijuana law reform to date – some credit Emery's practice of shipping seeds to the States as instrumental in decriminalizing the substance in some states – Emery is also a guy with a history of self-interested hucksterism that goes all the way back to dubious childhood practices in the schoolyard trade of comic books and stamps. In a kind of right-wing suburban Southern Ontario mutation of left-wing 1960s activist performance art political principles, Emery's lightning-rod moment came when he first read the uber-individualistic mysticism of Ayn Rand and finally saw the universe clearly. And darned if he wasn't at the centre of it.

Cutting a swath of displaced street-scrappy Reaganism through London in the 1980s, a politically chastened Emery eventually retreated to Asia for a spiritual recharge and saw – in Vancouver – a wide-open frontier of opportunity in the burgeoning local growth industry. He'd return to Canada and fight the state on the pot platform, funnelling everything he'd learned about activism not only through the long necks of bongs and filters of freshly-rolled fatties, but the vast distortion chamber of his own ego, effectively hijacking the legalization cause in service of promoting the personal Marc Emery brand.

But is that really fair or true, and – as Larry's movie smartly and slyly comes to ask – does it even matter? The fact is, whatever his motivations, Emery managed to expose the limitations and contradictions of the so-called "drug war" with more stark effectiveness than just about anyone else in the movement, and his status as prisoner of a foreign state, courtesy of his own, has only intensified his currency as international martyr for the cause and certified his credibility as even greater anti-authoritarian, pain-in-the-ass in the future.

On a scale of geopolitical issues to get riled about, marijuana law reform might strike many as a minor distraction but, as Noam Chomsky pops by Citizen Marc to point out, the thousands of people currently behind bars on pot charges in the U.S. are also disproportionately representative of an economically surplussed (and largely non-white) underclass, which puts the war on drugs into a whole other context. And if what's really going on here is a covert war on the inconvenient powerless, few people have done more to expose that war than Emery. Even if he is a jerk.

Told with wryly detached humour and an unflinching attention to its subject's least attractive qualities – watching Emery on the make with the ladies is almost as frightening as hearing him describe his first high as an oral sex enhancer – Citizen Marc compels you to consider its case while recoiling from its defendant.