TORONTO – Marc Emery is often hailed as the Prince of Pot, a beloved champion of marijuana legalization and Canadian sovereignty.
But in Citizen Marc, the famed activist is portrayed as an ambiguous figure, driven as much by a quest for celebrity and libertarian politics as he is by principle.
“There’s no question that Emery loves getting attention, yet there’s also the question that he’s politically effective as an activist,” said director Roger Evan Larry, who co-wrote the film with Sandra Tomc. “We leave it to the viewer to parse that out.”
The often comedic and surprising documentary is screening in select cities across Canada in October. Larry and Tomc will be joining audiences for some showings, including an event Thursday in Toronto.
Citizen Marc tells the story of Emery’s life up until his incarceration in a U.S. federal penitentiary in 2010 for selling cannabis seeds. He was released and returned to Vancouver earlier this year.
“He sacrificed incredibly. Love him or hate him, he’s put his a** on the line for the cause and he’s taken a hit. Five years in a U.S. penitentiary, it was no cakewalk,” said Larry in a phone interview.
Tomc and Larry — who also collaborated on the 2007 drama Crossing and 1996’s Gemini-nominated Tested — initially took an interest in Emery because they wanted a complex subject they could follow for years. The duo filmed him on a regular basis beginning in 2006.
It came as a surprise to the filmmakers that Emery, often associated with left-wing politics, actually holds libertarian views that skew conservative. As a child growing up in London, Ont., he became enamoured with capitalism and launched his own stamp-trading business that often saw him making more money than his father.
When he was a teenager, he opened a bookstore called City Lights Bookshop. He eventually discovered the writings of Ayn Rand and applied her philosophy to his life. He would later run for the Libertarian Party of Canada in the 1980 federal election.
“That was really interesting,” said Tomc, also speaking by phone. “When we realized the underlying structure of the political landscape that he was promoting, certainly for me, that was a place where I was like, ‘Whoa. This is a story to tell.'”
Emery initially devoted his energies to several different causes. While in London, he waged a number of battles against the government — defying Ontario’s Sunday shopping laws and selling banned records in his store.
It was only after a brief and ill-fated move to India that he relocated to Vancouver and found a new cause: marijuana legalization. As he says in the documentary, he was looking for “a revolution that pays for itself,” one where he could make money to be poured back into activism.
His Vancouver store and seed business turned out to be the perfect fit. He devoted most of the proceeds to legalization efforts, said Tomc.
“It’s a kind of paradoxical situation where a person’s narcissism or ego is being fed by his generosity towards others,” she said with a laugh.
Emery also reveals in the film that he believes his future was foretold by a prophecy delivered by a woman who slipped outside his bookstore when he was 19. She told him that while she was in a coma in hospital, she saw three symbols that would define his life — a dollar sign, a brain and a leaf.
Citizen Marc strikes a delicate balance between portraying Emery as a celebrity-seeker but also questioning whether his performance has generated meaningful political change. Larry said he personally believes Emery’s arrest was political.
“Many people were selling seeds from Canada who never were hassled by the Americans, but none of them were taking all the profits and using it to take on the U.S. government,” he said.
While Emery was imprisoned, marijuana was legalized in Washington and Colorado. Larry also credits Emery with changing the landscape in Canada, where marijuana is not decriminalized but police attitudes toward pot-smoking have seemingly relaxed.
“We wanted to unlock the mystery of his effectiveness, of why he was an effective activist. We live in an age where the status quo seems both untenable yet unchangeable,” said Larry. “We felt an obligation to try to understand why he had been so successful.”
Citizen Marc is screening in Calgary, Edmonton, Kamloops, Kelowna and Nanaimo in B.C., Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, London and Whitby in Ontario, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Victoria throughout October. Check local listings for dates and times.
BELOW: Watch Marc Emery on Global Toronto’s The Morning Show in August 2014.