March into the archives : Human Traffic

The following piece on the film Human Traffic appeared in BMA Magazine.

What three products define the 90s? I’d suggest they’re the ubiquitous mobile phone, the modem for the World Wide Web and the drug ecstasy (or MDMA). Aside from the coincidence that all three products claim to enhance communication between people, depending on who’s talking, they are also portrayed as dangerous as they are beneficial. Mobiles allow you to arrange anything from anywhere but might give you cancer; the WWW lets you interact with people from all over the globe but has bestial porn and bomb recipes; and while ecstasy has influenced music, fashion and youth culture, its long term effects are unknown. And there have been films that promote the same opposing messages: for every You’ve Got Mail there’s the dark side of The Net.

It’s an interesting coincidence that two films which attempt to represent both sides of ecstasy and the rave scene are being released around the same time: Go on video and Human Traffic in cinemas. Both films find humour in the consequences of using popular and illegal drugs like ecstasy but do so from differing cultural viewpoints. Where the American film Go says that using drugs means mixing with dangerous criminals, British Human Traffic focuses on personal effects, to show both the euphoria and the paranoia that can follow. The rave scenes also differ between the two films with Human Traffic portraying the variety of recent fashions and musical subgenres in a detail which makes the rave in Go look like the generic backdrop it was.

Human Traffic also takes steps to show that recreational drug use is often a phase within a life that can lead to a more mature outlook on intoxicants. Yet whatever the film makes up for in authenticity it lacks in overall entertainment. Human Traffic actually resembles a less than average night on ecstasy in that there’s a lot of excitement prior to taking the drug, a blur of activity as characters E their way around the dance floor before an extended and sometimes tedious comedown.

The film also suffers from uncertain direction as it attempts to balance its early surreal humour alongside the serious character development of later stages. These shortcomings stem mostly from the screenplay of first-time director Justin Kerrigan, as does the impression that all of the characters are different voices speaking words from the same mouth. There is no doubt that Kerrigan has potential as a director but his script could have used the constructive criticism of a co-author.

While UK newspaper The Guardian has described Human Traffic as “the last great film of 90s,” my own view is that it is a realistic film in the two-sided approach it takes to ecstasy and its influence upon the 90s, but is ultimately more grating than great.

Human Traffic is the story of five friends who spend a weekend escaping the pressures of daily life by taking drugs, dancing and recovering. One of them is Moff, a small-time dealer who’s described as a “pill monster.” He’s played by 22-year old actor Danny Dyer who called from London recently where it was a weekday morning in late-Winter and he sounded the worst for wear. “Yeah I need a cup of coffee, it’s quarter to nine in the morning and I’m fucked” he explained before answering these questions about the film, drugs and the London club scene.

What do you think are the strengths of the film?
“You can go into the cinema having sunk 6 pints of lager and still understand what the film is all about. There’s no complex plot to get a hold of, it’s just about a group of young people going out and getting fucked over the weekend. Basically that’s it and it’s so honest that people can relate to it. That’s why the film works.”

Is Human Traffic an accurate representation of club life?
“Totally. For the majority of people in Britain that’s what’s going on every weekend, y’know. All the little drug jokes gel the film together and it had to be funny otherwise it would just be too intense. I think the whole thing works very well.”

What did you think of the location in Cardiff?
“It’s not a very nice place, a shit hole to be honest. 6 weeks was long enough to be there for me. The location was chosen because Justin’s from there and the film is about his life, it’s what he’s lived. My character was ‘sposed to Welsh but I couldn’t do the accent. I’m from east London, born and bred so we went with the cockney thing and it worked, y’know.”

What’s been your experience of the club scene?
“The clubs in London y’mean? It’s alright mate, y’know, I’ve lived it. I’ve done it and it gets to a point where you have to calm down, I’ve got a kid now, a 3-year old girl, so I’ve had to focus on my career a bit more.”

How important were drugs to making the film?
“I don’t know whether you’ve taken ecstasy before but it’s a buzz that you’ll never forget. And it’s easy for an actor to just click back in, y’know. [Speaking quietly] I’ve taken it. [Normal volume] So we all did that because we’ve all lived it, obviously none of us would’ve got the part if we hadn’t lived it a bit. It was weird but we all slipped back into it and had our own ways of doing it. I used to down 3 cans of Red Bull before every scene, for the energy and to feel wired. We had a few joints as well but there was no Class A going on.”

Are drugs important to the club scene in general?
“I think they’re very important, it goes hand in hand. From what I’ve experienced growing up, on the way to the club you’ll always stop off and get yourself a couple of E’s. It’s just the way it’s done, for me and for most people I know. I don’t know why but they seem to just go together. A perfect match and millions of people are doing it every weekend. I’ve tried clubbing afterwards without doing any [drugs] and it’s just not the same. Without drugs you stand there like a plum, so you’ve got to dabble a bit. Or you can no longer dance. It’s got to be done.”

Do you know what the title means?
“It’s just something that Justin’s father used to say to him as a kid. He’d come home from work and say ‘Hi Dad, what’s it like outside?’ And he’d say ‘Human traffic son, human traffic’. And it always stuck in his mind and I think it makes a good film title.”