Garry Fraser on finding a new life in filmmaking

Bafta award-winning filmmaker Garry Fraser. Picture: Greg Macvean

Bafta award-winning filmmaker Garry Fraser. Picture: Greg Macvean

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Garry Fraser has moved on from a troubled past and drug addiction to find a new life in filmmaking, he tells Alistair Harkness

THERE’S no shortage of films about drug addiction, but not many can boast the kind of insider authenticity found in Everybody’s Child. Directed by 36-year-old former addict turned filmmaker Garry Fraser, the autobiographical documentary features him coming to terms with his tumultuous past growing up in Muirhouse, the Edinburgh housing scheme notorious both for its headline-grabbing status as the heroin and HIV capital of Europe and for inspiring fellow former resident Irvine Welsh to write Trainspotting.

Placing himself in front of the camera, Fraser confronts the appalling physical and sexual abuse he suffered as a child, explores the failings of the loveless care system into which he was placed, and takes a long hard look at his own heroin-addicted and violent crime-ridden downward spiral – all the while charting his inspiring efforts to drag himself out of this life for the sake of his own young family.

The end result is, at times, painfully raw and harrowingly matter-of-fact, and it serves as a poignant reminder of the human aspect of a universal problem frequently reported in terms of statistics. But what makes the film even more remarkable is that Everybody’s Child also serves as a record of Fraser’s own attempts to get clean while making it. As if dealing with all of the emotional trauma unleashed by the film’s subject matter wasn’t enough, Fraser can be seen throughout attempting to withdraw from the myriad long-term prescription drug treatments he’s been taking to quell his addiction.

“I looked forward to that more than I feared it,” says Fraser from his home in Clermiston in Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife Angela and their four children. “I’ve probably realised this more now that I’m completely drug-free, but I wanted to show what it was like trying to come off drugs. It was almost like splitting myself up and being schizophrenic. Part of me was there as a director worrying about what the lighting’s like and all of that; the other part of me was speaking to the camera, so it gave me a bit of a psychological block.

“For anybody who’s coming off drugs or who’s an addict, they could watch the film and see what it was like for me. It’s almost an evaluation tool for someone going through withdrawal: they can check the film and it might help them.”

Screening as part of this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, Everybody’s Child shines a light on some of the psychological and mental health issues associated with the cycle of abuse surrounding addiction. Fraser reckons one of the major reasons addicts relapse, for instance, is the guilt they feel. When you’re on drugs, he says in the film, you never feel guilty about anything; when you come off them, you spend all your time apologising. “The psychological effects associated with guilt is a really massive issue for people coming off drugs. There’s a whack of emotions that come with feeling guilty, and I’d never seen that part talked about before, even though every addict I know that’s come off it says the same thing.

“People have to have time to recover as well. I’m in that phase now. Psychologists would say I’m in the recovery period, that I shouldn’t be doing anything, that I should just be relaxing, because really you’re trying to reprogramme your brain.”

He jokes that he doesn’t have time for any of that because he’s working so hard at the moment making films, but in the last year, as things have started to quieten around the film, he admits he’s started to think more seriously about recovery. “I did start to get real help, I suppose. People are still talking about the film, but you’re also left to deal with the realities of life and I think that’s the recovery starting to kick in.”

Forcing himself to look at his life objectively as a filmmaker has been beneficial, however. “It’s probably a coping mechanism in a way.” He credits finding an artistic outlet with saving him. “If it wasn’t for that, I’d be f***ed,” he says as he reflects on the ten-year journey he’s had from writing short stories while on the methadone programme, to making short films, studying for an HND in filmmaking, and eventually getting Everybody’s Child off the ground – first as an hour-long BBC documentary entitled My Lives And Times, and now in its current feature-length form.

“I think the problem with people like me – and I’ve realised there are thousands of people like me – is that we’re so uneducated in terms of traditional education. And that’s basically the way society is set up, so when you live in poverty, you’ve got to find ways around that.”

Art, then, has been a positive way for him to make something of himself. As he notes in the film: “Your past either works for you or against you.” Where it used to work very much against him, that’s no longer the case. “I’m using art to my advantage and the society I live in as a canvas,” he says.

To this end, he has a feature film in development with Channel 4 and Creative Scotland, and has recently been working on a documentary about the independence referendum that he shot in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the run-up to the vote and the two days following it (“You can see my heart breaking on camera,” he sighs). He also has a short film he’s making in collaboration with Irvine Welsh. Given that Trainspotting emerged when Fraser was heavily involved with heroin (both as a dealer and a user), I ask if it meant much to him at the time, especially given the Muirhouse connection he shares with Welsh.

“Not really,” he says. “It’s a different culture.” He’s referring to the fact that he smoked heroin rather than injecting it. In the film he goes into the difference in more detail, pointing out how addicts his age thought the older Trainspotting generation were idiots because they were on the needle. Their twisted logic seemed to be based on the belief that smoking it wasn’t as bad, even though the consequences – the ruined lives, the crime, the attendant violence – could be just as devastating. Fraser’s experiences certainly attest to this. He’s writing a story about it now, in fact.

He does, however, have huge amounts of respect for Irvine Welsh, who’s a fan and supporter of Fraser’s work. “Irvine has been amazing with me,” he says. “The next feature film I’m doing, he’s the exec producer.”

He can’t reveal any more details about that project, but the short film collaboration (Welsh has supplied the story) is something Fraser is going to make as part of an educational programme he’s running at Edinburgh College in Sighthill that’s been designed to help people from low-income families get work experience in creative fields. “There aren’t many people who make it from where we come from,” he surmises, “so when we make it I suppose we try to help each other by offering guidance. You can’t buy experience.”

Everybody’s Child (followed by a Q&A with Garry Fraser) screens as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, on 13 October. For more details of this and other events, visit www.mhfestival.com

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