Television: Banged up abroad – a Peruvian drug story that just can’t keep its distance

A documentary on Michaella McCollum Connolly, jailed in Peru for drug smuggling, gets too close to her family for cool appraisal

Visiting time: Samantha McCollum and Norah McCollum in “Michaella, Peru and the Drugs Run” (RTÉ One, Monday)

Visiting time: Samantha McCollum and Norah McCollum in “Michaella, Peru and the Drugs Run” (RTÉ One, Monday)

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 01:00

It’s every parent’s nightmare – or at least those with a vivid imagination: daughter goes to Ibiza for the summer to work and ends up, five weeks later, in a Peruvian jail, banged up for six years for drug smuggling. It’s a classic cautionary tale, which is why Michaella McCollum Connolly’s story, Michaella, Peru and the Drugs Run (RTÉ One, Monday) is so compelling.

She is, by circumstance, a distant presence in the documentary, in the news footage and on airport CCTV at the heart-stopping moment a customs officer goes through her drug-filled suitcases. The closest we get to her is at the gates of the jail, when we follow her sister Samantha and mother Norah as they travel from Northern Ireland on their first visit.

In interviews before and after that visit they express their confusion and shock but offer no insight as to why she did it. Their apparent lack of curiosity seems odd. The Peruvian drugs control staff have plenty of theories. Drug mules are arrested every day in Lima airport, and they’ve noticed a “feminisation” of the trade: young women, poor, with little education, from large families. McCollum Connolly ticks all the boxes, so hers is a relatively ordinary story after all.

Through interviews with the owners of bars where she hung out, we get a good overview of the raucous drug- and drink-fuelled party scene in Ibiza and how easy it is for an unprepared, naive woman to make bad choices there. The picture it paints of McCollum Connolly’s hedonistic time in the tacky resort isn’t pretty but it’s ultimately sympathetic. A Peruvian drugs official suggests that McCollum Connolly’s co-accused Melissa Reid is the leader – although he gives no evidence to back up that opinion.

Maybe spending so much time with her mother and sister made a cool, distanced appraisal of the young woman’s character and actions more difficult for the programme-makers.

McCollum Connolly concocted a transparent lie about how she and Reid were kidnapped and made to smuggle the drugs, but she soon cracked. It took Lance Armstrong (The Armstrong Lie, Channel 4, Monday) a professional lifetime to tell the truth. Made by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, this superb feature-length documentary was originally titled The Road Back; the name-change tells much about the film’s trajectory.

Gibney starts making an access-all-areas film to chart Armstrong’s comeback attempt to win the Tour de France in 2009. We see the cyclist’s phenomenal fundraising for cancer through his Livestrong foundation, his hero status in the US, his repeated denials of taking performance-enhancing drugs, and gruelling shots of the race. And then, in 2013, Armstrong comes clean in a TV interview with America’s mother confessor, Oprah Winfrey, and so Gibney resumes filming – with the same access to Armstrong.

Through interviews with his former backroom team and fellow cyclists, the film exposes Armstrong’s ruthless exercise of his immense power, how he systematically crushed anyone who dared challenge him on the road or over his drug-taking. Gibney also questions himself as a filmmaker: how, despite loud murmurings about drugs, he bought so completely into the Armstrong myth. He became part of the complicit machine that includes sponsors, professional cycling’s governing body, and the millions of fans who needed Armstrong to be a hero, not a cheater hiding in plain sight.

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