Lisa Selby’s Blue Bag Life, an intimate glimpse into the generational shockwaves of addiction
What does it mean to be a mother? It’s a question many women find knocking around their brains at some point in their lives. More often than not, the question will draw our thoughts back in time to our last experience of motherhood: to the time when we experienced it from the other side of the equation as daughters. It is this process that lies at the heart of artist and lecturer Lisa Selby’s documentary Blue Bag Life, which premiered at the London Film Festival today.
Named after the tell-tale plastic blue bags that many addicts use for drugs, Blue Bag Life film explores Lisa’s second-hand experiences of addiction through her mother, Helen, and her partner, Elliot, both of whom were addicted to heroin. When Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was unable to receive treatment due to her addiction. During the course of the film, she dies, and Lisa is left to deal with both the practical and emotional implications. Around the same time, Elliot relapses and starts using heroin again, eventually going to prison when he starts dealing drugs to fund his addiction. Lisa supports him throughout his time in prison and by the end of the film, Elliot is once again clean and in recovery.
Lisa and Elliot first gained prominence in 2019 after their Instagram account @bluebaglife, which documented Elliot’s struggles with a heroin addiction and Lisa’s own complicated relationship with alcohol, took off and became an open, judgment-free community for people dealing with various kinds of addiction. As Elliot told the BBC of the account, “It’s not an exhibition. It’s the completely real experiences of a former heroin addict.”
The documentary takes a similarly honest, unfiltered approach. Blue Bag Life is an intensely personal and confrontingly honest film composed of shaky iPhone footage, usually from Lisa’s viewpoint, one filmed interview Lisa conducted with her mother, and slideshows of Lisa’s photos – still lifes of Helen’s squalid basement apartment, old family photos. With her makeshift footage, Lisa offers us a glimpse into her experience of Helen’s final days and Elliot’s relapse by giving us only fragmentary glimpses from her unique viewpoint. We see, from her perspective, the cluttered, dirty hallway in her mother’s apartment, the corner of the bed as she answers a phone call from Elliot, the sidewalk and Lisa’s feet as she walks down the street.
It is not a full picture of addiction – it is not even a full picture of these two cases of addiction. Rather, it is a deeply personal attempt to piece together and come to terms with a fragmented, painful story. “These are the only fragments I have left,” says Lisa of the small bit of footage of Helen that she still has.
What is ultimately revealed in Lisa’s somewhat abstract and fragmented film is that it is impossible to understand the experience of addiction from the outside. We are left feeling the emotional weight of never having the full picture. As Lisa says in one voiceover, “Where is that place they go, that place that’s not near me?” Watching Blue Bag Life, it becomes clear that the answer to this question is unknowable.
Equally fragmented is Lisa’s relationship with motherhood as a concept. Over the course of the film, Lisa uncovers, layer by layer, the nature of her relationship with Helen. It is a relationship that becomes more complex with each new layer – it is a relationship in which shame, regret, confusion, betrayal, hurt, happiness and hope co-exist all at once. We learn that Helen left Lisa when she was 10 months old. She sent her birthday and Christmas cards and became a distant, glamorous idol in Lisa’s eyes. The image was shattered as Lisa came to see her addiction first-hand. Throughout it all, she never felt much like a mother. “Mum: the word that doesnt feel good,” Lisa states in a voiceover at the beginning of the film. “The word I never call anyone.”
Ultimately, the act of documenting Helen and Elliot’s experiences without judgment or comment helps Lisa start looking forwards rather than backwards. She begins to question whether her family line should continue. Echoing the opening voiceover about the word “Mum,” the film ends with another voiceover. “Mum. The word is growing in and on me,” says Lisa. After excavating her past and documenting her present, it seems she can finally accept a more hopeful future.