Garry Anthony Fraser has encountered more death and pain in his lifetime than most of us would in ten of our own. During the 80s, when Garry was growing up Muirhouse, an estate north of Edinburgh, heroin and AIDS were rampant, with a huge 51 percent of the local population testing positive for HIV.
Brought up around drugs, death, crime and a sense of hopelessness, Garry found himself in trouble from a very early age. With parents who couldn't handle him, he spent eight years of his young life moving through a staggering 36 care homes. He suffered both physical and sexual abuse in many of those, can't keep track of how many friends he lost to drugs and violence, and ended up with a crippling crack addiction.
Now drug and crime-free, Garry is a BAFTA and MTV Award-winning director. Dubbed the "documentary version of Trainspotting", last year's Everybody's Child is a document of Garry coming to terms with his past, a film teeming with pain, misery and heartache. Yet it's Garry himself – a determined, impassioned person who clearly believes in the transformative power of art – who gives the documentary its bite and drive.
Keen to learn more about his life, I recently caught up with Garry.
VICE: Hi Garry, what are your earliest memories of growing up in Muirhouse?
Garry Anthony Fraser: Oh fuck, I don't know. Growing up there, everything was normal – drug dealing was normal, police brutality was normal, getting battered off the police every week... I just thought that was normal. It wasn't until I went to college that I started to realise that not everybody had been stabbed, lost people. I grew up among death – I was accustomed to death. Once you're accustomed to death it gives you another outlook on life, you know?
I grew up expecting that my life was jail. I didn't think anything else. I thought it was jail. I thought that life was set out for me. Muirhouse was an area that was completely cut off, and I don't think the government gave a fuck if anyone died there.
When did you realise what AIDS was and the impact it was having on your community?
I heard about it growing up, so every time I was in jail or young offenders or secure units people would say, "AIDS – blah, blah, blah," and they had all these pejorative terms for AIDS, so I kind of knew the stigma. It flew around, but it wasn't until I went to college and my addiction worker, Steph, told me about the amount of deaths from it that I realised it was wrong – that something needed to be done.
The statistics of people testing HIV-positive in Muirhouse during that period are terrifying.
It was madness. If you were caught with a needle, that was essentially like being caught with heroin, so everybody started sharing needles. You had 30 people in one house sharing a single needle. That's why the epidemic happened – why all the shooting galleries started up.
The trailer for 'Everybody's Child'
One thing that really stuck with me was a scene where you meet up with an old, HIV-positive friend who recalls when someone asked him to inject them with his blood so that, once they were infected, they could be eligible for a higher Disability Living Allowance. That was obviously very sad and upsetting, but it seemed to represent a complete sense of hopelessness and lack of options for people at the time.
It was absolute despair. It wasn't even just Muirhouse, either. I can't believe that I've suffered with post-traumatic stress, and I think a lot of these kids growing up now are suffering from PTS, but they're not getting diagnosed with it. Violence becomes their only achievement in life... drug dealing... all they think about is the money, but not the sentences. There's a system set-up designed for people like me to fail: jail, the legal system, the addiction services... none of them are there to help; they're all there to keep us down.
When did drugs start to become a part of your life?
When I was about 11. I just started selling acid, speed, hash – whatever I could get my hands on. At 14, 15 I was in secure units – I was locked up with lifers, rapists... all that shit since I was ten years old. That criminal mentality seeped into my brain. When I came out at 16, I thought, 'Fuck it: it's a gangster's life, it's a gangster's death, that's what I am.' Once Garry J [Garry's son] was born, that was a big change – I just knew that something had to change, otherwise I'd be doing a lifer.
You ended up dealing for the Turkish Mafia. How did that happen?
I was dealing smack up here and it was piss – it was cut to fuck. A guy who's dead now – and who went to jail for 15 years – was pure gangster, and he took me down to London to introduce me. I then started popping up on people's radars after that. I kind of thought that that was my destiny – jumping around in a BMW. But it was all fake; it was insecurities, but I didn't know that at the time.
You then got a pretty heavy habit yourself?
If I'd have gone back down to London with a habit like that – if they'd have known – they'd have just taken me out of the game. You can't have habits with these guys – you're not supposed to touch anything. I hid that well when I was down there.
So how did that all stop?
September the 11th. I was sitting in my house, counting loads of money, and then looked at the news and those planes going into the towers. From then on the heroin route just completely dried up. That was it: the price of heroin shot through the roof for about five months, because whoever was controlling it stopped the supply. That stopped my dealings going down to London with the Turkish people, then at about 25 a few things started happening that I can't really say, and I thought, 'I'm going to get killed soon, I can feel it.' When Garry J was born the dealing stopped because I didn't want the drug squad coming. That happened a couple of times, the armed response and the drug squad busting the house – but I wasn't dealing, and I was trying to get on a script. That's when I became a fully-fledged prescription junkie.
Which is a very tough cycle to break in itself.
The whole system is rigged, top-to-bottom. The drug companies are the biggest drug dealers out there. I've been on valium, dihydrocodeine, methadone – even that becomes tiring when you're going to a chemist every day and not making any money. I was writing while on them. I passed my HND at college on them. I can barely remember a fucking day of college. Obviously I passed having not had any schooling, and that gave me a sense of identity. My first film, In for Life, got an MTV Award, and I was going to London and stuff, and I thought, 'Yeah, I like this lifestyle. This is me.' Education saved my life.
Why did you decide to make Everybody's Child?
I got a video called Heroin, a three-part TV documentary from 1986. I'd grown up with the guys in the film, and unbeknown to me at the time most of them had AIDS. It wasn't until I got to the end of the documentary that i thought, 'Fuck – nobody knew they had AIDS in the documentary, they were just talking about heroin addiction.'
I wondered if I could do a follow up – that was my initial idea. And because I feel I have a moral duty when I make films, I thought, 'That's something close to my heart.' So, initially, I wanted to make a documentary about why Muirhouse was the AIDS capital of Europe, basically. I didn't want to put my life in there initially because, as a director, I thought, 'Save your stuff for drama, Garry. Don't give all of this away at once.' Although, with the doc I couldn't go into it with half a heart, so once I realised what I had to take on I said, "Fuck it, let's do it."
In a bizarre way, it seems like the difficulties you faced when you were younger have almost now benefitted you, acting as creative fuel for your art.
Yeah, absolutely. I still think we live in a very stereotypical society, so when you have someone like me who is intelligent and creative, it says to society, "Oh, I didn't realise someone from Muirhouse could be like that." I've used my creativity to survive since I was 14, so hopefully that transcends. Looking back on all the gang stuff and that, I'm not bound by masculinity any more. A lot of my friends from my past are still trapped in a macho world, and they'll never be able to break out of it because they can't talk about feelings. I write poetry every day, so I get to vent anger, frustration, all that stuff.
Making the film, did you ever want to look up people who you'd hurt or attacked in your more violent, criminal days?
I never spoke to any criminals in the film because my biggest fear was sticking someone up. There would have been so much stuff that would have been so easy to incriminate myself with – I needed to be careful about that. The guys who had the violence done to them? I don't know. I should be sitting here thinking that I feel sorry for them, but, at the end of the day, they were going to do me; it was a dog-eat-dog world, it was do or be done.
That sounds horrible looking back on it now, because that's not my attitude to life, but that was my psychology back then – everything I've done to them I've had done to me. I've met people who I've given scars to who thought the film was great. That's surreal, because I do feel guilty if I see someone who I've done injuries to. What can I do about it now? I've made amends; I work with children to try and show them that there's an alternative.
So is Muirhouse doing a little better these days?
I don't know about doing well – they've got the highest fucking crime rate in Scotland. The smack's out of the way a little bit, but legal highs are fucking people up. Not just in Muirhouse, either, but, again, the government just cut these poor areas off, so if people are left to defend for themselves there is no employability, there is no industry – it's just slums; slums created by rich people. The area is still ghetto, but the difference now between the have and the have nots is massive – you've got one house with three BMWs and people working, then two houses down you've got poverty. I've been working with the violence reduction unit; I've made films on the dangers of knife crimes. I've even been working with the police, which is very weird.
How has the police's role in the area changed compared to when you were younger?
I don't know. There's cameras everywhere now so they can't get away with battering people any more – that's subsided. I'm not really in that world any more so I can't really speak on stuff like that. If I'm not involved in it then I'm not educated in it.
How did you and Irvine Welsh get to know one another and start working together?
I was on Twitter and I needed source material for a new film, and I thought, 'Fuck it, I'll ask Irvine Welsh, he's from Muirhouse, he might understand.' I messaged him and asked him for one of his short stories to turn into a film, and he said, "Yeah, of course." Irvine's now coming on as an executive producer for my next films. I met him in Edinburgh and he gave me a pile of signed books to give to the kids in my social enterprise. I don't think anyone like myself has ever taken on Irvine's work before; when someone like Danny Boyle takes on this work he has to research it all, but I know it – it's my life. So being able to bring that to life, I can't wait. It's called State of the Party. This is going to be my next step before my feature drama, Tolerance, which is my signature piece, due in 2016.
Garry is currently looking for investors and like-minded people to get involved with his social enterprise, "to bring a voice to the voiceless through art". If you're interested you can get in touch through www.wideomedia.org.
Everybody's Child is available to buy and download through iTunes.
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