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The Films of Adrian Cowell: Opium stories from the Shan State to Hong Kong to Washington, DC

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is thrilled to welcome Hannah Palin (Film Archives Specialist) and Nicolette Bromberg (Visual Materials Curator) from the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections. The University of Washington has a wonderful collection of materials by the British filmmaker and journalist Adrian Cowell. Beware, alcohol and drugs historians– once you read their descriptions of the Cowell collection, you might be tempted to book your tickets to Seattle!

In January 2015, the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, received  6 pallets of materials shipped from London. They were stacked high with boxes of 16mm film, audio and videotape, photographs, newspaper clippings, transcripts and log books—covering three decades of work by British filmmaker and journalist, Adrian Cowell. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Adrian Cowell created television documentaries detailing the complex relationships between minority insurgents in a remote region of Burma and the international opium trade originating in Southeast Asia. The Adrian Cowell Film and Research Collection contains Cowell’s work tracking the opium trade from its production in Burma to the addicts and dealers in Hong Kong to the drug policy makers in Washington, D.C. It includes the most extensive collection of images of the remote Burmese Shan State in the world, gathered during Cowell’s trips documenting opium merchants, opium caravans, militias, insurgents and other activities related to the opium trade. A year and half after its arrival, Special Collections’ staff, students, and volunteers are still slowly working their way through the collection of over 2000 items, most of which have never before been made public.

Adrian Cowell introducing The Warlords, Part Two of The Opium Series

Adrian Cowell introducing The Warlords, Part Two of The Opium Series

From The Warlords  Part Two of The Opium Series

From The Warlords Part Two of The Opium Series

Cowell’s work provides an example of how the public affairs documentary evolved from a traditional journalist-focused role to a chronicle of events from the point of view of participants who shared experiences with the filmmaker. Cowell, who was born in China in 1934, took part as a young graduate in the Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, an overland trek that took him through the remote mountain passes of Asia and established his interest in Asia. Together with Chris Menges (who later won two Oscars), he produced a highly acclaimed and daring documentary film, Raid into Tibet (1966), which chronicles their travels with Tibetan guerilla fighters opposing Chinese communist occupation. Following the success of this film, Cowell and Menges were invited to record another insurgency, in the remote Shan State of Burma, where they documented separatist activities against the Burmese military junta in the film The Unknown War (1966).

In the 1970s, they returned to the Shan State, which covers almost one quarter of Burma’s land area, but their work now turned to the story of how the opium trade was interwoven with the aspirations of the Shan people who were revolting against the Burmese military government and how they supported their efforts through the opium trade. With their unprecedented access to this remote culture, Cowell and Menges witnessed and filmed over time the lives and internal politics of the insurgent armies, watching with dismay as the narcotics trade first became an increasingly important source of revenue, and then subverted the very foundations of the movement for democratic reform in the country.

Cowell observed that in the growing world market for heroin, U.S. drug interdiction policies were based on a lack of understanding of the place of

Lo Hsin Han in The Warlords Part Two of The Opium Series

Lo Hsin Han in The Warlords Part Two of The Opium Series

opium in the Burmese culture and on unrealistic expectations of how to stop the trade. Cowell explained that he wanted to show that a “myth was created in Burma, and that myth was that it was possible to stop the narcotics coming out of Burma by using police enforcement methods, and after 20 years and millions of dollars in military aid against it, we now have to appreciate that that was a myth.”

To expose this myth, Cowell produced documentaries that analyze the drug trade from its agricultural origins and use for revenue by insurgents in Burma, to its use by drug addicts and dealers in Hong Kong, and into the halls of the U.S. Congress, where policies were being made which would spend millions of dollars yet have no effect on stopping the trade. In the 1990s, several of his films focusing on opium were shown on PBS’s acclaimed Frontline series.

Cowell wanted to give all the players in the opium drama a voice, and to present an alternative perspective of the drug problem to that being generally portrayed in public discourse. As he observed, the American international drug policy and interdiction efforts were based on the assumption that the opium warlords were simply gangsters to be eliminated, without understanding the larger political and cultural realities of their fight. Cowell’s documentation of political action reveals American drug policy specialists in Washington D.C. as contradictory and mostly naïve, rejecting an innovative proposal from the Shan State revolutionaries in favor of supplying the Burmese military government with helicopter gunships and fixedwing aircraft to intercept and eradicate the opium trade, measures which had already proved to be ineffective against opium mule convoys. He followed the deliberations of the opposing politicians as they sat in their offices, as they walked down the corridors, down the elevators and through tunnels of the Capitol buildings. These behind-the-scenes negotiations, the frank encounters, the strategic phone calls and the sly betrayals, give unmatched insight into a political climate and the background of drug policy decisions.

Peter Bourne, Director of the Office of Drug Abuse Policy and President Jimmy Carter in conversation The Opium Series Part Three, The Politicians

Peter Bourne, Director of the Office of Drug Abuse Policy and President Jimmy Carter in conversation in The Opium Series Part Three, The Politicians

For his final series, The Heroin Wars, made in the 1990s for PBS, Cowell re-interviews many of same revolutionaries, drug addicts, drug dealers, and politicians from years ago reflecting on how

Title for The Heroin Wars series

Title for The Heroin Wars series

ineffective the drug policies had proved to be 20 or 30 years before. When he began his story, the drug crop coming out of the region was about 250 tons a year, and by the time of his return visit in 1990s, the trade was over 2,500 tons a year and growing. “For a while U.S. policy created the dream that it was possible to solve the drug problem in Burma, to cut off 60% of the U.S.’s heroin, by enforcement methods. Helicopters, police attacks, etc…. [but] there’s no point in going on saying that that’s a solution if 30 years have proved it hasn’t worked.”

The power of Cowell’s work comes from his close connections with people at all levels of the drug trade. He goes to the source and interviews the war lords and revolutionaries producing the opium and using it to fund their revolution; he goes to the streets of Hong Kong and talks with the addicts, drug dealers and the police about the realities of the world of drug dealing and consumption; and he shows the U.S Congress making policies about drugs far removed from the actual world of the drug trade. His three decade documentation of the trade demonstrates that the governmental policies which are removed from the real life of the drug addict and drug trade made no impact on the business and in some cases actually supported its growth.

The Adrian Cowell Film and Research Collection is a work-in-progress as funding is being sought to preserve and make these materials accessible. At present, there are efforts to post clips from his films online and to create a collection guide, detailing the entire contents of the collection. In an effort to raise awareness of Cowell’s work, a conference and film series, Fifty Years of Opium and Conflict in the Shan State of Burma: A Visual Retrospective, will take place on the UW campus in Seattle May 29th and 30th, 2015. This conference will introduce Cowell’s work to scholars from a range of disciplines as primary resources for research.

For more information about the Adrian Cowell Film and Research Collection, see:

For biographical information and a filmography, see:

For interesting background materials related to Cowell’s final work in the opium series, The Opium Kings see:

For information about the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections see:

To view films from the Moving Image Collections in the UW Libraries, Digital Collections, see:


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