“This story contains dramatic reconstructions and is based on the account of a convicted drug smuggler,” warns the title card at the front of the new, five-part BBC Three documentary High: Confessions of an Ibiza Drug Mule, which began screening on BBC One this week.
“Only some of the facts can be verified,” it continued. It’s a reminder which Michaella McCollum, the show’s subject, seems like she needs to take note of. Interviewed throughout in single-camera studio close-up, and providing the first-person narrative which accompanies both the period visuals and the dramatic recreations, it often seems as though she’s telling someone else’s story.
The ‘other’ Michaella of the tale is younger, wilder, more wide-eyed… and, it must be said, more guilelessly foolish than the apparently sorted-out, late-twentysomething mother of twins appearing before us here. Raised in rural County Tyrone, McCollum (“owner of the world’s most infamous up-do”) was one of the Peru Two, convicted in 2013 on charges of attempting to smuggle large quantities of cocaine out of Lima.
The tale unfolds with docudrama verité, skipping from the party life on Ibiza, to the world of grooming as a drug ‘mule’, to the practicalities of international drug smuggling, to the vagaries of the Peruvian legal – and eventually penal – system.
Its authority comes from an array of talking heads, including friends and acquaintances from Ibiza, and lawyers and prosecutors from Peru. McCollum’s accomplice Melissa Reid, from Lenzie in East Dunbartonshire, has avoided the spotlight since both were released, and appears here only in archive footage and as an unspeaking dramatised cameo.
McCollum takes centre-stage in this documentary. Her motivation isn’t entirely clear, but if it’s to serve as a cautionary tale, then she does a sterling job. If it’s to set the record straight… well, that’s where the opening disclaimer comes in.
It isn’t that McCollum doesn’t seem perfectly honest, or that she hasn’t clearly been on a journey of self-examination around the events which shattered her life and turned her into a brief figure of public resentment in Ireland – the latter when it became clear she and Reid hadn’t, in fact, been coerced by threats of violence, but had gone along willingly, if extremely naively, with the plan.
It’s that the crux of what happened seems to be a mystery at heart, even to her. She was young, she was searching for escape and good times in Ibiza, she thought she was far more worldly and wise than she was, and she was drunk and on drugs for most of the time. A handsome guy – a drug dealer, as it turned out – stole her heart and offered her easy cash, and she took it.
Along the way, there are resonant elements about the value of friendship and taking responsibility, and some stand-out moments. McCollum’s monumentally dippy realisation that Lima isn’t in Spain only when she was halfway there, for example, or her heart-tugging judgement on her addled younger self that “I just felt so happy, and sometimes in the world it’s hard to feel like that…”
The moment at which a moral switch was flicked in her brain, and the reason for it, remains frustratingly out of reach, for her and us. Yet this documentary series is an intriguing, if slightly overlong, glimpse of what can happen when such a path is taken.