My Friend Lanre: a radically intimate documentary about life with addiction

words Christina Brennan

My Friend Larne

The Sheffield Documentary Festival is an increasingly crucial date in the UK film calendar and often the first chance for UK audiences to see premieres of both home-grown and international biopics, activist documentaries, and front-line reporting from military conflicts. The 2023 instalment of the DocFest spotlighted UK social documentary, with Paul Sng’s award-winning Tish (2023), an intimate look at the life of Newcastle photographer Tish Murtha, was its opening premiere. Yet a similar film that went under the radar was My Friend Lanre, a study of the controversial photographer Lanre Fehintola, who documented lives in troubled communities in Bradford, including drug addicts. Taking a method approach to his art, Fehintola lived with his subjects, getting to know their lives and troubles and eventually experimenting with heroin to experience the drug that was destroying their lives. Fehintola admits that his plan was fool-hardy – that he would temporarily become addicted to truly emphasise with his subjects before kicking the habit before it took hold of his life. This plan did not work out. Instead, Fehintola is drawn into the lifestyle of addiction – searching for the next hit, turning every part of his life upside down to feed his addiction.

The documentary by Leo Regan, a close friend of Fehintola, tells the highly personal story of the consequences of this fool-hardy decision, taking an intimate look at Fehintola as both an artist and a frail, self-destructive addict. The documentary is a stark, unflinching, but humane study, engaging with a subject, even a self-destructive subject, without feeling the need for either blame or pity. While chronicling drug addiction and long-term consequences leading to terminal illness sounds like a risky project, self-pity, if indeed Fehintola ever succumbed to this emotion, is left off the screen.

My Friend Larne documentary

Regan rejects the moral judgements that inflect debates about addiction and, instead, foregrounds the person – “Lanre’s work is life and his life is his work. It sounds like a cliche but it’s the truth”. Instead, he gives us an unsanitised look at his decline as he becomes a character in his own story of loss and addiction. Regan uses his crisp documentary to rove over a vast territory, from the ravaging nature of heroin addiction (for both people with addiction and their loved ones) to a punchy self-reflection on the filmmaker’s complicity in his friend’s fight with heroin. There’s an innocence in the beginnings of the relationship between Regan and Fehintola. Regan’s voiceover begins: “I’ve been trailing Lanre for years. He’s an artist and photographer. Back in the 90s, we decided to make a film about the book he was working on. Neither of us knew anything about filmmaking. Not that that was going to stop us”.

Regan’s sad and oddly inspiring work comes with sliced footage from earlier documentaries focusing on Fehintola’s life. It’s clear from these early sequences that Lanre is good company regardless of his addiction. He is a curious man filled with the desire to know more about the world, and it is clear that he hoped to know and do much more. He is an adept conversationalist, moving with smoothness and care from the significant, philosophical questions about life and death to the small everyday business of anecdotes and gossip. There are times that this charm tips into self-destruction, with his humour masking the true scale of his capacity for destruction. Lanre makes a vain, prolonged bid to beat his heroin addiction cold turkey and ends up escaping by jumping out of a window of the room he walls himself in against the exasperated protests of Regan and his friends.

My Friend Larne documentary film

Fragments of footage like this offer intensively intimate looks at the realities of addiction. These sequences are punctuated by long gaps where Regan loses touch with Fehintola. These gaps are blackouts in Fehintola’s life, where he retreats from life and community under the burden of addiction. The overarching theme of the documentary is death, the slow death that can be caused by addiction and the grave effects of terminal illness. The tone of each piece of Fehintola’s life changes as death comes closer.

Over the ensuing decades, it emerges that Lanre has terminal lung cancer, a disease linked to his addiction. Fehintola is only in his early sixties. It is clear that Lanre, despite his self-sabotaging tendencies, will give anything to live. “When I was diagnosed … I was diagnosed 98% fatality rate. That 2% gave me hope because I believed that I could become that 2%”.” He sits on the edge of his sick bed, speaking directly to Regan’s camera and riffs with a calm and poignant honesty as he compares his cancer tumours to fungi, encroaching upon and gradually suffocating his body. At other points in the documentary, Fehintola uses descriptions that are so stark and earnest that he cannot avoid talking about his legacy. He adopts a new tone as he considers the importance of capturing his final moment and the possibility of being remembered after his death. “What we’re doing, we’ll do this to the end. We’ve been documenting the work I’ve been doing and people will see it, and read whatever they want to read into it – this gives it more life, gives it more growth. That to me is wonderful.”

In this documentary, Regan does everything to ensure that Lanre’s voice is heard and that his life story, with all its flaws, is on display – defying the dullness and silence of death. My Friend Lanre is an admirable and humane tribute to a flawed artist whom Regan presents with enormous affection.

In select UK cinemas now



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