Meth, Drugs and Videotape: Hollywood's Addiction Film Fest

By Rachel Heller 10/05/11

A ground-breaking Hollywood film festival showcases a series of films about alcoholism, addiction and recovery. The Fix previews the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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Screenings for the Sober Set

When Leonard Buschel founded Writers in Treatment (WIT) in 2008, he envisioned the nonprofit as a life raft for writers struggling with addictions. So it only made sense for the Hollywood-adjacent group to meet local writers where they live—at the cinema. 

Enter the Writers in Treatment produced REEL Recovery Film Festival, a high-profile effort to raise awareness about addiction and recovery issues. The international festival, currently gearing up for its third annual installment on October 14-16, will feature three days of screenings and panel discussions to showcase realistic depictions of substance abuse and personal transformation. 

The festival aims not only to change the way people view addiction and recovery, but also to identify and celebrate some of the creative minds that are currently redefining how the public can benefit and grow by learning about these pervasive issues. 

The festival aims to celebrate recovery in a public forum and reduce the stigma of addiction and the anonymity of recovery.

“The film festival is intended to give people in recovery and treatment professionals an opportunity to go to the theater and watch films that accurately portray addiction and alcoholism,” said Buschel, a former publisher-turned-certified substance abuse counselor who's in recovery from his own 26-year addiction. “But this series isn’t just for addicts or alcoholics—it’s for anyone who has ever been impacted or just wants to learn more about the disease and its treatment in a less traditional and more entertaining environment.”

Slated for screening at the Beverly Garland Hotel Theatre in North Hollywood, California is an eclectic lineup of contemporary and classic films, documentaries and shorts from first-time filmmakers and industry veterans. Highlights include Death of an Addict: The Tio Hardiman Story (2010), which chronicles director Tio Hardiman’s struggle to understand and break the cycle of intergenerational drug addiction in his family and neighborhood; Tweeked (2001), the story of two female companions whose friendship disintegrates as they careen into a methamphetamine frenzy; OxyMorons (2010), a harrowing thriller centering on the effects of Oxy-Contin addiction in a close-knit Boston community; and Down to the Bone (2004), starring Vera Farmiga as a wife and mother struggling to raise her children and manage her secret cocaine habit. 

The closing night’s special screening is On the Bowery, the 1956 classic independent film featuring a slice-of-life depiction of alcoholism on New York’s infamous skid row that Martin Scorcese called “a milestone in American cinema...a rare achievement.” Filmmaker Robert Downey, Sr. will conduct an in-person Q&A session after the screening.

“These films might not get a wide release in theaters, but the content registers with the hearts and minds of people in this field,” said Buschel. “The realistic portrayal of these issues in cinema can be a catalyst for honest conversation. This gives people a chance to go to a cultural event—outside the realm of an AA meeting or convention—and talk about creative recovery.” 

As part of the program, several writers and directors whose films will be screened will appear to discuss their work. Director Tio Hardiman, from Chicago, will talk about his struggle with drugs and alcohol before turning his life around with help from Narcotics Anonymous in 1986. Johnny Hickey, the writer and director of OxyMorons, will discuss his film’s depiction of drug dealing and addiction as a defense against emotional devastation in an economically depressed neighborhood. Tweeked director Beth Dewey will appear in conversation with Fix contributor Nic Sheff, author of the New York Times bestselling Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction. 

Traditionally the film festival audience includes psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, chemical dependency counselors, men and women in recovery, members of the entertainment industry, media representatives and the general public.

According to Patrick Haggerson at the Betty Ford Institute, "The REEL Recovery Film Festival has shown itself to be of great value. The idea of capitalizing on this potent media to tell the story of addiction and its devastation is critical."

As a whole, the festival aims to celebrate recovery in a public forum and reduce the stigma of addiction and the anonymity of recovery—goals that Buschel hopes will encourage anyone struggling with substance abuse to seek treatment and take a shot at a new life.

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