Alcoholics and addicts have plenty of options for cultural entertainment. People in recovery? Not so much. The distinction—between alcoholics/addicts and people in recovery, as well as their respective social lives—was the reason for Las Vegas’ inaugural REEL Recovery Film Festival, which saw its Las Vegas debut September 7-8 at UNLV’s Philip J. Cohen Theatre.
People who drink and do drugs, diseased or not, can go anywhere they please. Addicts and alcoholics who are living clean and sober face an abstinence-unfriendly world, where most adult social events include, or even center around, mind-altering substances. Where can one go if one loves film fests, but hates between-screening cocktail mixers and post-show parties?
“My events are for people in recovery who read books, go to the theater, maintain their intellectual curiosity—not dogmatic followers of 12 Steps,” said Leonard Lee Buschel, who started the REEL Recovery Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2009 to raise awareness and funds for his nonprofit organization, Writers In Treatment.
Buschel is hinting at a recovery-world debate that began almost as soon as Bill Wilson and Bob Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. It has to do with the role of anonymity and spirituality, cornerstones of AA. In the past, the debate focused on identifying people with addiction and alcoholism as suffering from an illness; the purpose was to distinguish them from criminals and degenerates and, thus, push treatment over incarceration.
Today, the argument seems to be about whether anonymity has outlived its purpose. The day has come, said several people at the film festival both on and off screen, when those in recovery should remove their masks of shame, tell their names and stories openly, and describe themselves as men and women—artists, athletes, business people and so on—who just happen to be in recovery.
This was the point of The Anonymous People, the new documentary that screened at the festival on Saturday afternoon. Director Greg D. Williams, a good-looking, 29-year-old recovering drug addict who hasn’t used in 12 years, made the case for greater advocacy in the recovery movement. Addicts and alcoholics, Williams suggested, should take a page from the book of the gay community, which coalesced around the crisis of HIV/AIDS and fought to end discrimination and secure health coverage for the ill.
The secrecy, shame and stigma that surround addiction and alcoholism are “just as deadly as the disease itself,” said Kristen Johnston (3rd Rock From the Sun), actress and author of the book Guts, about her own fight for sobriety. Johnston was part of a long parade of famous people that Williams interviewed, underlining the notion that those in recovery can be beautiful, powerful and successful. Early on in the film, recovery advocate Bill White notes that audiences don’t need to see more celebrities suffering from addiction; they need to see more celebrities in recovery.
This wish is fulfilled by the documentary Bob and the Monster (2011), which played Saturday evening. It’s the biography of Bob Forrest, founding member of L.A. ’80s band Thelonious Monster, who descended so deeply into heroine addiction that he ended up homeless and penniless—after destroying a promising band cut from the same cloth as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction.
Forrest went on to volunteer for the Musicians’ Assistance Program, which provides drug rehabilitation services, and appear on Dr. Drew Pinsky’s Celebrity Rehab on VH1. In recovery since 1996, Forrest estimates he’s helped hundreds of people in his industry find their own paths to drug-free lives.
“Anybody can get better,” Forrest says. “It doesn’t have to be a horrible secret. It’s not a moral issue. … I did, and there were people betting on me to die.”
Of course, there’s the flipside to all this: the countless people, famous and otherwise, lost to drugs and alcohol. In an interview with the Connecticut Post, Williams said he attended six wakes in six years. And when Celebrity Rehab was recently canceled, Dr. Drew told Today he was tired of taking so much heat when celebrities he’d treated on the show relapsed or died from their addictions.
The dark side of addiction took the spotlight for the second day of the REEL Recovery Film Festival, which featured the blockbuster pick-me-ups Flight (2012), Owning Mahowney (2003) and Leaving Las Vegas (1995).
“I see lights go off in almost anybody who watches these films,” Buschel said. “It makes people who are already clean and sober recommit to a healthy way of life, and people who are on the cusp think, ‘I want to try this. This looks better.’ Or, if it’s a film like Leaving Las Vegas, they’ll say, ‘I don’t want that.’”
The festival drew several hundred attendees and is expected to return next year, said Pat Nelson, executive director of sponsoring organization Foundation for Recovery.