Leonard Buschel is a certified Substance Abuse Counselor, the founder of Writers in Treatment, and the creator of the Reel Recovery Film Festival. This year’s New York festival is sponsored by Phoenix House and will take place at the Quad Cinema, September 28-October 4, 2012.
Phoenix House: Can you tell us about how the Reel Recovery Film Festival began?
Leonard Buschel: We started four years ago in Los Angeles. There’s an organization called MAP, Musicians’ Assistance Program, which helps musicians get into rehab, and they have a lot of benefit concerts and such all year long. And we thought, what can we at Writers in Treatment do for people in recovery who love the arts? What can we do to engage them? So we started thinking.
PH: And you landed on the idea of a film festival. Why film?
LB: When I had a year and a half sober, I went to see Leaving Las Vegas in a movie theater—and I felt pretty triggered, and walked straight over to a meeting afterward. So part of creating this festival, for me, was that knowledge that people in recovery have an attraction to drug movies; and wouldn’t it be better to show them in a theater with a bunch of other sober people? Wouldn’t it be great to have a clinician on hand and do a mini group meeting after every film? What if the filmmakers were there to do a Q+A where the audience could ask about their inspiration and their own drug or alcohol issues? So there you have it: the Reel Recovery Film Festival was created, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
PH: So do you see the festival as a sort of multi-faceted group meeting?
LB: It’s kind of like that, but much more; it’s something smart, sober people can do together that’s more than just getting coffee. There’s entertainment as well as intellect involved. We show classic films about addiction and recovery, bringing them to folks in the recovery community as well as a larger audience. We also help the community and artists by providing a venue for emerging filmmakers to showcase their new stuff, films about their experiences. The whole thing is a non-profit, and the net proceeds help send people to substance abuse treatment.
PH: How do you choose the films to showcase? Is anything recovery-related fair game?
LB: Oh, no. These are provocative films that stimulate people and generate truly important discussions. At first people were like, “Oh, you’re going to show drug films, huh? Like Cheech and Chong?” No way. In these movies, the addicted characters mostly either get sober or die—which is pretty much how it goes in real life, too. In Leaving Las Vegas he dies, in Pollock he dies, in Ciao! Manhattan she dies, in Permanent Midnight Jerry Stahl gets sober…
PH: What are your favorite films in the series and why are they important?
LB: I’m very excited since we actually have three American premieres this year, plus one from Denmark called LOVE ADDICT. We’re doing a whole women’s day with an excellent narrative documentary called Lipstick and Liquor, and another film called My Name was Bette. They’re emotional, clever, and very educational. Plus we’re showing the hottest drug movie in California, called Behind the Orange Curtain; it’s a really innovative documentary about the epidemic of Orange County teens dying from prescription drugs. The film really shows what’s going on in the most brutally honest light; it’s a wake-up call.
PH: Do you think this festival has a capacity to change hearts and minds, to remove the stigma surrounding addiction and treatment?
LB: Yes, I would hope so. That’s always the sub-goal here: reducing stigma. People in recovery bring other folks to these films, and people who are just interested in film take a look at the schedule and come check it out. So it has that reach outside the recovery community. Plus, films like these are very attractive to folks who are still in the active stages of addiction. Look at me: before I got sober in the mid-1990s I went to see that Meg Ryan film, When A Man Loves A Woman, with my girlfriend. Afterward she turned to me and said, “Well that’s you; you’re an alcoholic.” It wasn’t like a red light went on in my head or anything, but it was more like a bunch of flashing yellow lights—like, I was headed in this dangerous direction with my life and I needed to watch out. The film helped me realize that. I checked into rehab soon after.
PH: So you think these films might get people to reevaluate their habits?
LB: Absolutely. That’s why we’ve got slides, treatment info, brochures—the festival could turn out to be somebody’s unplanned self-intervention! I have no doubt that some drug addict will wander into one of these screenings and hang out with 100 sober people who are doing well and think, “Wow, these people are glowing.” Because back when I was using, I didn’t even know those people existed; I didn’t know anybody who was sober. But if I had wandered into this festival, I might have thought, “Hey, look at all these people! They look like me. They’re creative and smart…and they’re sober. Who knew it was possible?”
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