September is recovery month, The Reel Recovery Film Festival and Symposium this week at Cinema Village in New York City explores both the dark side of addiction and the light of recovery through the medium of film, through stories about people who “have been there”. I sat down with Leonard Buschel, producer of the festival and was frankly surprised at his frightening medical history, amazed that with his drug use he is a sober man today and very amused by his witty and incisive intellect. He is a man with a purpose and this article sheds light on how he turned a life threatening illness into a life giving passion.
Tian: Who is behind the Reel Recovery Film Festival?
Leonard: The Reel Recovery Film Festival is produced by Writers in Treatment which I co-founded with my long-time friend, Robert Downey, Sr. Our goal was to produce cultural events that celebrate recovery and reduce the stigma associated with the medical conditions of dependence and addiction.
When people ask me what prompted me to start Writers In Treatment I answer my love of books, and my friendship with Buddy Arnold, Founder of the Musicians Assistance Program. It was painfully obvious to me that there was not a similar organization for writers as Buddy had formed for musicians. I wanted to start an organization that helps writers and creative people to get the help they need to deal with problems related to overuse, dependence or even addiction to alcohol or other drugs. I subsequently started the Reel Recovery Film Festivals and I am delighted that they have been embraced and enjoyed far beyond my expectations.
Tian: Can you sort of drill down and tell me a little about the DNA of the Reel Recovery Film Festival?
Leonard: The Reel Recovery Film Festival and Symposium is a true film festival, and is not a Trojan Horse for a recovery rally or a 12-Step Hootenanny. There’s no hidden agenda. Anyone who knows me knows that anything I present isn’t going to be some heavy handed, preachy “beware of demon rum” event. The Festival is not about “converting people from one life style to another, nor is it propaganda or a sales pitch for anything – it is exactly what it says it is. Our films do sometimes teach, but never preach. They are first and foremost, entertaining and inspiring.
Our festivals are about creativity, success and recovery. Even a cursory glance over the event program will give you a glimpse into the vast diversity of topics addressed in film and conversation.
Tian: What brought you into this passion for recovery and film?
My background was in publishing and drug/alcohol consumption. I was born with two life-threatening medical conditions – one of the heart, the other of the lungs. Three weeks later, my daddy dropped dead. I drank and snorted and smoked almost everything as a way to avoid dealing with the fact that I could die at any minute – just like my father did. Today, my lung condition is under control and I’ve had heart valve replacement surgery – a procedure that wasn’t available when I was much younger, but of course I could still drop dead at any moment – but at least I’ll be aware alert clean and sober when it happens…and probably watching a movie.
I went to the Betty Ford Center over twenty years ago in an attempt to avoid arrest or prosecution for drug dealing. I thought if the Feds came to take me away, I could produce Betty Ford from the wings, much like Alvie Singer does in Annie Hall, when he brings out Marshall McLuhan from behind a poster in the lobby of a movie theater to prove a point. Much to my chagrin, shock, horror, surprise, delight and with a miraculous moment of Grace, I lost all desire to drink and drug. When I got to Betty Ford, I could not leave the house for a weekend without 10 joints, a fifth of Finlandia or Stoli, a half dozen Valiums and Percodans, 10 or 20 hits of Ecstasy and a small bag of mushrooms in case I met a hippie. I had done cocaine every day for 13 years, but gave it up for love, and the brilliant realization that I could snort pure “E” that I was getting from Alexander Shulgin.
Tian: Amazing list, so how in the world did you manage to stay sober with all of that?
With weekly attendance at 12-Step meetings, a good sponsor and a once a week session with an amazing therapist, the desire has not returned. When I had ten years sober I went back to college for my certification as a substance abuse counselor. I worked in the Treatment Industry as a counselor for a number of beautiful years. New clients in rehab are like birds who just realized they had wings, and with a little hard work a willingness to change, could fly.
A BRIDGE TO A NEW LIFE
Tian: Who is this film festival for?
Recovery isn’t a cult or a dogma, it is a process unique to each individual, which is why it is an endless source of stories for film because all such stories are character driven, and those are the most compelling.
The festival is for people who love film, love being exposed to new filmmakers. And who have an interest in the human drama and human comedy of people dealing with issues of dependence, addiction and/or recovery. When someone decides that their life is greatly improved by not drinking or taking other intoxicants, they don’t lose their artistic sensibilities. We keep our intellect and we keep our cultural interests very wide and we take what we learn in the rooms into the world. It is a bridge to a new life.
In the past few decades, there have been hundreds of Hollywood, European and independent films exploring addiction and recovery, from comedies to thrillers, dramas to documentaries. Ever since the Lost Weekend won an Academy Award in 1945, the public has been fascinated by addiction. We give voice and venue to filmmakers whose works might not be able to compete in festivals like Sundance, Telluride, or Tribeca. This doesn’t mean all our filmmakers are in recovery it just means the subject matter is about the numerous faces of addiction. I’ve seen light bulbs go on over the heads of some of our audience members. People who decided right there on the spot, to stay quit, clean and sober, or get back into recovery.
The medium of film speaks to a new generation who are used to learning from screens of all kinds and stories about people we can identify with remain one of the most relatable teaching tools. A film festival that tells stories about recovery adds yet one more layer of depth to awareness and prevention.
For more info (Sept 23-29th) call or log onto (818 762 0461) reelrecoveryfilmfestival.org