Leonard Buschel is an undefined character. From one angle, he’s frazzled and possibly a bit mad. At another, he’s brilliantly keen and inquisitive. It’s hard to put a finger on the silver-haired businessman and one gets a sense his free spirit likes it that way. As a creative enthusiast, he has drawn up and executed several successful projects in the recovery industry, all centering upon the same thing: the individual experience.
Celebrating 20 years of sobriety, Buschel wears many professional hats. He is the director of Writers In Treatment, a non-profit organization that provides treatment opportunities for writers or anyone who makes a living off of the written word. He’s also the Executive Producer of the Experience, Strength and Hope Awards, an event that honors a public figure in recovery who has written a book about his or her career as well as addiction past. Finally, he’s also the director of the Reel Recovery Film Festival, a national festival celebrating the arts, film and creativity through an honest look at drug addiction, alcoholism and recovery.
The film festival, going on its sixth year, is as true to the individual spirit as a recovery event can be. Visiting nine cities over the course of several months, the week-long event showcases 43 films ranging from 15-minute shorts to 45-minute documentaries to full-length features. The selection is intentionally eclectic. There’s Behind the Orange Curtain, a film that explores the staggering epidemic of teenage prescription drug deaths and its political implications as well as Thanks for Sharing, a film starring Mark Ruffalo, Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim Robbins about a recovering sex addict (Ruffalo) who is forced to navigate a new romance. The underlying theme that connects all of the films is honesty. And Leonard holds tightly to that policy. “We don’t try to brainwash anybody. We don’t try to do spontaneous interventions on the audience. We don’t show films that preach or condescend.” Instead, the films are “just honest depictions of addiction, recovery and sobriety.”
It’s a simple idea but entirely refreshing in an industry that can sometimes view addicts and the recovery community as projects rather than people. Instead of pushing people to where they need to go, the Reel Recovery festival aspires to meet them exactly where they’re at—whether that be in recovery or still in the throes of addiction. “There’s no pressure and there’s no agenda,” Buschel says. “It’s not like one of these recovery rallies where people get together and run for recovery. I don’t think someone who gets clean and sober necessarily needs to join the crusade to change the way America thinks about addiction and recovery. I think they should just change their own opinion and their family’s opinion.” Personal transformation is, above all else, the most important achievement.
That road looks differently for everyone and the festival welcomes that. One woman, whom we’ll call Anna*, mingled at the opening reception of the Los Angeles premiere after taking the bus from Norwalk to the North Hollywood Laemmle Theaters just so she could distract herself with a Friday night activity that didn’t involve alcohol. “I thought, ‘Why not? Something different that I can do that’s fun and can also help me in my sobriety? Sounds better than going to a bar and getting hammered, that’s for sure.” Others, like a 40-some-year-old producer with his own film in the works, were there simply to learn more about the subject of addiction and recovery. Regardless of the motivation, there was a joint spirit in the air with everyone supporting the cause and each other. Even if that meant Anna moving two rows up during the screening of Grace, a film about a young and rebellious teenager’s battle with alcoholism when, conveniently, a group of rowdy teens crowded into the seats behind her. She didn’t take that 2 hour bus ride for nothing, that’s for sure.
For several of the films at the festival, Grace included, there is time for the audience to ask producers and actors questions after the screening. The questions, however, are not so much concept or film driven rather than confessional. One woman simply thanked the producer for creating a film that reminded her of who she was before she got sober and who she is today. Another person was greeted with cheers when he proudly proclaimed to be three years sober. Even the producers get in on the open environment, sharing tidbits of their own struggles and realizations from addiction, which more often than not are the very themes revealed in their films. By the end of the day, each theater feels like one big support group—one that gives every person the opportunity to create their own mission statement, not defined by anyone else but themselves. As Buschel describes the atmosphere, “It’s like being in a room where the majority of people have been reborn, basically. They all thought they were going to die at some point and didn’t. Most of us just have lost our minds a little and have come back to being somewhat sane. So it’s just having a good time. Being amongst your peers, introducing friends and family to a recovery event that is entertaining where they can get a few laughs, see some people they know and not have to do anything but enjoy themselves.”
Just as every film meets every person in a different place, Buschel approaches recovery as its own unique process as well. With everything he has going on, the busy man still makes time to be a substance abuse counselor for those in recovery. It’s his most long-standing position yet and it’s not hard to see why—it’s individualism at its core. “Everyone’s different. There’s no generalizations in the treatment world—I love it. I love being a substance abuse counselor because it’s the least exact science of all. What works for somebody won’t work for someone else with the same disease.” In other words, people in recovery are their own person and though they may all be afflicted with the same disease of drug or alcohol addiction, they are certainly not defined by it or by others suffering through it. They are who they are, independent of the disease, and Buschel loves it.
A good movie never just presents an answer. Rather, a true on-screen experience usually gives the audience a chance to ponder on larger life questions. Recovery, in a similar sense, is a constant self-discovery that no one can present an “answer” to but the recovering addict himself. It’s sometimes challenging and can dig up other issues that need to be worked on, but the reward is always there. Buschel knows the process all too well and for that very reason turns on a mic, walks to the front of the room and introduces 90 minutes of material that puts, if only for a Friday evening, the painstaking journey on pause.
*The individual's real name is not used in order to protect her identity.