Guest contributor Kass Botts explains the goals of the upcoming Ending Overdose Together series and what we should keep in mind when looking at onscreen portrayals of drug use.
“Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.”
This definition comes from the National Harm Reduction Coalition’s homepage, and it is the definition we will use to frame our Creative Collaborations film series, Ending Overdose Together. This series was curated in partnership with the Indiana Recovery Alliance, Hoosier Harm Reduction Coalition, IU Health Positive Link, and Region 9 of Indiana’s Zero is Possible Coalition.
The series title is intentionally ambitious. In an ideal future, overdose is entirely preventable. We have medicines, technologies, and community practices which, if employed concurrently, would mean that no one would have to die from overdose. We will discuss these practices in more detail throughout the conversations we have planned for this series with local activists, people with lived experience, and visiting filmmakers. Ending overdose is something we can strive toward, but only if we as a community can commit to doing it together. At the same time, Harm Reduction as a movement foregrounds the material realities of drug use and overdose risk above all our hopeful ideals about it. We strive to end overdose by addressing the immediate and emergent needs of those in our community who are at risk of experiencing it. The three films we have chosen for this series — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Love in the Time of Fentanyl, and Liquid Handcuffs: A Documentary to Free Methadone — allow us to critically examine the stories, “real” and fictional, that we tell about drug use. They help us imagine the way to a future in which we have ended overdose together.
Why have we curated a film series to communicate these ideas? Stigma against people who use drugs has a grave impact on their ability to be well and receive adequate medical care. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that film is a powerful tool for mental health stigma reduction. The film series includes not only nuanced post-screening conversations about the films but also supplemental events as opportunities to learn more. Indiana Recovery Alliance will host a National Overdose Awareness Day Remembrance Vigil on August 31, and we will wrap the series in mid-September with a community Overdose Prevention and Harm Reduction 101 training to celebrate September as Recovery Month. Through engaging with the film series and the accompanying events, we will all develop a deeper understanding of how we can prevent overdose and promote harm-reduction in our own communities.
We chose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as the fictional narrative kickoff for this series because it depicts both the ecstatic and destructive experiences that can come with drug use. We think this is an important step in subverting the stigmatizing tropes about drug use we typically see in narrative media. After the screening, we will have a conversation with Nick Voyles, the executive director of the Indiana Recovery Alliance, about depictions of drug use in film and how the stories we tell about drugs influence our ideologies. Stereotypical stories about drug use are often structured as either tragedy or a “hero’s journey,” with films like The Panic at Needle Park and The Basketball Diaries occupying positions at the respective ends of this spectrum. Most stories rely on a narrative of “recovery” as naively defined by a permanent abstinence from drug use, despite evidence that most people who struggle with their drug use and move into abstinence from it eventually “return to use” (colloquially referred to as “relapse”), particularly within the first year. For this reason, the Substance Abuse* and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) has a working definition of recovery which “defines recovery as a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.”
Even fictionalized stories that are based on the real experiences of the people writing them can reinforce harmful ideas about the needs of people who are struggling with the negative aspects of their drug use. Beautiful Boy, based on the book by David Scheff about his experiences with his son Nic, is one such example. In a recorded interview with the Scheffs which is often played after screenings of Beautiful Boy, David speaks to his regret that the film could be interpreted as suggesting that people need “tough love” or have their support removed to be forced to “hit rock bottom” to get out of the harmful situations associated with drug use. He implied that while Nic’s story included this kind of experience, he was perhaps lucky that he stayed alive to find a path to his recovery. The danger of the narrative of “rock bottom” is that one may not make it out alive.
In terms of the more “true” stories we tell, documentary film is a genre that allows these “real” stories to be told and witnessed by capturing images and information about the lives of actual people rather than fictional characters. As such, documentary filmmaking is an effective way to make use of the knowledge that storytelling challenges the stigma associated with drug use. We have included two documentary films that showcase the lives of people who use drugs, and which make cases for two approaches to ending overdose: overdose prevention sites and Methadone as Medication for Opioid Use Disorder (MOUD). We want to acknowledge that even with documentary films, narratives are constructed and both reveal and influence discourses about their subject matter. For this reason, we will have a conversation with Marilena Marchetti (director of Liquid Handcuffs: A Documentary to Free Methadone and Swallow THIS: A Documentary about Methadone and COVID-19) about how documentary filmmakers doing political activism can develop their ethics regarding which stories they tell and how they choose to tell them.
Imagining a future without overdose can be an overwhelming call to action in the face of record-high and rising overdose rates; an overwhelming presence of fentanyl and xylazine in drug supplies; intersecting structural oppressions such as racism and poverty; and the public health syndemic of HIV, Viral Hepatitis, and COVID-19. We know that “ending overdose” is our ideal, but how can we get there? Join us on our journey to discover these answers and co-create our futures — we are in it together.
*Language note: while the term “substance abuse” is included in the current name of this governmental agency, the word “abuse” has been proven to increase stigmatizing treatment of people who use drugs in healthcare settings, and thus the APA-preferred terminology for what we commonly refer to as “addiction” is “Substance Use Disorder.” The author has deliberately chosen to refrain from using any of these terms, and uses more descriptive phrases instead.
The film series Ending Overdose Together begins at IU Cinema on August 29 with a 25th anniversary screening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on 35mm that will include a post-film Q&A. The series will then continue with Love in the Time of Fentanyl on September 5 before concluding on September 7 with Liquid Handcuffs: A Documentary to Free Methadone with filmmaker Marilena Marchetti in attendance.
This series is supported through IU Cinema’s Creative Collaborations program.
Kass Botts is a drug user human rights activist living in Bloomington, Indiana, with a background in the Harm Reduction movement and community-based organizational leadership. They began their work in viral hepatitis elimination as the executive director of the Indiana Recovery Alliance, a drug user-led Harm Reduction services organization. In 2021, they founded the Hoosier Harm Reduction Coalition, a statewide network of people who use drugs and other harm-reduction stakeholders across the state of Indiana. They currently work for the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable as Coalition and Capacity Building Manager. Kass has visited IU Cinema since they were an undergraduate in the Media School at Indiana University, and they have volunteered with the Cinema since the fall of 2022.