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Adapting with Resilience, Creativity and Stubbornness

It’s no secret that 2020 pummeled some industries—particularly those where people gather close together—and social distancing rules are almost impossible to follow. Concerts, conferences, musicals and plays, film and music festivals were postponed indefinitely or canceled.

Similarly, in-person 12-step meetings were abandoned, clubhouses shuttered and many recovery centers slipped into oblivion. Their absence has left a vacuum. Relapses, overdoses and substance abuse is substantially higher since the beginning of 2020.

But humans are resilient, creative and stubborn—particularly sober alcoholics and addicts.  Alcoholics Anonymous and the other Anonymous programs quickly moved to video conferencing formats. We adapted by transforming the REEL Recovery Film Festival into a virtual experience. On November 6th, The Virtual Reel Recovery Film Festival, presented by Recovery Centers of America, launches its global online streaming channel in partnership with Film Festival Flix.

From a Simple Idea, to the Longest Recovery Event

In 2008, while fumbling around for his movie ticket, an idea sprang from the unique mind of former drug dealer (current drug counselor and avid cinephile), Leonard Buschel.

This (the film festival) started from the fact that, when I had two years sober, I went to see Leaving Las Vegas. The movie made me want to drink again. I thought, ‘God, I hope newcomers don’t go to see this alone.’

At 14 years sober, Leonard decided to create a safe space where newly (and not-so-newly) clean and sober people could watch classic and feature films like Days of Wine and Roses, Lost Weekend and Less Than Zero in a beautiful movie theater and talk about it after.

Sobriety doesn’t mean losing touch with the creative, intellectual and avant-garde side of your personality. You don’t have to be bored—or boring.

To turn the idea into a reality, Leonard called his dear friend, legendary filmmaker Robert Downey, Sr. Downey’s extensive film background and the experience and insight he garnered from son Robert Jr’s past drug issues were an asset in forming what would become the longest recovery event in the United States; running 7-days in both Los Angeles and New York.

Pretty soon, the festival was receiving new, experimental, student, documentary and low-budget films. These films featured honest depictions of the harsh realities of people struggling with addiction, alcoholism and process addictions including sex and gambling. The films also show the hope and triumph of recovery and everything in between, because there are many paths to sobriety and recovery. Over the years, the quality and quantity of submissions has improved and increased.

Widening the Lens

In 2017, new co-producer Ahbra Kaye took the helm. The REEL Recovery Film Festival expanded its purview to include films about mental health, trauma and social issues, such as homelessness and sexual assault.

Mental illness and addiction are inextricably linked. Most treatment centers have co-occurring and dual diagnosis programs. Often people are self-medicating underlying depression or anxiety with alcohol and drugs.

Sober for 4 + years, Ahbra channels her passion for sobriety and service into the 12 year-old festival.

 “We strive to spread awareness of and smash stigma associated with substance use disorder and mental illness.”

With so much information out there about overdose and relapse rates, the opioid epidemic, rising alcohol abuse, lack of resources for the mentally ill, etc. it can be difficult to develop a clear understanding of the problem and solution. Films, both narrative and documentary provide a unique avenue into our hearts and minds; subtle yet powerful often uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time.

Our films teach, but never preach.
–Leonard Buschel

This Year’s Festival

This year, despite (or because of) COVID-19, the film festival received more submissions than ever before, with over 200 submissions from around the world. We curated 85 films to show in this year’s virtual format.

The festival runs from November 6th through the 12th. Unlike the in-person festivals of the past 11 years, each film or block of films can be watched at anytime, 24-hours a day, over the 7-day period. We arranged the blocks thematically, to appeal to viewer’s different interests and identification. For example, the Victim No More block covers women’s issues like domestic abuse, sexual assault, molestation and PPD.

Together, these films provide an opportunity for open discussion of previously taboo subjects. Themes are as widely varied as the countries they hale from; including Netherlands, South Africa, Turkey, New Zealand, Canada, and of course, the U.S.

The COVID-19 friendly Virtual REEL Recovery Film Festival starts November 6th at 1pm on Film Festival Flix. Click for FREE tickets. This year’s festival is presented by Recovery Centers of America in association with In The Rooms and Writers In Treatment.

The film festival would not be possible without the filmmakers who seek to share their work with the world and the sponsors who generously support it.

Sponsors include Turning Point of Tampa, Hower Lodge, The Guest House, Focus on the Future Interventions, and Social Model Recovery Systems.

For more information, please contact Ahbra Kaye:


Ahbra Kaye is the producer and curator of the 13 year-old REEL Recovery Film Festival and Symposium. The film festival is both a joy and a challenge that she is excited to continue in the virtual realm this year. Streaming November 5-11 on the REEL Recovery Film Channel. She is proud to be 5+years sober, a 3rd generation Angeleno and mother of 3 to Josh, Jordyn, Ellie, and two pirate dogs; Abby who has 3 legs and one-eyed Butters .


  1. Hi Ahbra,

    Great to know about the Reel Recovery Film Festival and am sure it will help millions like me(6months sober,though I got the message of AA in 2010 ) who are just out into the serene world of sobriety by the Grace of God.

    Wish you and team all the very best for the show and once again express my gratitude.

    Thanks & best regards,


  2. Hello Ahbra,
    Love love love the concept and really looking forward to checking it out!
    Also I work as a peer support coach at. Recovery Community Organization called R2ISE. We give people in Recovery from mental health challenges and substance use disorder a safe space to maintain their wellness and Recovery through the Arts.
    We have created a couple of short films( they can be viewed at the R2ISE You tube channel). I am curious as to how one would go about submitting their film?

  3. Hello :
    I am very excited to find this site. I had no idea about this. I have been in recovery for sometime I have a script I wrote awhile back. I am looking for support on putting it altogether. It is a recovery story about connecting with an autistic child. The working title is Parallel Lives. I have some experience in front and behind the camera. I love any directions and advice to support on how to proceed to production. Any suggestions will help. I am looking forward to hearing from you
    Thank You
    John Golden

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