The Anonymous People: Film Review

Courtesy of Kino Lorber
An often persuasive conversation-starting doc

Greg Williams presents an alternative to AA's way of thinking about addiction and recovery.

Untold millions of people addicted to drugs and alcohol have turned their lives around with the help of a program whose very name, Alcoholics Anonymous, establishes an ideal of private insulation from the outside world. In The Anonymous People, first-time filmmaker Greg Williams challenges that part of the 12-step approach, arguing that the world will only get better at dealing with addiction once addicts can speak openly without fear of stigmatization. The resulting doc, while hardly exciting in cinematic terms, is informative enough to be a useful conversation-starter; it should be warmly embraced by many in the recovery community and have a long life on video.

Though he gets off to a questionable start by overemphasizing his own history of drug addiction and making some fairly obvious complaints about conventional attitudes (newsflash: stories about celebrities self-destructing in public will get more media attention than ones about the long but fruitful work of getting sober), Williams soon is offering useful background on AA and on the ways America has dealt with substance abuse in its recent history. Former Senator Harold Hughes emerges as a hero in this account, working in the '60s and '70s to promote the view that addiction is an illness, not a character flaw.

The spread of that view was drastically slowed by the War on Drugs, of course. Williams implicitly suggests that the demonization of drug users in the '80s wouldn't have been as easy if so many users trying to quit weren't encouraged to keep their struggle private.

The director introduces us to a new generation of advocates for addicts, many of whom downplay the use of that word. In "recovery message training" sessions, participants are discouraged from going public by saying, as generations of Narcotics Anonymous members have, "I'm a drug addict." We're told that non-addicts subconsciously interpret that statement as "I'm still using," and that a more useful introduction would be, "I am a person in long-term recovery."

Taking a cue from the ACT UP slogan "silence equals death," people like actress Kristen Johnston and former NBA player Chris Herren tour the country talking about their experience of addiction, trying to destigmatize the illness by giving it a well known face. We meet advocates like the voluble John Shinholser, who entertainingly points out some of the absurdities in how governmental bodies presently deal with addiction.

The film concludes with a formulaic collage of optimistic sentiment and feel-good public rallies, the existence of which suggests that the change being advocated here is already well underway. It may be a long time before tabloids stop foaming at the mouth over mugshots of disgraced actors, but the media ecosystem is simultaneously hungry for touchy-feely accounts of addiction and recovery. If anonymity is a successful strategy for many, its reign as the default mode of recovery already seems to be over.


Production Company: 4th Dimension Productions

Director: Greg Williams

Screenwriters: Aaron Cohen, Jeff Reilly, Greg Williams

Executive producer: Paul McCulley

Director of photography: Craig Mikhitarian

Music: Brendan Berry

Editor: Jeff Reilly

No rating, 88 minutes