Gareth Stevens talks to the filmmaker Ben Cole whose feature length documentary Talking Addiction is being screened at the Electric Cinema on Friday 8 July.

Despite starting his professional life in film and theatre in front of the camera, or on the stage, Hastings resident Ben Cole stopped looking into lenses and started looking through viewfinders in the mid-90s. Since then, he has made many acclaimed films, from feature length dramas to more personal projects initiated by himself.

EXISTENTIAL QUESTIONS

Famously, Ben worked closely with visionary UK musicians Jamie Catto (Faithless) and Duncan Bridgeman to make the unique documentaries, 1 Giant Leap/What About Me? They travelled twice around the world to record musicians in a myriad of different settings. Both these films sought to embody the unity in human diversity and were a cross-cultural exploration of universal truth. The power of this work for me is in how it seamlessly splices music with philosophical insight. It does not pontificate; it merely asks simple existential questions to some of the most eminent and deep thinking people on the planet. Alongside this, the music that came out of the team’s global roving is a multi-layered metaphor for the idea that we are all one, despite our differences. 1 Giant Leap/What About Me? was screened at the Electric Palace in March of this year to a sell-out audience. It was followed by a Q & A session in which Ben was able to discuss the themes and motivations behind the project more sharply. 

Ben Cole and Caroline Carey

As well as being a filmmaker, Ben was one of the early founders of ‘A Band of Brothers’ (ABOB), a charity dedicated to helping young men with addiction problems. His connection with the project continues and he worked as part of the team that set up an ABOB branch in Hastings. (It was first set up in Brighton.) Through this work he would meet young men, a lot of whom had been brought up in care and thus were particularly prone to addiction issues. He tells me that most of those who graduate the ABOB process begin to realise that the very issues that they tried to hide from others could become an area of expertise. Having met several ABOB ‘graduates’ that have benefitted from this organisation’s work, I can say that they are impressive and have grown through the open debate. Particularly about issues around dignity, pride and masculinity. Many have gone on to successfully mentor others.

FINDING STRENGTH AND HOPE

Ben goes on to tell me how he came to make Talking Addiction. Ben and his wife, Caroline Carey, were worried about addiction in both their families. Caroline suggested that they could learn more about it by making a documentary whilst on her world tour – running ecstatic dance workshops. Ben says, “I agreed that this was a great way to study the condition and offer some embodied wisdom to all who would see the documentary.” The film was financed by Caroline’s workshops and co-directed by this husband-and-wife team. “The main message of the film is that those who are in recovery know so much more than those who are in denial. We all need to learn from addicts, and the only way to do that is to listen to their personal experience. Tap into their strength and hope.” he explains. “We were so impressed by the courage these people had by facing their addictions and are proud to share their knowledge with the world.” So, this personal experience, plus work-related time spent in Hastings, began to seed the idea for the documentary. 

Ben also undertook the role of cinematographer on David Jackson’s acclaimed film Winterlong, which was nominated as best British feature at the Edinburgh film festival, in 2019. The film was set in Hastings and so, having yet to relocate here, Ben spent a month living in a camper van on the East Hill. He tells me that when he sat in coffee shops in the Old Town, he began to notice that the population was polarised. He saw the “creative, middle class, educated – oftentimes maverick, eccentric types – but also others that appeared to be a deeply troubled lot”. Ben moved to Hastings three years ago and argues that it is the increasingly marginalised, and certainly neurodiverse, amongst its inhabitants who might, in some ways, safeguard the integrity of the town. Certainly, at least, the polarisation ensures that it does not become an anodyne and homogenous place.

Constructed from over 60 hours of interviews with present addicts – effectively therapists who have used their addictions to help others – Talking Addiction is a wonderful support for those on a journey towards living as recovering addicts. Ben and Caroline both travelled to many countries and cultures to explore the journey of people in recovery and to explore the wisdom of their subjects’ stories. Certainly, after watching segments of the film, I can see that it is a very compassionate and deeply useful film. The testimonies of those featured are reassuring simply because they remind you that it isn’t just ‘me’ going through this. We are all part of a fraternity, especially in these pandemic afflicted times, and arguably that feeling of fraternal connection is the best remedy for any addictive behaviour. “It is very healing for someone to publicly declare their struggles. No one judges them negatively – they actually admire them for having the self-awareness to talk about their shit,” says Ben.

RAT PARK LIFE

On the issue of how the social isolation of lockdown fuels addictive behaviours, it seems appropriate to look back at some groundbreaking research from the 1970s. American psychologist, Dr Bruce Alexander, undertook a series of experiments that provided us with a much more enlightened model for how to view addiction. His findings help us to understand that a person, or animal in his studies, is an active agent in their interaction with any drug. These experiments have come to be known as Rat Park. When rats were placed in a cage, all alone, with no other community of rats, and offered two water bottles-one filled with water and the other with heroin or cocaine – the lone rats would incessantly drink from the drug-laced bottles until they all overdosed and died.

But Alexander wondered whether this was about the drug, or whether it might be related to the setting they were in. As a control – and to test his hypothesis – he put rats in ‘rat parks’, where they were amongst others and free to play, socialise, and have sex. At the same time, they were given the same access to the same drug laced bottles. When inhabiting a ‘rat park’, the rats only resorted to drinking from the drug infused bottle intermittently, and never overdosed. And so it seems probable that social connections and community can beat the addictive allure of drugs.

In Ben’s words, “many people suffering with addictions tell us that they feel isolated, alone, and cut off from the outer world. Hearing others’ accounts of their journey towards recovery can and does help to connect the addict to a compassionate community. This is something we need more of in our fast-paced and self-centred world.”

One of the recovering addicts interviewed for the film said the following on seeing the completed product: “‘For me, personally, the movie is a clarifying mirror – to be reminded of the patterns and habits of addiction, to be able to step out of the seduction of it. The patterns are so strongly seductive and blindfolding. This is medicine for sobriety and strengthening awareness.”

This is definitely a film for our time and is highly recommended.

Talking Addiction is on at the Electric Cinema on Friday 8 July. bencolecinematographysite.com


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