By Steve K.
On Wednesday 7th December 2022, the first ever documentary to gain access to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was aired in the UK. The following three reviews offer a positive portrait of the role AA can play in helping those with alcohol dependency to recover and rebuild their lives. The documentary is available to watch on BBC IPLAYER in the UK..
‘Alcoholics Anonymous is celebrating its 75th anniversary in the UK this year. The first meeting took place in The Dorchester, a famously swanky London hotel, in 1947. From these decidedly un-humble beginnings, the organisation has grown to become a prominent and vital part of daily life for its 25000 members. Today, there are 5000 meetings every week in the UK.
This sober (no pun intended) and quietly moving documentary looks at the ethos that drives Alcoholics Anonymous, and examines the processes that have helped save thousands of lives over the years. Most powerfully of all, it hears first hand testimony from recovering addicts, and even films inside an AA meeting for the first time. And because anonymity is a key component of the programme, the faces of those involved are masked by cutting edge computer technology, so the faces we see are not their own.
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in the US Bible Belt in 1935 by a stockbroker and a doctor, both of them alcoholics. Across the world, the organisation has over 2 million members. It is run by alcoholics, for alcoholics. By 1947, it had moved to the UK – its first meeting was advertised in the personal ads of the Financial Times – the only paper at the time willing to print it.
This sensitive film lays out the key tenets of the programme. The Big Book is a guide to recovery, written by early members of AA, that has changed remarkably little since the 1930s. It’s now published in over 70 languages. We meet Rhys, 17 months into his recovery, who takes the book everywhere with him. He attends a meeting every day, in person or online.
Another key element is faith in a higher power, although in today’s secular world, this can be any power that members choose – it might be, according to one interviewee, Mother Nature, or the Force from Star Wars. Whatever works.
Crucial to the whole process is the role of the sponsor. Each new member chooses a sponsor – someone in AA further down the road to recovery – who will act as their mentor. This relationship is crucial to attaining – and maintaining – sobriety, and can last for decades.
Gaining an insight into the methods involved in helping people escape the clutches of alcoholism is fascinating. But, unsurprisingly, it is the personal testimonies themselves that provide the documentary’s most striking moments. Their stories are heart-rending tales of misery, lost years and self-loathing. Each one had to hit rock bottom before they made the decision to attend AA, and all of them talk of the terror of attending their first meeting. One woman recalls going to her first meeting, and being given a cup of tea only half full, because her hands were shaking so much.
The access the production team have gained for this film is remarkable, and the result is an acutely intimate and moving portrait of addiction and recovery. The courage of those who testify to their addiction and recovery is unfathomable, and their honesty and self-awareness is something to behold.
What comes through with genuine clarity is not just their courage, but also the irreplaceable role that Alcoholics Anonymous has played in their journey to getting well. Each one, without fail, says that AA saved their life. Ultimately, this is a tale of sadness, squalor and fear, but also of redemption and hope.’
By Benjie Goodhart (TV journalist), Saga Magazine.
‘BBC Two is exploring another previously hidden arena, with I’m an Alcoholic: Inside Recovery, which promises “unprecedented access” to an AA meeting. This is a sensitive and impeccably balanced documentary, but at the heart of it is suffering, and how some of those who live with their demons have managed to find ways to do so.
The issue with making a documentary about Alcoholics Anonymous is obvious from the name of the organisation, but this has found a workaround. Using recent technological developments, the faces of those participating are digitally altered, thus maintaining the principle of anonymity. As one woman, known here as Niam, puts it: “It doesn’t matter that it’s not my face.” The story is what counts.
Alcoholics Anonymous has reached its 75th anniversary, and Inside Recovery carefully outlines its origins and ideals. It begins with its very first meetings in the US in the 1930s, and there is archive footage. In the UK, the first meeting was held at the Dorchester hotel, and advertised only in the Financial Times, as no other paper would allow it. At one point, when exploring step nine – making amends for past behaviour – it shows a black-and-white clip of a suited man approaching a police officer and saying: “I’m sorry I tried to sock you, I acted like a heel.” Language has certainly changed, if the guiding principles have not.
At regular intervals, we are reminded of two points – the fact that AA is rooted in Christianity, and the fact that it does not work for everyone. But for some it does, and here, we meet a wide range of people who are in recovery from alcohol, as they put it in AA. The three main interviewees are Andy, who has been in recovery for 17 years and still goes to three meetings a week; Niam, who has been in recovery for 15 years; and Rhys, who has been in recovery for 17 months. Their tales are a form of “the share”, or volunteering to speak at meetings, when addicts may choose to discuss their experiences, past and present.
A surprising number of parts of an AA meeting, and steps in the programme, are familiar to anyone who has come across it in popular culture, if not real life. The film understands that people will have some grasp of the basics, but doesn’t assume much more than that, which gives it a patient tone. The meeting itself, interwoven with qualifying and explanatory information from medical experts and historians, is in a church hall with plastic chairs. It is neutral and oddly ordinary, and it is fascinating and moving to witness people simply telling their stories to each other as well as to us. Often they are stories of despair. One man says he simply could not imagine continuing to live as he did when he was drinking. Another talks about deciding not to visit a newborn relative, because she preferred to spend time alone with a bottle of gin. But this is also a place of hope, and with the willingness to share the lows comes the possibility of peer support and community.
Inside Recovery is cautious, though, and offers alternative perspectives, too. It does not sugarcoat recovery, nor push the idea that AA is a panacea for alcoholism. Some people start coming to AA meetings for a while and then drop out, never to be heard from again. Others start AA more than once, until it clicks for them; for some, it never clicks at all. Experts weigh up the positives and the negatives, exploring the “higher power” element that can be problematic for many, and using refreshingly nuanced concepts such as offering addicts empowerment instead of powerlessness.
In the UK, an estimated 600,000 people have alcohol dependence, and from weddings to football matches to finishing a long day at work, alcohol is ingrained in the culture, and very difficult to avoid. It is impossible not to admire the candour and courage of those who have taken part in this film, who represent a great many more people. One woman recalls discovering alcohol through seeing people drink on television, but says that television is where she also discovered the existence of AA meetings. Perhaps this uplifting film could have that effect for lots of others, too.’
By Rebecca Nicholson, The Guardian.
Chester academic contributes to major documentary on Alcoholics Anonymous.
Dr Wendy Dossett Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Principal Investigator of the Higher Power Project, has been interviewed for a ground-breaking BBC 2 documentary.
The programme offers unparalleled access to the meetings of the Mutual Aid support group, Alcoholics Anonymous.
‘The hour-long documentary, entitled ‘I’m an Alcoholic: Inside Recovery’ and made by Daisybeck Studios airs on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday December 7. The film explores the history of Alcoholics Anonymous, including its Christian roots in the United States of America in the 1930s. However, its principal focus is on the contemporary practice of AA in the UK today, 75 years on from its first arrival here. The film is especially ground-breaking for its use of cutting-edge technology to protect the identities of the participating fellowship members, thus preserving their anonymity. Anonymity is considered a spiritual practice in this community, as Wendy explains in the documentary.
Central to the spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous is the concept of ‘Higher Power’. In the programme, Wendy draws on her extensive research to bring alive the way contemporary members speak about Higher Power and to explain how beliefs about Higher Power function in their recovery from alcohol addiction. She shows how today, Higher Power ideas owe as much to popular culture and diverse spiritual sources as they do to Christianity, or even to the fellowship literature itself.
Wendy, an Associate Professor at the University of Chester, said: “Alcoholics Anonymous is so rarely, if ever, portrayed accurately in the media. This is unfortunate because people who might benefit from free and accessible Mutual Aid support for their recovery remain ill-informed and ill-advised. The myth that AA requires belief in the God of Christianity functions to exclude people. AA is in fact open to anyone regardless of their beliefs and the majority of members do not identify as Christian. Atheists, agnostics, and adherents to religious or spiritual traditions other than Christianity all work with AA’s Twelve Steps in different ways and bring their own interpretations to the process. My ethnographic work analyses how contemporary members, from a whole range of backgrounds and beliefs, creatively engage with the 1930s Christian and patriarchal language, without encountering fatal cognitive dissonance.
“I am so pleased that this ground-breaking documentary has been made. It will address many of the misconceptions about AA that present barriers to access, as well as helping to address stigma. AA itself offers such a valuable source of ‘recovery contagion’. It has also played a crucial role in spawning wider cultures of recovery from addiction, and this needs to be better known. I am delighted that the accounts of Higher Power beliefs collected in the Higher Power Project have made a valuable contribution to this important documentary.”