For years, Alex Watts didn’t believe that good people existed.
“I thought that was something in the movies,” he tells the Straight during an interview at a café on Main Street. “I watched movies and I thought, ‘I wish my life was like that and had a happy ending.’ ”
Watts, 52, is a survivor of Canada’s residential schools, where at least 4,000 Native children died and many were sexually abused. Attempting to repress memories from that time, Watts lost more than 20 years to alcoholism, he guesses.
“When I was in the darkness, the reason I drank was because the past was coming back,” he recalls. “Stuff from the past, when I was a young boy. So I drank and I found that alcohol was a quick fix to ease the pain and kind of put the past behind me. But it just got worse and worse, so I drank more and more. The hate was building up.”
In Crazywater, which is screening at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival, First Nations alcoholics and their families share stories of overcoming addiction. Among them is Watts’s teenage son, who recounts growing up without a father.
Though Watts has been sober for six years and that relationship has improved, that scene still hurts him, he says. “I wasn’t around, and he was left there by himself,” Watts continues. “But I went to his high-school graduation in June last year, which was awesome.”
Watts says something that helped him stop drinking was talking about the memories that led him to alcohol. He adds that those kinds of conversations don’t happen often enough in Native communities, which is why he was enthusiastic about participating in Crazywater.
The idea for the documentary came to First Nations filmmaker Dennis Allen when he was wrestling with his own addictions.
“As First Nations people, it’s no secret that we have trouble with alcohol and with substance abuse, and I’m no exception,” he tells the Straight in a telephone interview. “I was exposed to alcoholism right from birth, through my own family and through my extended family in my community. And so it was no surprise that I became an alcoholic at an early age.”
Allen speaks of addiction as an illness. "Everything declines," he warns. "Whether it’s a spiritual decline or a health decline or a mental decline, the disease progresses. It’s almost like a cancer."
That sentiment is echoed in the film by Paula, another Vancouver resident, a survivor of sexual abuse, and a former hard-drugs user.
“Alcohol and drugs wasn’t my problem," she begins. "All of my life, I got told that it was my problem. But it was my solution. The problem was me. I was just spiritually unfit to live in my own skin. That’s what’s happening with our people. I think all people who are suffering from addictions are suffering from being spiritually sick. And our culture teaches us how to love ourselves.”
Allen, who will be in attendance at the DOXA screening, says he wants Crazywater to get First Nations people talking. “We live in such a culture of silence,” he maintains. “As soon as we start talking about Native people and alcohol, people get all defensive. But we’re not well.”
According to a 2009 Statistics Canada report, First Nations on-reserve populations are less likely to consume alcohol than the general population, but individuals who do drink are twice as likely to do so heavily.
Watts says people need to know that they won’t be judged for asking for help.
“I hope this film really touches people and lets them open their hearts to [residential-school] survivors, recovering addicts, and recovering alcoholics,” he says. “There’s a seed that can be planted here.”
Crazywater screens Saturday (May 3) at the Cinematheque.