Called from Darkness
A Q&A with filmmaker Paul J. Steinbroner, director of ‘Welcome to Recovery Cafe’
This Q&A, facilitated by Jeremiah Gardner of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, was published for Hazelden Betty Ford’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.
Paul J. Steinbroner of Wenatchee, Wash., is a filmmaker, publisher and soulful storyteller who has devoted the past 40 years to producing content related to addiction, neuropharmacology, brain chemistry and now recovery. The publishing and distribution company he founded, CNS Productions, is the publisher of — among other titles — Uppers, Downers, All Arounders, a textbook used extensively in colleges and universities including the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. Steinbroner — recognized as the 2023 Michael Ford Journalism Award winner by the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers — has produced and directed nearly 40 films, most of them informational and scientific documentaries related to substances and addiction. More recently, he has turned his attention to healing and recovery, forming TouchPoint Productions and producing a series of new documentaries known collectively as Called from Darkness. The most recent is Welcome to Recovery Café, a wonderfully intimate look at a recovery community in the Seattle area that has given rise to a network of 60 Recovery Cafés across the U.S. and Canada that “hold space for human evolution.”
Let’s start by talking about the new film, Welcome to Recovery Cafe, which I really enjoyed and recommend. What did you love about that project and what about it is resonating with audiences?
I started visiting the first Recovery Cafe in Seattle in 2017. Killian Noe, the founder, is the real deal; she wanted to stand in the gap for folks that needed a supportive loving environment where they could feel safe and included. The Recovery Cafe model is about community and connection. It provides stability and a sense of being and belonging. The food is great too and there are a lot of things to do that I would consider soul expanding. They have AA, NA and “recovery circle” meetings there as well as writing classes, art, choir, and a running club. So many ways to belong and just feel comfortable about being yourself and living a substance-free life.
What I loved about this documentary is it taught me the value of having a sober community to be a part of. Without community, things seem so lonely and self-oriented. Isolation is the poison that people have to endure, which creates a hopeless situation. Why would someone want to continue to stay sober if it makes them feel miserable? For this reason, I see this sort of inclusive model as an antidote to isolation and addiction.
People are enjoying this documentary because it models how people can approach the issues of safety and trust. Once someone is in a safe emotional space, they can share how they feel vulnerable, and that is really where they can experience the courage to change.
Your recent film series Called from Darkness focuses on healing and recovery — a little different territory from the rest of your cannon, which is more focused on addiction. What motivated the transition in subject matter, and what are your takeaways from this latest period in your career?
I produced and distributed more than 50 film and book titles on neuropharmacology and brain chemistry. And with my partners, we published eight editions of the textbook Uppers, Downers, All Arounders. And then, at a NAADAC conference in 2016, I heard Sheila Raye Charles, the daughter of the legendary musician Ray Charles, share her story of trauma and recurring substance use, and her eventual “surrender” and recovery. She described being in prison for the third time and having this “come to Jesus” moment where she finally went all-in on recovery and planned to commit herself to it. That was a transformative moment for me. I’d already made all these scientific films, but this “all-in for recovery” feeling was different. I instantly committed to doing something about it. Sheila Raye lit the torch. I tried to make a documentary with her, but her schedule was full and then she developed breast cancer and died. I was standing in the dark with the lit torch and no clue what to do. Called from Darkness was an idea without any form initially. I went through a very lonely period and then started reaching out to a Native American treatment center, Recovery Cafe, and Home Boy Industries. The common thread was connection, community and recovery, and I was compelled to follow these stories. This commitment took me six years to complete.
The Called from Darkness collection is comprised of the following six films:
- “Soul Sanctuary” — 2019 (28 min)
- “Stand Down” — 2019 (30 min)
- “Home Boy Joy Ride” — 2020 (30 min)
- “Journeys on the Red Road” — 2020 (22 min)
- “JustUs” — 2021 (25 min)
- “Welcome to Recovery Cafe” — 2023 (28 min)
To inquire about screening or purchasing any of the films, complete the community engagement form on the TouchPoint Productions website.
The series is also available as a bundle, with pre-recorded panel discussions accompanying each title, at GoodClix (vhx.tv).
How did you get into this world of publishing and distributing content related to substances, addiction, and now recovery for years ago — and what has kept you focused in that general topic area for all these years?
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in cinema from San Francisco State. There were very few jobs around, but through a couple of miracles, I met Darryl Inaba, then the treatment director at the Haight-Ashbury Detox Clinic, and William Cohen, who was a film editor and producer. I needed work, so we started collaborating, and I found that the content we created was making a difference in the lives of people who were going through treatment. That’s what hooked me. I met countless people whose “best thinking had gotten them there” and discovered that when we presented them with non-judgmental, scientific content, they could see that their challenges weren’t due to being bad, stupid or crazy — that they had a health condition which could be overcome. I saw people whose continuous use of chemicals bonded them into a relationship that demanded everything from them, and then found new healing relationships rooted in the bond of recovery. To witness the miracle of recovery has always been a joyous experience for me.
What does it mean to you to be a recovery advocate, and what do you wish the world understood more about addiction and recovery?
I’ve found that people who gravitate toward alcohol and other drugs are often those who have suffered traumas or grown up in chaotic environments, often where substance use and emotional, physical, or sexual abuse was normative. The communities that I documented over these past six years were offering a path out of despair and a greater sense of purpose and meaning. Many people I spoke with described addiction as a hole in the soul or a spiritual malady. I am so grateful for the time I spent with the spiritual teachers Richard Rohr, Greg Boyle and Killian Noe. So many people could benefit from recovery, but it only works long-term for those come to want it. That might mean multiple returns to use before someone bonds with it. For those that have lost loved ones to this disease, they may find a way to get connected to volunteering to help those struggling in their community as a way to honor those who died trying to deal with their trauma by using drugs.