Our latest Guardian documentary is the fully animated story of “Sharon”, who has been addicted to poker machines since she arrived in Australia in 1992. This cautionary story contains several real life stories of the damage caused by “pokies” that have been literally adapted from interviews and combined in the character of Sharon, a single narrative that speaks to a universal yet personal experience.
Bright Lights: A Woman’s 25 Year Old Gambling Addiction – Video
Filmmaker Charby Ibrahim talks to us about his experience with documentary film.
Photo by Charby Ibrahaim, the director of Bright Lights. Photo: Aaron Walker
Why did you choose this film?
I remember watching the news some time ago and coming across a report about a man who stormed into a gaming venue and brought an ax to a number of poker machines (AKA slot machines / fruit machines). I had some understanding at the time of the extent to which these machines can destroy life, and was more than a little pleased that they were being smashed to pieces.
The gravity of this man’s problem soon became apparent. After losing hundreds of thousands of dollars to these machines, as well as his home, marriage, and employment over the past several years, these were clearly the actions of someone on the sidelines. And when the news channels got the gall to joke about his plight when the cameras returned to the news desk, I felt an old rage back. So I decided to ask people about their experience of poker machine addiction, all of whom initially didn’t know how to tempt them and keep them “winning” for hours with no real chance of gambling.
How did you find your topics?
Given the severity of the problem here in Australia, it really wasn’t too difficult to find people who had directly or indirectly suffered a gambling bug related to “pokies”. I reached out to nonprofits working locally and after a couple of online deployments, I was inundated with people willing and ready to discuss their experiences.
How and why did you create a story script from multiple voices?
It is often the case that the personal speaks to the universal. And while this is a movie about ‘Sharon’ as voiced by Claudian Karvan, it really is a movie about anyone on the pokies web. I interviewed several participants who identified themselves as long-term poker machine addicts. That process revealed some deeply similar experiences regarding their addiction journey and the potential for catastrophic damage these machines can cause. Sharon took the interview material literally and was born from an amalgamation of these shared experiences. Her seemingly personal story, composed of several, spoke of the widespread and universal problem of poker machine dependency in Australia, and indeed in many countries around the world.
What was your creative vision for this project and how did it come together?
During the interview phase of the project, the participants described their addiction in the most vivid language. The animation provided an opportunity to translate these visual metaphors and ideas onto the screen in a way that explores the emotional world of Sharon and all of those she represents. Combined with the promise of anonymity, the use of animation became a very clear choice. The dark visual style should reflect the distorted dream-like state described by our participants. We also wanted to contrast this visual darkness with the colorful bright lights and the hypnotically annoying noises of the machines themselves, and often bring them to life as another character in the film.
How do you think it speaks for the current time?
Given that many gaming venues around the world have been forced to close their doors as a result of this global pandemic, it was hoped that the damage from pokies-related gambling would decrease. Instead, we’ve seen a surge in online gambling. Games and apps that implement all of the old addiction-inducing tricks of physical machines, with no oversight, accountability or regulation. The fear is that even if the venues do reopen, many will have developed an equally destructive online habit.
What are your hopes for gambling reform?
Here in Australia we have over 20% of the world’s poker machines and yet only 0.3% of the world’s population. These machines are not limited to the gaming area of the casino but line the walls of most pubs, clubs and hotels in suburbs. It is also clear that they are geographically even more concentrated in areas that can least afford to have them. The problem seems to lie with the design of the product itself and the lack of adequate warning to users. We have long appreciated the addictive qualities and harmful effects of cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. And while those with vested interests came at one point with kicks and screams, it’s hard to imagine that these products are no longer regulated today.
As a very first step, we need to see similar campaigns aimed at educating people about the potential harm these machines can cause, including clearly visible disclaimers that the product is highly addictive and the odds are strongly against the user.
What impact do you hope this film will have on the audience?
The intent from the start was pretty simple: I wanted to give the audience the opportunity to see how destructive these seemingly innocuous “slot machines” can be. I wanted to show how normal people can accidentally become addicted through no fault of their own; how these machines were designed for this purpose. If after watching the movie people see problematic behavior in someone around them or in themselves, I hope they will be in a better position to seek professional assistance. Additionally, I hope people are motivated to put pressure on the venues to move away from business models that rely on revenue from these machines and to vote in MPs who are firmly against pokies.
About the filmmaker
Since graduating with a Masters in Documentary Film from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2017, Charby Ibrahim has continued to experiment with documentary forms. He is particularly passionate about creative filmmaking for social change and works with other filmmakers from different backgrounds. His first fully animated hybrid documentary, The Holiday Inn-Side, showed the inner agony of children incarcerated in juvenile prisons. It earned him a nomination for the Australian Directors Guild before making the long list of the 2020 Academy Awards in its category. Ibrahim is currently being produced in another partially animated documentary, Life After Juvie, a film that addresses the ongoing challenges these young people face after their release from prison.
More Guardian documentation can be found here.
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