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'It's not about victim-shaming' says director of binge-drinking documentary

'I know some kids in public school are binge-drinking'
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20160225 Girls Night Out promo still
Nearly 14 million women in America binge drink 3 times per month. Photo Credit: White Pine Pictures

The director of Girls Night Out, a documentary on binge drinking which airs tonight on CBC, hopes the film will open a conversation and not be seen as victim-blaming.

“What we are hoping is parents and their children watch it together. Parents and 20-year olds, parents and teens. The time slot that people can watch it together without anyone too young seeing it. I think it is appropriate for Grade 9-plus,” said Phyllis Ellis.

"Even Grade 6-plus, because I know some kids in [elementary] school are binge-drinking,” added Ellis.

The documentary follows four young women preparing for a night of intentional over-indulgence of alcohol.

“Binge drinking is different than other ways to use or misuse alcohol. It’s an interesting concept. Eight drinks, a bottle of wine before you go out — it’s qualified as five or more drinks in a two-hour period,” said Ellis.

The documentary was created in response to Ann Dowsett Johnston’s book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.

What Ellis says may be surprising to some, the women who indulge in binge-drinking tend to be intelligent, middle- to upper-class, with the potential of a bright future ahead of them. 

“These are young women who have a lot of opportunity and are doing well in their lives, yet they are destroying themselves three or four times a week with an inordinate amount of alcohol,” said Ellis.

“These are not at-risk women. We could do a whole other film about at-risk women, for sure.”

Ellis missed out on much of the heavy-drinking culture in her teens and early twenties, as she was an elite Olympic athlete with little time to drink while training.

On one rare night of heavy drinking, and despite her being in peak physical condition, Ellis was sexually assaulted.

“I wish I had been in more control to defend myself, but I didn’t get sexually assaulted because I was drunk. I got sexually assaulted because the guy sexually assaulted me,” said Ellis.

The documentary is not about victim-blaming, said Ellis, but it is a cautionary tale.

Although binge drinking is not a phenomenon exclusive to women, a decision was made to focus on that demographic because young women are most at-risk when it comes to consequences.

“Unless you’re getting roofied, you are applying this inordinate amount of alcohol to yourself. Maybe there are better choices we can make as young women,” said Ellis.

What is especially dangerous, Ellis said, is the potential for blackouts — different than being passed-out, because the person is awake and conversational, but unable to create memories.

“You’re awake but have no recollection of what happened. That is a serious danger zone for young people, men or women,” said Ellis.

Aside from the dangers of sexual assault, Ellis points out the dangers of personal injury while drunk and cites breast cancer and 200 other woman-related diseases that are associated with overuse of alcohol.

“It’s a legal drug that we are using in an extreme way,” said Ellis.

She hopes young people will pay attention to the message of the film.

“I think it’s wonderful for young people to hear what happened to [other] young people, instead of adults telling them what to do and what not to do — which never goes over well,” said Ellis.

The director made a pact with the young women featured in the film to accurately portray their experience.

“I trusted them, that they were telling me their truth and they were comfortable with that. They trusted me that I would give their stories the best care possible,” said Ellis, who recently directed Painted Land: In Search of the Group of Seven.

Throughout the filmmaking process, Ellis was mindful of her own 22-year-old daughter, who is herself in university and within the age group who tend to participate in binge drinking.

“I want the best for her, and for her to take care of herself and to make good choices. To have as few regrets as possible and to respect herself and to know that she is enough without having to self-medicate,” said Ellis.

University students are especially susceptible to binge drinking, says Ellis — due to peer pressure, social anxiety and body image, as well as external factors, such as marketing and celebrity endorsement.

“It’s so normalized in our society, it’s just part of our social norm,” said Ellis.

She adds, “I think there’s just too many messages, too much pressure, too much.”

In response, tonight’s airing of the documentary will launch a national campaign to ignite the conversation about the dangers of binge drinking.

The #RethinkTheDrink campaign will travel to universities across the country to conduct town hall meetings on the subject, as well as a letter-writing campaign in which women write advice to their 18-year-old, which will be shared on social media website Tumblr.

Girls Night Out will premiere on CBC tonight at 9 p.m.