top of page

Thoughts on “Playing Hard” – a Polish Film on Women Alcoholics

Maria Dębska in "Playing Hard" (Polish title: "Zabawa, zabawa")

When one hears the word "alcoholic," a stereotypical image of a man drunkenly staggering in the streets, out of bars or cars, comes to mind. Historically, men have had a higher incidence of substance use disorders and higher rates of problem drinking (binge drinking, heavy drinking, drinking to intoxication)—but women are rapidly closing the gap.

Kinga Dębska, a Polish film director, gained interest in problematic drinking in women when filming a documentary about a Polish actress who struggled with the disease. Later, she wrote and directed the movie "Playing Hard" (Polish title: "Zabawa, Zabawa," 2018). She worked on the movie for several years, spending months collaborating with blogger and author Mika Dunin, writing about her addiction battle. Dębska based the screenplay on real-life stories of women in recovery.

Certainly, there have been several intriguing and moving Polish films on alcoholism, to mention Marek Koterski's "We are all Christs" (2016) and Wojciech Smarzowski's "The Mighty Angel" (2014). Still, both of these films – and many others —focus on alcoholic men. Women alcoholics have been vastly overlooked. "Playing Hard" is bridging the divide – it is the first Polish movie exclusively about the problem of women's drinking.

Dębska tells the story of three female alcoholics without unnecessary pathos or attempts to shock the viewer with physiology. The characters are polished and attractive. Dębska's warm and empathetic lens portrays three heroines at different stages of alcohol addiction. She tries to show the complexity of this disease, defenses that the women employ to justify ongoing drinking, and some of the family dynamics related to alcoholism. The stories of an accomplished surgeon (Teresa) who drinks at work, a successful lawyer who uses her husband's political influence to cover her alcohol use-related deeds (Dorota), and an ambitious university student who "is playing (really) hard" (Magda) are intertwined. On the surface, each of these women is seemingly excelling at their respective careers. They do not see their alcohol use as a problem—thinking they have the ability to stop at any time. Drinking is simply a coping mechanism for dealing with life, the stress of their success, motherhood, or other social obligations. Each of them deals with the disease differently, losing different things due to the addiction and hitting one rock bottom after another. There is no happy ending here for all three women, mirroring the lack of a happy ending for many people affected by addiction. Dębska tries to avoid moralizing or preaching and points out the real-life dangers of drinking.

I agree with Adam Siennica's review:

Is this an art cinema? Sure, but clear, transparent, and well told. It is simply a well-constructed story of three women fighting against something that is present in everyday life of Poles. Built in such a way that you can feel a lot of emotions in each one. I always say that the heart in the film is the most important and must be in the right place.

In her movie, Dębska attempts to give hope that recovery is possible. Women can and do recover. Admitting to having a problem with drinking may be a problem in and of itself, due to the social stigma; the worry of treatment being disruptive to normal life for a high school or college student. It may disrupt essential parts of life, such as graduation, work, or childcare. Treatment issues that women and girls face are more relational; they focus on self-reliance, empowerment, not trusting others blindly, self-care, and self-respect. Recognizing the truth is part of recovery. Addiction is more devastating for women, as it is an isolating condition, and women and girls tend to lose their connections to addiction faster.

Alcoholism and addiction is very much a family disease. Relationships change with the progression of the disease. Often there may be other family members, parents, or significant others who also struggle with addiction or do not recognize it. Learning about addiction, recognizing unhealthy boundaries, enabling behaviors, relational guilt, and understanding the true meaning of empathy are part of the recovery journey.

Women process alcohol in a different way than men and thus are more impacted physically. Biologically they have more body fat, which absorbs alcohol faster. They also have a lower quantity of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol. Thus, alcohol lingers in women's bodies longer because they do not metabolize it and expel it from the body as quickly as men. As a result of these factors, women progress through alcoholism more rapidly, which is commonly called telescoping. This faster progression leads to needing higher alcohol levels to get the same effect, thus impacting bodily organs and causing more damage.

Women who drink heavily for an extended period will experience a much greater risk of health conditions related to drinking, such as alcohol-related hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver, and breast cancer. They are prone to engage in risky sexual behavior (due to impaired frontal lobe function, the part of the brain that affects decision-making) or be victims of crime, assaults, accidents, and sexual violence. Some consider intoxicated girls and women "fair game."

Statistics show that the number of women who drink during pregnancy is staggering: many pregnancies are alcohol-exposed. In Poland, one in three women admits to consuming alcohol during pregnancy, according to data from NFZ (Polish National Health System). The situation in the United States is not much better. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), about ten percent of pregnant women admitted to having consumed alcohol in the past 30 days. About three percent admitted to binge drinking in that period. Nearly half of all pregnancies are not planned in the US; many women may not know they are pregnant until about the sixth week of pregnancy or beyond. Keep in mind that not all women drinkers are alcoholics. Still, no amount of alcohol during pregnancy has been established as safe (according to the Surgeon General Recommendations and CDC).

Dębska's movie with English subtitles was shown at St. Anthony Main Theatre in Minneapolis on November 4, 2019, and on January 5, 2020, at the Psych Cinema at the Medical University of Minnesota. A lively discussion followed both film showings.

K. Litak M.D., Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine

Further reading in Polish:ębska,_zabawa

Further reading in English:

Movie trailer (English subtitles):

All photographs: courtesy of the film distributor Kino Świat, Warsaw.