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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.