A new documentary film project will focus on Alaskans’ relationships with alcohol

An animated still image of two people sitting side by side on swings while holding cans of beer.
A still from an animated scene in “Earnest Drinker,” a documentary film about Alaskans’ relationship with alcohol. (Scott Burton/Earnest Drinker)

The New Year is a time of making resolutions to better ourselves, and for many that means quitting drinking, at least for what’s called Dry January. And for some, that means getting on the path to longer-term sobriety.

That includes Alaska filmmaker Scott Burton who’s working on a documentary about Alaskans’ relationships with alcohol and, as it happens, celebrating three years of sobriety this Jan. 4.

Burton’s film project is called “Earnest Drinker,” and he says it’ll be a hybrid documentary, meaning it’ll have interviews with experts, advocates and people in recovery, but Burton says it’ll also include a lot of his own stories about his relationship with alcohol.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Burton: I was a prolific drinker for 30 years. I started when I was 14. And so, yeah, it’s a film about relationships with alcohol. I hope to challenge the normalization of alcohol in our country, in our state. I want to look at some of the costs alcohol has on our state. I want to look at stigmas related to words like “alcoholic,” “sobriety,” “recovery,” and a lot more things. That might have been long for my elevator pitch, Casey.

Casey Grove: That was great. I wanted to ask you, first, instead of having a documentary that’s about the things that people might associate with with alcohol that are negative, you know, just calling it like, “Alcohol: It’s bad,” why are you looking at it more like people’s relationships with alcohol, and that’s the theme?

SB: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, I have to acknowledge that for 30 years, I drank. And while I drank, I had a lot of fun. But during that time, I also made a lot of questionable choices. And another part of that is that people have asked me about my audience for this film. And sometimes I think of the audience as me, like 10 years ago, when I was 35. And if I saw a documentary that just came out and vilified alcohol use, it wouldn’t have had a chance, right? Just, “Whatever. I have no interest in that.” But if I saw a film that sort of tried to take an equitable look at the spectrum of alcohol use, the spectrum of sobriety and recovery, yeah, it might have had an effect on me.

CG: Gotcha. So I noticed in the promo video that I saw for this, that you you have talked to some experts already. What are some of the things that they told you about? And I wonder if it’s different than, you know, just like we were just talking about, like, it’s just that alcohol is bad, it’s about thinking about people’s relationships? What did they tell you about that?

SB: Yeah, so when I was about 42, I finally got, like, an official doctor. And, you know, signing up to see a new doctor, one of the questions is, how much alcohol do you drink? And I lied on the form. And I lied to her. You know, I was like, “Oh, you know, one, one to three drinks.” And that was such a lie. I was drinking at least three times that. And we interview and we talked about some of those first interactions, and she just said to me, she said, “Scott, drinking is dreadfully bad for you.” Just having a doctor go down the list of things. It can cause cancer, can cause high blood pressure, cause you to gain weight, can cause anxiety. The list just goes on and on of the things that alcohol can cause. And so hearing her say that. And then in the interview, it’s pretty funny, she’s like, “Oh, yeah, in the medical profession, we multiply everything that someone says by three, right?” So I was like, “Oh, Dana, you know, maybe I was having one to three drinks on a Thursday or Friday.” And if you multiply that by three, you know, it’s more like nine. And it could even be more. So that was pretty funny.

CG: Yeah, it seems like there’s an aspect to this, of when you talk about people’s relationship with alcohol, that it’s just such a part of our culture, that people might not even acknowledge that about themselves, that that might be such a big part of their life until they maybe stop and think about it, right?

SB: Right, and that’s the normalization of alcohol part that I’m trying to address. When I started drinking, when I was 14, you know, everyone in my family drank. All my friends in high school drank. Everybody drank. James Bond drank, you know, in the movies. And so it would have been abnormal, in a sense, for me not to drink. And so this is a question in this documentary. And I think for me, I process a documentary as a research project. So I have all these questions, right? And over this next year, I’m hoping to answer them. And one of these questions is, why, in America and Alaska, is alcohol consumption more normal than non-consumption?

CG: Yeah. Is there a component to this, as you’re still putting this together, where you’re reaching out to folks and hoping to interview more people about their relationships with alcohol?

SB: Yeah, so I’m still looking for input on this documentary. And I’m definitely looking for people who may find meaning just in this conversation that you and I are having, or if this resonates with them, and they have a story or an experience that they think might add to this documentary or to my research, as I’m moving along, I would love to hear from them.

CG: For folks going into January and talking about Sober January, it’s a month that a lot of people start thinking about sobriety. Do you have any advice for people that are kind of on the cusp of maybe quitting drinking, or at least even, you know, taking January off? Any tips that you have for anybody?

SB: Yeah, that’s a great question. January is when I stopped. Jan. 4, 2020. And I decided to stop for a week. And after that week, I decided, “Oh, why don’t I give myself another mini-goal of another week?” And so one week became two, and I’m like, “Wow, this is working for me.” And then I just, three weeks, one month, and I just kept doing these sort of mini-goals. And then, here I am, three years. And then like, from a practical point of view, I love soda water. Like, stock up on Spindrift or whatever your soda water of choice is. Get every kind of tea you could ever imagined liking. I’ve come to realize a lot of drinking for me was this habitual thing. I love the feeling. I love taste. I love experiencing liquids and beverages. So just make sure you have as many alternatives as possible. Some people really like using (non-alcoholic) beers. Beers like Coors Edge. If you’re a person that used to drink Rainier, try Coors Edge. It’s just that super simple, pilsner. Lagunitas makes an IPNA. So that’s an India pale non-alcoholic ale. And so that has all the hops if you’re kind of, you know, into those higher-end beers. There’s a company out of Brooklyn called Athletic Brewing. That’s making tons of really delicious non-alcoholic beers. So those are some ideas for different strategies.

Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.

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