Documentaries are made to tell stories, to make a point or at least get some thoughts going about one.  What moved Barbara Doran to write and direct her most recent film was the story of a woman named Susan.  At only 31 years old, Susan took her own life and left only a note.  The note wasn’t written to her loved ones, it was written to a video lottery terminal, telling it she had to let it go.  Doran described reading the note as “chilling” when she eventually got the opportunity.  “I knew nothing, I’d seen [VLT’s] in bars and they seemed innocent.  I had no idea of how many tragic stories there were until starting this project.”

John Dunsworth in Playing The Machines

John Dunsworth in Playing The Machines

The film is called Playing The Machines and it tells a number of tragic stories about Canadians who become helpless to the addictions of VLT’s.  Another belongs to Sherry Rhino of Halifax, NS who was left behind after her husband set fire to their car with himself inside, unable to bare the pressure of addiction, despite counselling.  But the film does more then simply attempting to shock its viewers with heartbreaking tragedy.  Real research and commentary is fluid throughout the piece and what was jarring is the fact that in Alberta, the revenues generated from VLT’s actually outweighs those from the oil industry.

According to a publication called The Walrus, 8 of 10 provinces are still allowing 90,000 or so VLT’s to be operated throughout the county and Newfoundland and Labrador was amongst the first five provinces to let them in during the early 1990s.  In this province, $72 million a year is generated from VLT’s and lotto and 62% of people contributing to that are considered problem gamblers.

As for the ongoing public awareness campaigns, Doran says she’s “happy they’re doing it but the problem isn’t the player, it’s the machine.  You press the button and its all decided by a computer chip, what’s on the screen is just animation.  On average for every $30,000.00 pumped in there’s a $500.00 payout and you don’t even remember the money, you remember the win.”

There doesn’t seem to be consensus on what the addictive quality is, but the documentary actually slows down the animation that plays on a VLT’s screen to reveal how the jackpot icons closely align for split seconds to create what’s called a near-miss effect.  It would explain why engaging the machine is important to get the player.  In fact, the documentary features John Dunsworth from The Trailer Park Boys who is a reformed gambler himself and at one point where he is sharing a story in front of a VLT, he goes through the motions and does everything but push the button.

Dunsworth has become one of the country’s biggest advocates for the issue, being most vocal within his home province of Nova Scotia.  Doran came across his efforts in her research and called him up to see if he’d be interested in speaking to her for the film.  They’d initially considered him as host but opted instead to insert him more organically and he became part of the project’s team.

That team includes some other well established veterans such as Nigel Markham as the Director of Photography, Chris Darlington as the Editor, a score by Duane Andrews and producer Rob Blackie.  Harvey Hyslop was behind the sound along with Paul Steffler who did the mix.   The film opens with a brilliantly executed title graphic animation as well which is the work of Peter Evans.

Playing the Machines takes a deeply passionate look at a very compelling issue.  Doran’s work on this film is important and relevant, and perhaps efficiently direct.  The film will be broadcast nationally on CBC Newsworld’s The Lens, March 24th 2009 at 10:00pm ET or 11:30pm here in Newfoundland.