Have you ever seen a drug awareness campaign and thought, 'Wow, I’ll never use drugs again'? Well, neither have we.  

Aware is a drug and alcohol campaign you’ll actually want to watch. The concept emerged following a simple conversation about the unrealistic nature of our media landscape.  

The student-led short series tackles some of the uncomfortable realities of drug and alcohol use that are seldom represented in Aotearoa New Zealand’s media. We found it strange that in a seemingly broad-minded and forward-thinking country, we still hold on to outdated mindsets from the 1980s. Stemming from this, the team behind Aware set out to produce compelling narratives that imagine a better future. 

Our team questioned whether the creators of drug and alcohol awareness campaigns have the authority to effectively speak to younger generations. Generally, groups of out-of-touch middle-aged men are responsible for producing media campaigns we have seen in recent years. In an unfortunate hangover from the D.A.R.E. campaigns of the 1980s, fantasies of drug eradication have led to a mindset that doesn't acknowledge the health and social problems at the heart of the issue. When campaign messaging is so out of touch, e.g., ‘Just Say No’, the public often reject or disregard what is said entirely.

With Aware, we took an oppositional stance to messaging that is prevalent in the broader media landscape. While generally, we believe that media messaging has improved, mainstream drug messaging has progressed at a snail's pace. Campaigns relating to drug use tend to reinforce the dominant 'just say no' message. In normal circumstances, third parties such as agencies or ministries offer their solutions to something they often know nothing about. Aware was a chance to return power and resources to individuals at the heart of the epidemic — young people directly affected by the issues at hand. 

We had seen friends needing severe medical attention from untested MDMA or mental harm from the misuse of cannabis. Even with the ubiquitous and underestimated drug: alcohol, we have seen damage from destroyed relationships, concussions, and even broken bones. Our group had an array of first-hand perspectives, which we brought to our narratives. We knew how people in our generation engage with media and what would work as a messaging system. 

Non-government organisations have always been the key to advocacy for changing outdated drug policies. We saw the New Zealand Drug Foundation were doing some fantastic work in the harm reduction space (like running The Level) and asked if they would like to collaborate in our process. Fortunately, the team was very receptive, and over the course of many productive Zoom meetings, we refined our ideas into some solid scripts. From writing to post-production, the Drug Foundation helped guide the project and keep our narratives on the right track.  

Most dominant political parties or government agencies would shy away from funding harm reduction, for fear of being seen as ‘weak’ or promoting drug use. Aware diverges from this typical power structure by giving a voice to those witnessing the effects of drugs and alcohol regularly. It therefore possesses the authority to create authentic solutions.  

The war on drugs has been fought and lost; it is time to replace punishment with help. To generate authentic narratives and ideologies, we should listen before we speak. We should talk to those with lived and living experience of issues that we are trying to address before scripts and campaigns miss the mark. 

As the world changes, our storytelling process should strive for methods that involve deeper exploration of the narratives we share.  

 - The Aware film crew

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