color movie still of a Latinx woman sitting cross-legged on the floor of a house. she is holding her young daughter in her lap. the color grading is dark yellow
(Gravitas Ventures)

About a decade ago when Doralee Urban first recovered from substance use in New Mexico, she was in a transitional housing program that partnered with the Albuquerque-based reproductive justice organization Bold Futures. In meetings, members of Bold Futures would ask “crazy questions,” Urban said.

“I remember they asked, ‘If you could change the world, what would you do,’” Urban laughed. “It was just a really new experience because no one ever asked me questions like that or cared about what I had to say. A lot of us came from situations where people just called us ‘junkies’ and ‘addicts.’ But [Bold Futures] really listened, and they wanted me to have a voice and share my story. The platform they gave us just got magnified and magnified, and it turned into something unbelievable.”

Bold Futures’ conversations with women in recovery did turn into something unbelievable: a film. Not a documentary. Not a short film. A full-length feature film released in 2021 called “All the World is Sleeping” that lays bare the complexities of substance dependency and parenthood. Chama, the story’s protagonist, is a young, single mom whose love for her daughter Nevaeh fuels her battles through opioid addiction, generational trauma, and the carceral system. Actress Melissa Barrera powerfully exemplifies Chama’s light and darkness, highlighting how addiction and a lack of social safety nets leave low-income women of color teetering on the edge of disaster. 

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The film is a haunting and compassionate portrait of motherhood colored by addiction, accurately portraying the familial resentments, conflicts, and warring emotions that come with loving someone who is substance dependent. The movie’s success at portraying these challenging dynamics can only be attributed to the women Bold Futures calls “the leaders”: Urban, Jade Sánchez, Myra Salazar, Patricia Marez, Carly Hicks-Jones, Kayleigh Smith, and Malissa Trujillo. “All the World is Sleeping” is the first feature-length film fully shaped by the lived experiences of women in recovery and created by a reproductive justice organization using a reproductive justice lens.

According to Bold Futures executive director Charlene Bencomo, outside of introducing them to reproductive justice and helping them feel seen and heard, there was no real goal for the conversations the organization facilitated with the leaders when they were in recovery. But over time, the women expressed wanting to have their voices heard in bigger, more far-reaching ways. Some projects were developed, including a 2014 public art campaign featuring work from local artists that appeared on the sides of buses and at bus stops in Albuquerque. The messaging aimed at destigmatizing pregnant people with substance use issues. Before long, the leaders began to kick around the idea of a film. 

“There were a lot of conversations around if it should be a short film or a documentary and whether a documentary would be invasive,” Bencomo explained. “The more and more they dreamed this up, there was no going back from the idea that this would be a feature film and that the main character would be a composite that weaves together all of their experiences.” 

Shaping understandings

None of the leaders or Bold Future staffers had any experience working on a film, but this didn’t stop them from moving forward with the idea. It all began with the leaders sharing the experiences and stories that were most important to them to convey. Building toward a movie was an exciting prospect, but Sánchez said it wasn’t exactly a lighthearted process. It could be downright grueling. It was emotionally draining work that required a great deal of vulnerability and trust on behalf of the leaders.

There is a striking moment in the film when Chama seeks treatment, but her effort is met with derision from a health care provider. This propels Chama back out into the streets and even further away from the parent she desperately wants to be. This scene came directly from Sánchez, who told Prism she felt very strongly about including it in the film. 

“The difference in a provider’s reaction to treatment made a huge difference in my life and in my son’s life too,” Sánchez said. “It’s not just about whether resources are available and accessible. The way health care providers treat us or make us feel really determines if people actually stick around or not.”

In a way, this insight also extends to the media and the general public. The way Americans treat the issue of substance dependency—how it’s perceived, understood, and discussed—plays a role in shaping public policy. In turn, this influences who has access to supportive services and who doesn’t—who finds their way back from the abyss that is addiction and who doesn’t.

“I remember sitting around and having conversations about how we can get the biggest possible audience to receive our message. We wanted everyone to hear it—not just health care providers or people in the legal system or [advocacy] organizations. I want your aunt and my neighbor to listen to what we’re saying,” said Urban, explaining that this is precisely why they wanted to make a feature film. People love movies. 

Artistic work can also help shift harmful narratives, including those that stubbornly follow parents who use substances.

“Personally, the most important message I wanted to convey is the love we have for our children,” Urban said, growing emotional. “Regardless of the life I lived and the stuff that I went through or the stuff that I put them through, I love my children. We’ve all had to deal with people who just don’t get it, who say, ‘You chose drugs over your kids. You’d rather be on the streets getting high than take care of your kids.’ What I hope the movie portrays is that getting clean is more complicated than just making the choice, and that we love our kids more than anything.”

Culture shift 

Early reviews applauded “All the World is Sleeping” for how it “humanizes” substance dependency. This kind of framing should always raise larger questions about why the public often needs an intervention to recognize the humanity of specific populations. Over the last four decades, a lot has changed about how the media covers—and subsequently, how the public discusses—substance use disorders. Like many things in the U.S., the race, gender, and class of the most affected communities play an outsized role in how conversations and solutions around this issue take shape.

White people currently account for more than 70% of opioid overdose deaths. The seemingly endless well of sympathy that the media now draws upon to cover the opioid crisis’s impact on white Americans was nowhere to be found in the 1980s and 90s when the smokable form of cocaine known as “crack” ravaged overwhelmingly Black communities. The coverage—particularly the reporting that focused on Black pregnant people and mothers—was so racist and defamatory that outlets like The New York Times later sought to rectify it. While a respectable endeavor, it was too late. No matter how lacking in actual science or facts, these false narratives took on lives of their own, spiraling off into dangerous moral panics that funneled Black youth into the carceral system and shaping harsh laws that continue to criminalize pregnant people with substance use disorders.

But tides are shifting. Today more than ever, there is an understanding that substance dependency is both a chronic, treatable medical condition and a public health issue that is worsened by criminalization and incarceration. But even as some societal norms surrounding substance use shift, there are still few people more stigmatized than substance-dependent pregnant people and mothers. 

Hicks-Jones told Prism this stigma is dangerous. 

“It prevents people from seeking help or getting the kind of health care they need because they’re afraid and ashamed,” Hicks-Jones said. “They’re afraid of getting their children taken away, or they’re afraid of how people will treat them. It makes them feel stuck.”

Chipping away at stigma was certainly a primary goal for Bold Futures, and the effect the film has on people is clear. During an August screening at a reproductive justice conference in Texas, attendees cried watching the film, and conversations later bubbled up between people whose loved ones struggled with substance dependency. But how do you actually measure the impact of a feature film—and how do you convince funders that investing in a long-term artistic project is a good use of resources?

As Molly de Aguiar and Mandy Van Deven recently wrote, philanthropy’s interest in “narrative change” has been rapidly growing, but Bencomo said it’s been her experience that the world of philanthropy still needs an education on why narrative change or “culture shift” work is important. 

“There’s a lot of emphasis on the shiny ‘deliverable’—what is the policy that’s going to change because of this, what is the research report, what is the tangible outcome? We’ve done screenings where 300 people were in a movie theater, and we know that when they get home, they are going to have different kinds of conversations about substance use and parenthood. But how do you measure that? Culture shift work has been at the root of this organization since its inception, and it’s where we’ve had the most meaningful success building with communities, but I’m not going to lie. It’s been hard to convince funders that this is work that’s important because the reach and the results aren’t easy to convey in a report,” Bencomo said.

It took Bold Futures several years to fundraise for the film, and ultimately Bencomo said the project was supported by very “trusted, long-term funders” who were ultimately impressed by the final product. The executive director said the overwhelmingly positive response to the film should serve as an important lesson to the philanthropy world: “If you trust reproductive justice organizations and let us do our thing, we can accomplish amazing things.”

Bold Futures policy co-director Kat Sánchez said the organization also had to field questions from people in the larger community about whether a film about substance use and parenting constituted reproductive justice work. 

“Our answer was abso-fucking-lutely,” Kat said during a Q&A after an August screening. “When we talk about RJ, these are the people we are talking about. This is the framework we are talking about. These are the systems we are fighting against.” 

Soon, “All the World is Sleeping” will bring the reproductive justice framework to a larger audience. Since its release in 2021, the film could only be viewed through free screenings and film festivals. But beginning March 17, the film will be available to rent and buy via video on demand. There will also be a limited theatrical release.

Urban told Prism that even though a lot of time has passed since work on the film began and her life is in a drastically different place, watching the movie still brings her to tears because it breaks her heart in new ways. Before, she could relate more to Chama. Now, she sees Chama’s struggles in the people she loves. 

“My life is different, but the struggle is still real,” Urban said. “A friend is really going through it with addiction, and I recently lost my son’s dad to fentanyl. These things have been emotionally devastating, but I’m getting through it with the help of my higher power and the community—and that’s why I want people to see this movie. I want them to know that they’re not alone and maybe things won’t ever be perfect, but there are people out there who understand and who are proof you can get through the other side.” 

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.