At the Tribeca Film Festival: A message to you from a West Virginia town ruined by Oxycontin

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Bobby and Shadow. (Hillary Spera)
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Established by Robert DeNiro, the Tribeca Film Festival has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2013 festival goes from April 17-28. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

"Nothing here but Oxy and coal," says one of the subjects of Sean Dunne's mournful documentary Oxyana. The "here" is Oceana, a once-bustling mining town in West Virginia, now decimated by Oxycontin addiction to the point where the media have rebranded it "Oxyana."

An entire generation has been wiped out, and addiction touches everyone's lives. One guy interviewed says, "I'm 23. Half my graduating class is dead." The destruction is almost unbelievable, although it is no secret that painkiller addiction, and Oxy in particular, is a huge problem in America. But Oxyana zooms in on one community, and the result is a powerful documentary, covering well-trodden ground perhaps, but filmed in a way that feels like an elegy. An elegy for a more innocent time when kids just drank beer and smoked a little pot, but also an elegy for an entire way of life, disappearing in the fog that descends on the mountains around Oceana. Oxyana is devastating.

The statistics are overwhelming. West Virginia leads the country in prescription overdoses. A doctor at Raleigh General Hospital says that half of the babies in the nursery are on methadone. A recent book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, describes the situation in West Virginia: "A decade ago only about 5% of those seeking treatment in West Virginia needed help with opiate addiction. Today that number has ballooned to 26%. It recorded 91 overdose deaths in 2001. By 2008 that number had risen to 390." The people interviewed in Sean Dunne's documentary, all participants in the epidemic (either as helpless bystanders or addicts themselves), seem blindsided by how quickly Oxy took over. It's not just the addicts, it's the dealers who keep it going, and, as one interview subject observes, "Drugs created an economy in the town."

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In a matter of 15 years, a normal community where people felt safe raising their kids has become a town where it is common for teenage girls to prostitute themselves for money. Oceana was a place where you didn't feel the need to lock your doors. Now, it is tortured by violence. One of the most unforgettable people we meet in Oxyana is an Oxy dealer (and addict) who says bluntly, "It's an epidemic around here."

Dunne fills his documentary with voices and faces. There is no voiceover to instruct our reaction. The people of the town tell their own story, an approach that serves the topic well. Oxyana is a claustrophobic experience. As beautiful as the area is, as stunning the mountains and trees and country roads, the viewer is overwhelmed by the feeling of being trapped. Dunne talks to people in their living rooms, backyards, on their front porches. The addicts he talks to do not seem to be in denial. They are shocked as we are by how quickly Oxy has taken over and ruined their lives. People seem disoriented, shell-shocked. One person says, "It's incredible and amazing and awful, all at the same time."

A local dentist, wearing a Motörhead T-shirt, describes watching the epidemic unfold. He has two young daughters, and his eyes well up with tears as he describes telling them that there are other places in the world where things are not like this, that they can get out of there and do whatever they want. He can't leave himself, though, because, as he says emotionally, "I love it here." He talks about a certain psychological mindset called "Appalachian fatalism," which he thinks has a lot to do with how things went down the way they did. The people in that area of the United States have been exploited by outsiders for generations. They don't trust people from "outside," they have been "shafted" too many times. Closed in by the mountains, there is an Us against Them mentality, and their lack of trust is well-founded. Deliverance, by James Dickey (the book and the film) is a perfect expression of Appalachian mistrust and resentment towards the big-city interlopers in their midst.

Sean Dunne manages to get behind that mistrust, and get the people of Oceana to open up to him. He interviews an unforgettable husband and wife, who sit on a small bed together, as the husband shoots up, describing his losing battle with brain cancer. He is rail-thin, with an almost debilitating stutter, and yet articulate about his addiction. He needs this stuff. The wife eventually speaks, and the pain that comes out of her is heart-rending. "I never had no self-esteem," she says, "but he loved me for who I was." She says this after he shoots her up.

The people interviewed are well aware of how they must seem to the "outside," and also well aware of the prejudices facing them, not just because of their addiction but because of their accents, and the region of the country they come from. They perceive that city folk, who pride themselves on their tolerance, often do not extend that tolerance to "white trash," who love NASCAR, who work on pickup trucks in their front yards, who speak in thick Southern accents. One person in Oxyana says, "Nobody's gonna care—they think we're inbred pieces of shit."

Photographed with sensitivity by Hillary Spera, Oxyana revels in the beautiful landscape: the camera floats by long rows of houses with tree-covered slopes rising steeply behind, sometimes half-shrouded in fog. Viewing the horrors this town has faced, through Spera's lens, which contrasts the stark beauty and the harsh reality, becomes a work of mourning. You can understand why the dentist in the Motörhead T-shirt doesn't want to leave. The horrors here are real, but so is the beauty, and so is the fact that the rise of "Oxy" occurred in recent memory. Everyone can recall a simpler time. People seem almost baffled at how different it was "back then," only 15 years before.

A mother smokes cigarettes in front of her baby; some of the houses' front yards are piled up with trash. Sean Dunne's empathy takes all of this in. But will the viewer? The people of Oxyana speak for themselves; Dunne is listening, and the community trusts him, so he has gotten under the surface of things. He is their message in a bottle.

But there is work for the audience here. I was thinking about Martin Bell's groundbreaking 1984 film Streetwise while watching this. Bell's film followed a bunch of kids around, kids who were living on the street. Oxyana places the story strictly in the hands of those who are living it, as Bell's did, and as the photography of Mary Ellen Mark, upon which the film was based, did. It can be confrontational material, especially challenging for well-meaning audiences who think they have ready answers. But having them gets in the way of the far richer experience films like Streetwise and Oxyana offer.

Dunne has not made a film about the answers but the problem. It is always helpful to humanize an epidemic and so the faces and the voices that fill the screen act as emissaries from beyond the pale. A mother begs her son to go to rehab, and yet says, "You have to do the work yourself." A drug dealer shows us pictures of his family, slaughtered by his own father for Oxy. A young pregnant woman, in tears, says that she's done things—"things a woman has to do"—to get drugs, and her pain is palpable. The voices proliferate, the stories, the faces, all making an indelible impression, a collage of pain and shock and helplessness. There is an urgency to Oxyana, despite its elegiac pace and calm, sad center. It says, essentially, "Don't just watch the film. Try to see. And don't just 'listen'. But try to hear."

 


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