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A Hard Film to Swallow

The anti-drug documentary that West Virginians refuse to watch


The past few weeks have seen the openings of summer blockbusters like The Lone Ranger and World War Z, but in Oceana, West Virginia, the summer’s most anticipated film didn’t premiere in any local theaters. Ever since the trailer for Oxyana, a documentary about Oceana,went online this spring, the town’s residents have anxiously awaited the full-length film. They read the rave reviews from the Tribeca Film Festival, where the film’s director, Sean Dunne, was named best new documentary director; they skimmed his interviews, where he promised “a very dark portrait.” On July 1, the film finally became available for $3.99 on Vimeo, and something odd happened: Few people watched it.

“Everyone I’ve talked to would like to see it but they don’t want [Dunne] to make money from it so they haven’t seen it yet,” said Jim Cook, an Oceana councilman. “They hate the thought of him making money out of their curiosity.”

Their sensitivity to the film is not surprising, given its specific subject: Oxyana seeks to capture the ravages of prescription drug addiction in Oceana, a town of 1,370 deep in impoverished coal country, not far from the Kentucky border. The Brooklyn-based Dunne had previously made a short documentary, American Juggalo, about the subculture of rabid fans of the Insane Clown Posse. On a roadtrip to Nashville, he met a young Juggalo in Oceana who was a prescription painkiller addict. Dunne started asking around and learning just how bad the opioid abuse problem was in the area—Wyoming County, population 23,200, had the state’s highest rate of fatal overdoses in 2011, and Oceana had acquired the moniker of Oxyana, after Oxycontin, the pain reliever dubbed “hillbilly heroin” for its widespread abuse in Appalachia.

Dunne, a Hudson Valley native whose father abused prescription painkillers, funded Oxyana on Kickstarter, and spent three weeks filming it last summer. “It’s fucking insane down there,” he told me recently. “This is what America looks like when the bullshit of the American dream has been exposed.”

Locals were aware that something was up. It was hard to miss the car rolling slowly through town with the camera on top. But they were nonetheless unprepared for the film’s teaser trailer—a succession of foreboding images from their town and its surroundings (bonfire, trailer park, pregnant girl), laid over a mournful soundtrack and culminating in an extended shot of a man preparing to shoot up and then injecting himself in the hand. The promotional language on the official Web site was equally melodramatic: Oceana, it read, was “closer in kind to the world of a medieval plague,” where “men and women die epidemically,” where addicts are “the vast majority” and “sell, scramble and steal in an economy of nigh-end times desperation,” and where “everyone looks twice their own age and is unable to imagine an existence outside of coal, subsidies and prescription narcotics.”

A cultural clash was born: hipsters versus hillbillies (with all the qualifiers those facile stereotypes may require), Acela Corridor versus Appalachia. But what the film has touched off is a bit more nuanced than that. West Virginia has an undeniable drug problem: Its rate of fatal prescription painkiller overdoses is more than twice the national average, just below nation-leading New Mexico. Overall, the national rate of fatal painkiller overdoses has tripled in the past decade, with an especially sharp increase among women.

With numbers that stark, the overwhelming reaction to the film in Oceana–some 200 people turned out for a meeting about it in late May—has not consisted only of the proud defensiveness one might expect. There’s been plenty of that, but it’s been mixed with resolute self-scrutiny, which I witnessed firsthand on a recent visit to the area. Meanwhile, Dunne has adopted an increasingly ambivalent stance of his own, fending off criticisms of the accuracy of his depiction of the town by backing away from the documentarian’s usual claims to verisimilitude.

Oxyana’s promotional hype didn’t go over well with two men in particular—Cook, the town councilman, and D.J. Morgan, a 36-year-old defense lawyer and son of a retired miner. Together, they started up an anti-Oxyana Facebook page that has, with more than 700 followers, become the epicenter of the local response. I first heard of their effort when I ran into Morgan at an April town hall meeting held by Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, at the Wyoming County courthouse in Pineville, just up the road from Oceana. Morgan sprang up to tell Manchin about the film and how upset people were about it and to ask if there was anything Manchin could to push back at it. Manchin recalled his own outrage at the caricature of young West Virginians in last year’s MTV reality show “Buckwild.” “The First Amendment gives you the right of free speech, but that doesn’t give you that right to portray something that wasn’t true,” Manchin said.

But at that meeting, it was plain that local ire over the film was going to be paired with frank acknowledgment of the region’s prescription drug problem. Of all the issues that came up at that town hall meeting—the gun control legislation Manchin had co-sponsored, the Obama administration’s anti-coal policies—none was the subject of as much concern as drug abuse. Residents told Manchin about local doctors who ranked near the top on national rankings for writing painkiller prescriptions and others across state lines, as far away as Harrisonburg, Virginia, who were notorious for supplying local addicts. Others talked about the dearth of treatment options—the nearest methadone clinic is an hour away, and even Suboxone, a medication that helps eliminate opiate cravings and is harder to abuse than methadone, is difficult to come by. The county sheriff implored Manchin to push for requiring pharmacists to keep records of cash sales of painkillers. Manchin, who was well-informed on the addiction problem, gave a report on his effort to get certain painkillers reclassified, which would impose limits on sales.

The mix of outrage and honesty carried over to the big May 31 meeting that Morgan and Cook organized a few weeks later at Oceana Middle School to discuss the impending film. It was a big turnout, and among the 200-plus in attendance were Manchin, Democratic Congressman Nick Rahall, the U.S. attorney for West Virginia, and a Drug Enforcement Agency official. There were declamations against the film—“The Oceana that Mr. Dunne has dreamed up doesn’t look anything like the Oceana I know,” said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. But the condemnations were mixed with open admission that the area really did have a big problem, and discussions of possible solutions. In the weeks since, Cook and Morgan have raised $1,000 to reserve a drug-sniffing dog for the town police department, and have started talks with state police and legislators about proposing a new statewide law criminalizing drug paraphernalia possession.

When I checked back with Morgan after the big meeting, he had mellowed a bit about the film. What bothered him, he said, was not so much that Dunne had shone a spotlight on an obvious problem but that, judging on the promotional materials, he had felt the need to be so over the top. “I hate to label media outlets, because there’ve been outsiders that have come in and done really good pieces in Appalachia,” Morgan said. “But there’s a feeling that he came in for three weeks, and, well, if you have me any neighborhood in America to shoot a documentary in for three weeks, I can make that neighborhood look as good or as bad as I want, and he chose to portray our community as bad as he could.”

The residents’ entreaties for an early glimpse of the film were rebuffed by Dunne, but I was granted a look a few weeks ago. It opens gradually with haunting shots of the striking landscape surrounding the town—fog-draped hills and plunging hollows—and then moves into a relentless string of testimonials by local residents about the painkiller epidemic, with no editorial voiceover or commentary by experts. A few subjects are sober town-father types, such as a local dentist. But most are addicts and former addicts, many seemingly high, some shooting up on camera. There is a man interviewed under the bridge where he used to live with his addicted wife; there is an addict with cancer shooting up himself and his obese wife; there is an addict who is pregnant and another with a little girl in diapers; there is a man who started using and dealing after his addicted father wiped out the rest of his family in a murder-suicide. Sober or high, the interviewees declare the town beyond hope: “Ain’t nothing but junkies and hookers hanging out on the streets.” “Just about everyone here’s on dope.” “If you don’t see someone getting up in the morning to go to work, they’re selling drugs.” “Half of my graduating class is dead and I’m just 23.” “It wasn’t for drugs in this town, there would be no town.”

It is, as the promotional materials promised, a hellscape, one that little resembles the bedraggled but not blasted town I passed through on my April visit, a typical deep-Appalachian strip with a Bible bookstore and a medical supply shop and a WIC office and car repair shops and a foot and ankle clinic and a sign advertising for foster parents and another identifying the Afghanistan veteran for whom a small bridge has been named and an AT&T outlet store with the Kindle Fire on sale and, yes, a couple of pharmacies.

Of course, an AT&T store isn’t exactly material for a documentary film. And it’s pretty common for the subjects of documentary films to take issue with their depiction. But part of what makes the controversy around Oxyana unique is the odd position that Dunne has staked while defending it. What the film depicts is not Oceana, he told me. “What a lot of people are misinterpreting is that to me, Oxyana and Oceana are different places. Oxyana is a fleeting type of place, a place of drug addicts. [Oceana] can take that on as their image or distance themselves from Oxyana or they can embrace it and help it.” Again: “In my mind, they are two different things. There’s a very functioning society of coal miners and teachers and great high school sports. But then there’s this thick lingering black cloud and that’s what the film is about.” He took a similar line in interviews he started doing with West Virginia papers: “‘Oxyana’ director says film should not be taken as fact or fiction,” was the Charleston Daily Mail headline.

The problem is that the film has most certainly not been framed as portraying something other than Oceana. In bold letters, its website still reads: “A portrait of Oceana, WV, an old coal mining town that has become the epicenter of the Oxycontin epidemic, earning the nickname Oxyana.” And the Oceana the film offers up includes precious few of the “coal miners and teachers and great high school sports”; nor much on the law enforcement, pharmacological and treatment efforts that for years now have struggled to keep up with the abuse problem (there is only a passing, opaque reference to the curative potential of Suboxone); nor much on the economic forces that have helped give rise to addiction, such as the recent efforts by the dominant local coal company to slash the health benefits of retired miners.

When I asked Dunne about the lack of local context in his depiction of the rampant  addiction, he said it was a conscious decision on his part, to “let this piece be a voice of the people struggling with this disease and are affected by it in some way.” He added: “I thought it would be a little unfair of me to get in there and editorialize … This puts a face on the problem—I didn’t want to interrupt it with a bunch of facts and statistics.”

This is Dunne’s prerogative as a filmmaker. But the unmediated approach, while giving voice to his chosen subjects, runs the risk of short-changing the viewer. By pulling the lens in so narrowly, Dunne deprives us of a sense of what it is that the Oxyana netherworld actually threatens. It is harder for us to take seriously Dunne’s critique of what we’ve allowed to happen in places like Oceana when it’s so divorced from the reality of the place it depicts. We might fear the Oxyana realm more if we saw how it coexisted with the more familiar Oceana. But instead of being presented with a place, we’ve been presented with a subculture, and there is a crucial distinction between the two.

Dunne is hardly the first to grapple with this challenge. Portraying people and places at the outer edge of despair is a fraught enterprise—finding the line between exposing wrong and suffering without wallowing in it. “Oxyana” is, in a sense, the Appalachian version of the ruin porn we’ve become used to from cities like Detroit. To just toss the images out there, one after another, without sufficient context and perspective, as Dunne has done with the broken people he found in Wyoming County, can start to look awfully gratuitous.

While so many Oceana residents have steered clear of the film—some don’t even have the Internet connections to access it, and talk of a screening in town has come to naught—Morgan did bring himself to sit down one night last week with his girlfriend and click on the $3.99 rental. It was, as he expected, “pretty heavy stuff,” and he recognized some of the people offered up as examples of the epidemic’s toll. But he was left feeling less aggrieved about the portrayal of his town than that it had simply not been portrayed. “It was a lot less focused on the town than what I thought it would be,” he said. Which made him wonder what the point of it all had been. “He says you can’t treat it as fact or fiction, but then how can you treat it as a documentary?” he said. “We’ve known for years that there’s a documentary to be told about the prescription drug problem in our part of the country. Heck, there’s room for five of them. But when you do it, you’ve got to do it in a way that fits with the people who are addicted and fits with the area and community you go and meet with.”

That said, he didn’t begrudge Dunne the effort. “It’s his thing to make money off of. The only thing about America that still makes it go is go-getters like him.”

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.