By Gary M. Kramer.
One of the best documentaries at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival was director Sean Dunne’s Oxyana, a strong and searing film about an epidemic of addiction. Showcasing 18 residents of Oceana, a West Virginian town crippled by Oxycontin drug dependency, the film features lyrical shots of the town and the locals. Some interviewees talk at first about Oceana being a great place to grow up and/or raise children. However, now most folks are scared, distrustful, and depressed. This once tight-knit coal mining community is facing an unending number of drug users who either become numb to combat pain or are numb to the pain they are causing their families and loved ones.
The stories are painful but gripping—from Bob, a man with a brain tumor, to a young woman who lost her husband to jail, her car to repossession, and her child to social services. Other interviews show how drugs have made individuals who live with pain functional. However, the most devastating tale is of a young man who lost his family because of pills. The images are tough—guys shooting up—and tender—a mother trying to coax her son into rehab—but they all have an undeniable power that is respectful, never exploitative, and always heartbreaking.
Film International met with director Sean Dunne and one of the film’s interview subjects, Oceana dentist Michael Moore, to talk about Oxyana.
GMK: Sean, what was your criteria for the people who you interviewed for your film?
SD: They had to be from the area and have some perspective on [the topic]—which everyone there did. As Mike says in the film, there’s no one who’s not affected by this. It doesn’t discriminate, and anyone you ask was either on the drug themselves or had a family member who was.
GMK: You display a remarkable affinity for showcasing the underbelly of American society here and in your previous short, American Juggalo. Can you explain why?
SD: It wasn’t a conscious thing—it’s the type of subject matter that I’m drawn to. I’m drawn to stripped-down honesty, and you tend to find that a lot on the fringes.
GMK: What is your background as a filmmaker?
SD: I’ve been making these films for five years, and before that I watched a lot of documentaries in school. But I never did any hands-on film school training. I worked at the History Channel for a while, and did 30-second spots, and graduated to commercials. I went to telling 30 second to 2 minute shorts, and built up to shorts that were 7 minutes. They gradually became bigger stories, and I got better at telling bigger stories. When I came across this place [Oceana]—it spoke to me in a personal way—and appealed to all of my filmmaking senses. It was the perfect candidate for my first feature.
GMK: Why did it speak to you?
SD: I grew up with my father struggling with prescription pill abuse. It went from recreational, to consuming his whole life, to where he spent 14 months in prison. It was a tough time seeing how that can take a life from someone. He got clean 5 or 6 years ago, and I had some unresolved issues with that ordeal. I’ll never forget going to Oceana the first time and being totally captivated by the beauty of this place as we pulled in, and when I got out of the car, having that feeling of what life was like when my dad was all fucked up. It just sat in the pit of [my] stomach, this anxiousness. So it spoke to me on a personal level. The natural beauty and the cinematic quality of this place—I don’t think is often captured, or captured in this way.
GMK: Given that, how painful was it to shoot Oxyana?
SD: It is painful when you become friends with these people, and get to know them, and you see them hurting themselves on this daily basis. But you become a little desensitized to it. It’s so ingrained in the culture down there—it was such a part of the everyday life, and seeing these drugs, and seeing people do these drugs, it becomes second nature after a while. But all that went away when we edited, and that was really where most of the tears were shed. You really have to delve into and think about these stories and picture them and how they work in the overall film.
GMK: How did you construct the film—how people live and the beauty of it?
SD: It can be a visceral journey. You had to immerse people in this place. The first act was to introduce the place—the natural beauty and the people, and this problem, and the history behind it. Act two gets into their personal lives a bit more, and shows their family members and how they are all connected. Act three is the epilogue for the film—the future—what these people’s lives might look like five or ten years from now.
GMK: Why tell the story so conventionally?
SD: We’re doing so many other things unconventionally in terms of not feeding information to the audience in a traditional way. This was an instinctual way that felt right for this story to unfold.
GMK: The narrative is a bit like how drugs manifest themselves in people—it feels good, then better, then worse, then really worse…
SD: Visually, in our first montage, all of the shots are moving into the town and getting into this problem. Our last montage is pulling back, giving you a second to digest and take this in. So there was a lot of attention paid to how the story would unfold, almost mimicking the use of this drug.
GMK: Was that your original intention, or did your focus change during filming?
SD: I wanted to make a portrait of this place, and I wanted to do it in an artistic way. It was wise to do something less informational and more immersive. We’re putting a face on this issue. We’re seeing these people and watching the struggle. That’s the stuff that sticks with you—not such and such percentage of this town is hooked and graphs and animations. That’s not the kind of stuff that sticks with an audience. This is the type of film that sticks with you one or two days later. You’re picturing these people—those images that maybe make a difference in the way of thinking towards these people; they are human beings, too.
GMK: What person or image stuck with you the most?
SD: James. He was the guy who, when we interviewed him, we said, “We have a film here.” Having gained so much more knowledge of this place, and the people and the depths of this problem, he was the one that really represented how bad shit could get. Jason is another one—we have a relationship with him—and Bob and Shadow—my heart breaks for them. It’s hard to rank them. To me, each story is worse than the previous one.
GMK: Yes, James’ testimony is disturbing, but Shadow’s story stuck with me most.
SD: With Shadow—beyond what she was saying—there was so much else you can deduce from what was going on there. Her insecurities, seeing her barely able to read, etcetera. You think, “What’s the situation that created a person like this?” Then she starts taking about how her mother’s always hated her. You start to really sympathize with her—this is a person who was disregarded throughout her entire life. It breaks your heart. It’s a love story in a weird way.
GMK: I like that you don’t identify a single cause—or solution—to the problem. But what do you think about the escalating situation?
SD: Everyone emphasizes the boredom factor. That’s a convenient excuse, but it plays a role. Everyone [in the film] says, “We don’t have a movie theatre.” The drug problem is ingrained, almost, sadly to the point of pride. People brag to us that they were the first to bring Oxycontin to the area. I don’t try to offer easy solutions, because there are no easy solutions. That would have been really making a bold step for a documentary filmmaker to try to solve all of the world’s problems. I wanted to put a face on the issue. This is the beginning of people learning about this. Maybe the film that answers all this is two, three or five years down the line.
The interview switches over to Mike Moore…
GMK: You talk in the film about extracting 2,000 teeth. Is it the drugs that are causing people to lose teeth, or are people losing teeth to get drugs?
MM: It’s a combination of both. When I first went into practice, I was young and naive and taken advantage of. People would come in and want teeth taken out, they had small cavities, and they wanted pain medication. But it didn’t take long for me to put two and two together and figure it out. Shortly after that, I put an end to it. I write little to no pain medication [now] whatsoever. When people come in to get an extraction—and word travels through the community pretty quick—I’ll take it out, but they’re not going to get medication.
GMK: Does Oxycontin destroy teeth?
MM: Oxycontin and narcotics in general destroy their teeth because people just quit taking care of them. It’s not like meth, where the actual smoking of the meth has this huge impact on their teeth. I’ll see people who, by my estimation, have not brushed their teeth in months. It’s just covered with food and plaque.
GMK: You seem heroic for staying in the community and having a non-tolerance policy towards drugs. What makes you stay in Oceana?
MM: I love it there. It’s my wife’s hometown—she’s also a dentist—and we practice together. Another interviewer asked, “If there’s such hopelessness there, why don’t people just leave?” and I think that one reason is that there’s something about mountain people. We’re drawn to the area, we’re drawn to our families. We feel this intense ownership of the value of community there. My deal is, if I’m not going to stay there and make a difference, who is?
SD: The thought of Mike leaving that area is pretty scary. Not only is he a pillar of the community in making himself available, but he talks to everyone there. Eventually, they are going to have a hot tooth and they are going to have to deal with him.
GMK: What sign indicated the severity of the problem in Oceana?
MM: It’s people dying. For me, it first hit home—we had been in Oceana three years—and one of my best friends, his little brother who was 18 died of an overdose. So, you see people dying, and you see in our office, people would come in with no teeth and have a sore spot from their dentures and want [medication]. I know when people come in and are jonesing, and going through withdrawal. They are sweating and white and not talking about their tooth, but the pills. We have a small town and if you have a prostitution problem, it’s not because everybody’s horny.
GMK Did you know all the interviewees in the film?
MM: I know who all of the people are in the film. Some of them I know better than others. All but two or three have been patients in my office at some point in the past 15 years. I made a couple of recommendations [to Sean] about whom he should talk to.
GMK: You are the voice of reason in the film. What can you say about that responsibility?
MM: There are a lot of people in our community who heard there was a film being made and thought, “We don’t have a problem.” They are moving in circles that never encounter it, and they never step outside that circle. I don’t have that luxury. Everyone with a toothache, I get this far from their nose. I have to deal with them. It’s right there for me. I’m hoping that some people from my community say, “That’s us. There is a problem.” I think some of the anger and indignation about the film was that there were so many people who think we’re no different than any other small community; we’re not that bad here. And there have been a lot of us ringing this bell and saying, “It’s bad, it’s bad! Look around!” I live it every day, but to see this on the big screen was difficult for me. It was necessary, but difficult. I hope other people in the community also have a wake up moment when they can see it.
GMK: Do you think there is a solution to the problem?
MM: I think it depends on what you define as a solution. I have one of my daughters’ friends living with us. His family has completely fallen apart. I’m in his ear every day. He’s not on pills now, but he could be next week if left to his own devices. If I get him through high school and get him into community college somewhere, and keep up a relationship with him and he doesn’t get on pills: that’s one for the good guys. For me, success is we get more and more people to build relationships and keep them from going the wrong way. To say we’re going to start this program, and this treatment center and BAM! it’s going to go away? It isn’t going to happen. It’s going to take a whole group of people who are going to commit to this person or that person. I’ve seen it happen, it just needs to happen more. Every time I write a prescription, I say to myself, “Is this a pill that goes through two or three people and ends up in my daughter’s hands as her first experience with narcotics?” That tends to make me write a lot less.
SD: That’s a really responsible way to think about it. This isn’t a “throw money at it” type of issue. Throwing money at it might make it worse. The money in the community now is cycling through that whole underground economy.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.