In Oceana, West Virginia, painkiller addiction is so common that some don’t even call the town by its name anymore. They call it Oxyana.
Filmmaker Sean Dunne – best known for his 2011 short documentary American Juggalo – happened upon the town during a road trip last year and later returned to document the epidemic. His film, Oxyana, tells the story of a once-prosperous mining community disintegrating into poverty, mistrust, and violence. Dunne's respectful interviews and collaborator Hillary Spera's stark cinematography underpin brave and open testimonials from doctors, dealers, addicts, and their families.
In this excerpt, residents describe how far they’ll go to pay for black market pills. And in the interview below, Dunne shares how he decided to film in Oceana and his personal connection to the subject. You can watch the full film on Vimeo On Demand, iTunes, or Amazon.
The Atlantic: Your documentary work often focuses on people at the wayside of society. What drew you to Oceana?
Sean Dunne: I stumbled upon Oceana on a road trip from Virginia to Nashville that I was taking with musician Jonny Fritz. Some of his friends in Virginia suggested stopping there for the night, as it was a popular ATV destination. Once we arrived in the area we spotted a local Juggalo named Jason who told us a little about the area, things to do, etc. At one point he took me aside and started talking about pills, namely Oxycontin. Within 15 minutes he was shooting a pill into his hand. It was absolutely shocking, I’d never seen anything like that. He told us that pills ruled everything in the area and that it had gotten so bad that locals referred to it as Oxyana. We left a day or two later but Jason and this small town's struggle stuck with me. My father had struggled with prescription pill abuse when I was growing up and it destroyed his life. I couldn’t fathom that this was going on in such a concentration in Oceana, so I decided to go back and dig around a little more.
In the film, you're with people in their homes in very intimate moments. How did you get access? And why do you think people opened up to you so quickly?
We wanted the film to be told through the voices of the addicts and those directly affected by the epidemic. That required us to be in intimate, sometimes dangerous scenarios. Access was a concern before we started shooting but once we were there it wasn’t an issue. Word had spread that we were filming in the area so some people were coming to us with their stories. Others we found through friends like Jason or by happenstance. It all felt very natural, nothing was forced. That was important to us and we wanted the film to reflect that. I think their willingness to be so revealing is a testament to how desperate the situation has become in Southern West Virginia. They saw the opportunity to have their voices heard by outsiders and they used it.
How have residents reacted to the film's portrayal of their hometown?
Before we released the film, we were faced with a fair number of skeptics within Oceana. That was understandable and expected considering how sensitive this subject is and the stigma that comes along with it. But once people started to see the film, we started to see a different reaction that surprised us even more: people from the area began to write us and thank us for exposing the issue. And while there are still some from the area who would have preferred us to not make the film in their town, everyone agrees that prescription drug abuse in the area is an epidemic that needs to be addressed.
Are there any updates on the town or the people you interviewed?
Slowly but surely help seems to be on the way. The film helped increase awareness and got the attention of many lawmakers. I think it’s going to take some time before you see real change because there are no easy solutions to a problem like this. Obviously the drug war has failed West Virginia and this country as a whole. Caging drug users seems to do nothing to curb the problem. It’s going to take some big ideas and outside the box thinking to ultimately solve an issue this widespread and that doesn’t happen overnight.
Some of our interviewees have gotten cleaned up, some have spiraled worse out of control. It’s very hard to keep in touch with them, as many don’t have phones or steady addresses. We hear things from time to time but it’s hard to decipher between small town gossip and reality when you’re not actually there.
What are you working on next?
My next feature documentary is called Cam Girlz. It’s about women who make their living doing sex shows on the internet from the comfort and safety of their own homes. It’s such a fascinating little community, so many issues at play. Expect that sometime next year.
For more films by Sean Dunne, visit http://veryapeproductions.com/.