Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Shocking Turn From Oceana to Oxyana

TriBeCa Film Festival

A Shocking Turn From Oceana to Oxyana

5/21/13


I was born in Philippi, West Virginia and though my family moved out of the state when I was three I have always proudly considered myself a Mountaineer and endured a lifetime of hillbilly and in-breeding jokes. Naturally, I have eagerly sought out and championed the best documentaries about West Virginia.  Oxyana, the impressive debut feature of Sean Dunne, whose shorts earned him the sobriquet, "Master of Fringe Cinema," is something quite different from anything I've seen.  It's set in Oceana, in the southern part of the state and a long way from my birthplace up north.  Apparently, the once flourishing Appalachian coal town has become the epicenter of a drug epidemic that has affected an entire generation of people there--those who aren't dead already are addicted to the prescription painkiller OxyContin and, unless something can be done, are on a rocky path to a tragic end. The town we discover in the movie is characterized by high unemployment, crime (to pay for drugs), and, as we learn from the many jarring interviews with addicts and other residents, despair.  Who knew?  As Dunne cautions, epidemics spread and much of America is headed in the same direction.  At the recent TriBeCa Film Festival I spoke to the personable Dunne (left in photo) and one of his non-addict and most admirable interviewees, Dr. Mike Moore, who is looking for ways to save his town from the drug scourge when no one else seems to care.
Sean Dunne (L) and Dr. Mike Moore  Photo: DP
Danny Peary: Although I was born in West Virginia, I never knew about Oceana, so this documentary is quite startling.  Typically, West Virginia documentaries are about coal.
Sean Dunne: In a way, this movie is about coal. One person we spoke to made an astute observation: "Oceana is one EPA regulation away from being not existing." That’s really a depressing thought but everything in this town does teeter on that, and it’s a time in history when the town is going away.
DP: In your film. someone laments that no one cares what's happening in Oceana.  Is that because it's West Virginia?
SD: I think it’s more of a class thing, sadly. I think in this country people don’t want to think about the struggles of these small, poorer communities. It’s a problem. I think a lot of people would prefer to ignore that.  I think it has less to do with West Virginia in particular, because I think if this film shows anything it’s that this OxyContin epidemic doesn’t discriminate, and it’s going on in a lot of small towns in a lot of different states like Kentucky. We've heard a lot of people say, "My town's exactly like that."  
DP: All my life I've told people I was born in West Virginia and some would say, "Where's that?"  I'd say, "Next to Virginia." Mike, do you experience stuff like that?
Mike Moore: Oh sure, all the time. I'll say where I'm from and they'll say they know someone in Virginia.  I’m like, "I did say West Virginia, it’s a different state."
DP: Indifference is a theme of this movie. While taking on this subject, Sean, were you already thinking that some people will be affected by my movie but I'm up against obstacles that are too much for me 
SD:  Exactly. I had this experience with a couple of the short films I made, especially the one I made right before this, called American Juggalo. It was kind of a sympathetic view of this culture that has been demonized in the press, and we still get people commenting: "Let’s just drop a nuclear bomb on that place and get rid of those people."  There’s going to be some similar reactions to this film, I can tell you already.  Some people will just want to wipe out Oceana so they don’t have to have to think about it again. What I’m trying to do here is humanize the issue, put a face on it.
DP: I kept thinking of the decline of western civilization. Is that what goes through your mind?
SD: Yes. When I began the film and was thinking about its themes, what kept coming into my head was how what's going on in Oceana is post-American Dream, post-hope, almost. This is what that looks like. Mike articulates it very well in the film about that Appalachian fatalism. But I think it’s even bigger than that. I think it speaks to our whole country, and the times we’re all going through right now.  This is what this country does look like after the American Dream, which we realize is bullshit.
DP: Had the people you focus on in your movie, particularly those addicted to OxyContin, already told their stories to other people?
SD: I didn’t get the sense that they had.  We spent only four weeks there and we interviewed a ton of people. They were coming to us. I felt there was a sense of urgency because they hadn’t told these stories before. And like Mike says, it’s not spoken about down there. That was something I didn’t realize because they were very open and honest with us about it. It’s interesting, the outsider’s perspective.
DP: Mike, where do you live now?
MM: I still live in Oceana.
DP: There are only 1,300 people there, so everyone knows everybody else, so who are they committing crimes against to pay for their drug dependency?  Are they breaking into each other’s houses?
MM: Well, as you say, everyone knows everyone, so if they're stealing from somebody they’re stealing from somebody they know, including their families. It’s the strangest little contradiction of a little town.  My car stays locked in my own garage, and locked everywhere I go. I tell people who visit me that if they go to the 7-11 or somewhere else, that if they want to keep anything in their car, they have to lock it. I guarantee that when they leave the car, someone is going to test the door to see if it's unlocked. They go what? I say, "That's just the way it is here. Petty theft is just a way of life.
DP: Don't the cops know who the criminal is every time?
MM: They do but our law enforcement is overwhelmed.  A lot of times when somebody’s GPS is stolen, they spend two hours working on that while some other crime, maybe a drug deal, is going on elsewhere in town.
SD: They don’t have the resources to deal with the amount of crime that goes on there.
DP: So every story needs a villain.  Are the doctors who flooded the town with overly-prescribed OxyContin so they could make big profits the villain of this movie?
MM: I think the villain of the piece is a multi-headed monster. I think it started with doctors and pharmaceutical companies that pushed OxyContin as the next best great pain medication, and soon everybody who tried it got hooked. We had a fly-by-night doctor that actually came into our town. There was a clinic that got set up right on the main street in our town. This was probably in 2002.
SD: I never heard about that..
MM: It was a little house that sat between a small hotel and another building. They set up two exam rooms.  They had no waiting room so people waited in a line outside. I think it was $95 cash for your exam and everybody walked out of there with a prescription for OxyContin, if they had PMS or whatever.  That doctor was there for only about 6 months before so many people were dying that he was run out of town.  He just moved to the next town. That's part of the story of what is happening today. There’s no simple answer for who or what the villain is. The villain is probably just the fact that the addiction is so severe that once it gets hold of people there's nothing they can do.


                   The addicted

DP: When you talk to a homeless person in most towns, you might give them some money or food or suggest they go to a shelter, and you feel you helped a little. But talking to these addicts in Oceana, did you just feel helpless?
SD: In a way.  Beyond giving them a "hang-in-there"-type message, I really didn’t know how to give them practical advice, because if they could help themselves a lot of them probably would have. But the fact of the matter is that the help they need is just not there. For them it's a choice between trying to figure out how to get into rehab three hours away or taking a pill and feeling a little better right away. It's not like these people are high, because most of the people we spoke to weren't high. They’re maintaining, and that is what results in all the crime and prostitution.
DP: One young woman uses the word "high."  She says it takes her $600 to $800 a day.
SD: Yeah, to get high per day, but just for maintenance costs her $100 to $200 a day.
DP: That's still a lot of money. Are there a lot of people on welfare in town?
SD: You see a lot of people working the system, but that’s really not enough to pay for the drugs.  Sadly, three girls that are in the film admit they've done prostitution
DP: One woman contends, "I don’t abuse my medication." Was she telling the truth?
SD: It’s a big part of the issue–people not necessarily understanding [the danger of their own circumstances].  They tell themselves it's okay because their painkillers were prescribed by a doctor. It's an excuse that perpetuates the problem, and it also speaks to the mis-education about drugs in general. "Taking OxyContin like you’re supposed to." But who is really supposed to take it?  End-stage cancer patients, not a perfectly healthy 26-year-old mother or someone who is pregnant.
DP: Seeing the graveyard in the movie, where so many young fatalities are buried is really a powerful image for us outsiders. What about insiders?
MM: It is a powerful image, especially in the context that it is shown in the film. Because too many people that I personally knew are buried there because of OxyContin.
SD: It’s a really stark reminder, seeing the years of the deaths on the graves.   This is something that’s happened over just the past 10 or 12 years. This was a flourishing community.

DP: Coal mines still exist there but is the industry dwindling down?
MM: The coal industry is so cyclical.  In ’97, when I first went to Oceana, miners who were 45 or 50 years were being laid off because the mines weren't commercially viable.. But by 2002, any able-boded 18-year-old who could pass a drug test could get a job immediately making 65K. The price of coal went through the roof, and they could afford to open the mines. Just about then OxyContin came to town.  So there was all this money and drugs in town at the same time.  It was a lethal combination.
SD: And there was no education about what these drugs were. People did them recreationally, not realizing they could become severely addictive, very quickly.
DP: It seemed like part of the reason everybody started is that there was absolutely nothing to do in this town.  But why did they take a painkiller recreationally instead of marijuana?
SD: Because you didn't really come across weed down there. Also, if you were caught with weed, instead of a prescribed drug, you were going to prison for a long time. They’ll put people away for fifteen years for dealing a little bit of pot.
MM: One of the biggest things is that people had recreationally used other narcotics, so to them OxyContin was just another pill. But in truth, it’s probably more than ten times as addictive as the other pills they took. They didn’t understand that they were getting ready to wrestle with a dragon instead of a little lizard. And it got hold of so many people all at once.
DP: One of the males in the movie mentions that the War on Drugs isn't working. Does that pertain to what's going on in Oceana?
SD: When he said that, it kind of came out of nowhere. I didn’t understand why he went there.  But I think it does kind of pertain to this area, in the sense that a lot of people are getting locked up, and people getting locked up takes fathers and young men and women away from their families.  That's a big part of the problem.  


DP: In the film Mike says there are no solutions, right?
SD: He says there are no easy solutions. It’s going to take a multi-faceted approach, but it’s really going to be about one-on-ones, somebody taking responsibility for another human life.
DP: Mike, if what Sean says is true, what’s the first step?
MM: I think the first step is for as many individuals as possible to get engaged with one or two at-risk or people who are using.  Face-to-face, a day-in, day-out relationship. For them to say, "I love you, I care about you; don’t do that, do this."
DP: Like the middle-aged mother does with her adult son who is addicted?
MM: Yes, exactly like that. Many of these people don't have a mom or anybody who will ever express any love to them, or give them good advice or anything. They’re in a culture where the best advice is, I know where you can get a pill cheaper. In Oceana there’s a huge split between the addicts and the non-addicts in the community. They stay away from each other. And that has to change. There has to be a way that relationships can be formed so that people who have even a little desire to be helped can be helped by someone on the outside who cares.
DP: Does tough-love work, with ex-druggies straightening out young addicts?
MM: I think maybe in certain situations…
SD: There’s no scared straight down there, especially if you just watched your sister die yet you’re still doing drugs yourself.
DP: And OxyContin is a drug you can’t get away from.
SD: The second you try to put it down cold turkey without professional help, you’re going through withdrawal. I think what culturally needs to change, not only down there but everywhere, is the judgment. We have to stop judging these people as if they’re less than human beings. Just because you’re doing drugs does not mean you’re a horrible person. They may have done some horrible things to continue their habits, but we're dealing with other human beings and that opens up a world of possibilities.
DP: That means bringing in outsiders.
SD: Not necessarily. It can start with a film like this and it can start with people saying, "Hey, Jesse lives under the bridge and has killed two people, but I’m going to go down there and help him out, like Mike has." It’d a bold move.
DP: When you say there is a division between the people who take the drug and the people who don’t, is it disdain?
MM: It’s extreme disdain on the part of the non-addicts. It’s an extremely judgmental place. It’s a highly dogmatic religious area, and a lot of the judgment comes from that, where people feel like they’re on the high horse and point their fingers. There’s a very complex attitude shift that needs to take place. There are actually churches in the area that are working on this kind of attitude shift, but they're in the minority.
SD: It's not in the film but someone said, There's all this talk about the drug culture in Oceana but that there is no longer a drug culture.  That is the culture. We’re all one here. We’re all in this together, it’s our brothers and sisters. It transcends drug culture.
MM: It’s going to take people, one by one, to change their attitudes and try to make a difference.
DP: About the guy under the bridge. When somebody tells you on camera that he killed two people, as a documentary filmmaker, how do you react?
SD: We had hard rumors that he'd done it, but down there you don't know what to believe. Someone will say something bad about everyone in town. And we heard awful things about this guy that we saw riding a bike all the time. He was an intimidating-looking guy, and eventually Cass Greener, my girlfriend and producer, just went up to him and said, "Would you be willing to talk to us?"  He said he’d love to tell his story. He said he'd killed people so matter-of-factly that it shell-shocked me in a way. It almost intimidated me to not ask follow-up questions. He described what happened. He said, "I’ve never hurt nobody, I’ll outsmart ya!"  You never hurt anybody? You killed two people!  As a documentarian, for someone in passing to say that he murdered two people is so fascinating. What have you been doing with your life if that come up in just a casual conversation?
DP: You’re getting to like this guy and then he says what he's done.
SD: And you still like him. And Mike, knowing this guy has murdered two people, still goes under that bridge and says, "How can I help you out?" That’s where it starts, with people like him.
DP: Mike, where did you fit in? What did people think of you?
MM: I grew up in central West Virginia, but my wife is from Oceana. I came there sixteen years ago as an outsider.  I would say a lot of people have probably forgotten that I’m not from there, now. I’m considered to be pretty much a native of Oceana. I think I fit in very well. We made the decision when we went there that we were going be part of the community. Now it would be very easy for us to leave. It would probably be financially rewarding for us to leave where we are.
DP: But you love the people there and stay.
MM: I love the town, I love the people. If I felt like I wasn’t fully part of the community, we probably would have left it already, but I feel like I am. And I really feel that if I’m not willing to stay and try to make a difference, then who’s willing to do that?
DP: I googled Oceana and barely anything comes up.  But there were a couple of assistant manager jobs in stores that haven't been filled.
SD: A Tudor’s Biscuit World opened there and it couldn’t fill the positions that they needed to fill because nobody could pass the drug test. Unemployment is rampant there.
MM: They built a federal prison less than 20 miles from Oceana, with three hundred federal-level jobs, starting out at about 45K.  And the people who resided in local counties had a leg up on everyone else getting those jobs.  But they were able to fill only about forty of those three hundred positions, because they were the only ones who passed the drug test, a written test, and a credit check.
DP: What is Oceana’s reputation in the state?  Is it looked down on, or are people worried this is going to be us in a couple of years?
MM: I think in certain ways it’s looked down on.  A lot of people know the reputation of Oceana, "the drug epicenter of southern West Virginia." The strange thing is if you ask people about Oceana statewide, they’ll probably tell you a couple of things. They’ll talk about the drug use and they’ll probably also talk about high school sports, because our county has lots of state basketball and football high school championships. The community is very involved with high school sports. It's a very strange that these are the two things to be known for.
DP: Sean, when you first drove through the area and saw Oceana, did you think it would be a good topic for a documentary?
SD: Yeah, it kind of spoke to me. I’m from an hour north of New York City, in Peekskill, New York. Having a family member struggle with a similar addiction, it spoke to me personally.  Also, cinematically.  There was no denying that this place was absolutely beautiful and you’d want to photograph it anyway. So in every way it spoke to me as a filmmaker. This was a story that deserved to be told in the way that I tell stories.  That meant I didn't want to try to show my sympathy for the characters, but to be more hands-off while letting them have their voices.  It was not going to be me going there with my agenda and my message and trying to force it on others.
DP: And you were welcome there?
SD: Kind of.  It was a little bit of a roller coaster ride.  There was a large number of people who really didn’t like us being there, but I hope that if they see the film they’ll understand what we were doing.
DP: Are you going to show it there?
SD: I don’t know. There's no movie theater.
MM: I have friends who are still upset with me for participating. They have pride about their hometown and they don’t want some national airing of their dirty laundry. I feel just the opposite about it.
DP: It’s kind of a hopeful film.
MM: If you don’t shed light on the problem, the problem is never going to be faced. So it’s just one of those kind of deals where you just have to say, "You know I love you and I hate it that you’re upset with me, but I had to go with my conviction on this."  I trusted Sean.
DP: Why did you trust him?
MM: I think initially I trusted him because I looked at his previous films. And I saw how he portrayed people.  And then I met him. I sat down and talked to him for 15 minutes. I’m a gut-feeling kind of guy and I walked out of the room and told my wife, "I trust him." That was that.
DP: Sean, I’m sure you’ve already wondered what’s going to happen in the next five years. You'll want to see it then, is that true?
SD: I’m so ingrained in it now. This all just happened.  We decided to make this film only a year ago. It’s hard to project.  Would it make sense to do a follow-up or check in again five years from now. I would love to, especially if there was a story there, but unfortunately a lot of those people I spoke to aren’t going to be around. We’re already hearing about people that we interviewed, who didn’t necessarily make it into the film, that have already died, or are in jail, or have left the county. That little girl is in foster care. Her mom is a stripper now in another county, she tried to kill the father while we were there. Left him for dead, with a stab wound. It’s almost as if we went there to make the same film today, none of people we talked to would be there besides Mike.
DP: I guess the people might change but the situation might not.
SD: Exactly. It would be great for me to go back five years from now to see if something really changed.  There are so many factors that I can’t control. I can’t control coal mining, and if coal mining goes away, not only that town but a lot of towns in West Virginia are going to have a problem not dying off.  It's scary.

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