All you need to do is Google Huntington, West Virginia and you’ll see news headlines of a drugs bust. The BBC calls it a “drug-ravaged city.” In other news, the National Guard has been called in to help tackle West Virginia’s opioid problem.
Elaine Mcmillion’s documentary Heroin(e) is nominated for Best Documentary Short as she takes us to the frontline with three women in Huntington who are fighting back. Whether it’s Jan Rader, the first responder on the scene trying to resuscitate an overdose victim, or Judge Patricia Keller presiding over Drug Court, McMillion takes us on the scene in her powerful and extremely haunting documentary short.
I caught up with McMillion from her home in West Virginia to talk about making the film. Read our conversation below:
What was it that made you want to focus on heroin and the opioid problem?
I grew up in West Virginia. We’ve been dealing with this for a while. There are parts of West Virginia and Southern West Virginia, and In Kermit, West Virginia, there’s a town of less than 400 people and 9 million pills were shipped to a single pharmacy over the course of two years. That was the background of growing up here, knowing something wasn’t quite right. It’s taken this really sharp turn into heroin, Carfentanil and Fentanyl. I myself have many classmates from high school and middle school who are currently suffering from addiction. One is addicted and one is in rehab. I’m a journalist and I live here and felt it was my responsibility to hopefully tell a story that’s a little bit different. One that’s less around the actual state of addiction and more around the people making the change.
When I found Jan Rader on our reporting trip, she took us under her wing. She opened up her world to us in Huntington, West Virginia and all the people who were working there with very little resources to do some pretty incredible things. She trusted us and allowed us to enter her world.
When you watch the documentary you see and feel what she’s doing and how she’s helping the community. What did you learn from watching her in action?
I had no clue about this potential wave of crisis which is the PTSD among the people that are first responders. That became frightening when I realized that. Here we are talking about the people actually addicted, but we’re not thinking about the people who signed up for this particular call. It’s a shock for them and it’s scary. We’re at a point in America where we decide do we continue to turn our back and turn callous to those suffering from addiction or do we provide a more empathetic approach on how to treat everyone. That includes first responders suffering from PTSD. That was a big shock for me.
I also didn’t know anything about Drug Court and people in Cabell County, WV are so proud to be in that drug court. When people think of it they see it as a negative, but it’s such a family and it’s so interesting. Even if you don’t have a heart for people who are addicted, you have to look at the numbers. The recidivism rates are so much lower for someone who completes that program versus locking someone up. Those two things were really inspiring to me and I felt I needed to include that in the film. I really felt for those first responders because I was just the filmmaker. What they see day in and day out is really intense.
How did you actually meet Jan and the other women who are the subjects in this film?
We met Jan because we were doing interviews with the mayor’s drug control policy board. She is on it. We had interviewed a few men she had worked with and they were all talking about meeting Jan Rader, they called her over and she showed up. I thought she looked like Jodie Foster and she was so kind and lovely. She showed up in her fire truck and she took us around Huntington. She was deflecting her work. She didn’t think she was worthy of the film by introducing us to other people and that’s a good sign for someone who should probably have a film made about them.
She introduced us to Judge Patricia Keller who was very wary of the film because the people in Drug Court are in a vulnerable situation. We ended up hanging out for a while there before we ever brought cameras into the courtroom. Necia Freeman had her reservations, but we didn’t want to reveal the identities of the women she was working with because it hurts her efforts. It was about negotiating how to be present without hurting their causes. It took some time and we filmed over the course of a year.
The film would not have been about women if it wasn’t for the Center of Investigative Reporting who was funding short films about women making a change. It was a happy accident, we had filmed a week, and they put this funding callout and we were able to go back. We were able to document that and it was a lucky thing that we were able to finish what we started with these women.
There are so many scenes such as the convenient store moment, the bathroom moment. What is that like for you as a filmmaker to witness?
It’s nerve-wracking and you’re always asking yourself ethical questions about how to properly shoot something so you’re not exploiting a person. When the woman came too, I followed the woman out to the ambulance. I explained how I had shot it and wasn’t showing her face.
Same with the bathroom scene, Jan helped facilitate the conversation about the film and why it was important. He signed a release form. It was really about making sure we weren’t getting in the way of them doing their job, but also that we were being sensitive to the fact that we were going into a situation without prior permission. You have to have a conversation afterward, if they say no, then you can’t use that.
We finally got over the hump of thinking they’re junkies or bad people, they’re fully fleshed out human beings with a brother or sister or someone’s child, and I couldn’t imagine putting that on screen without having a conversation and thinking about protecting their privacy.