By Dave Boucher
Charleston Daily Mail
It’s no secret to most in West Virginia that there are issues with prescription pill abuse in the state. It’s especially clear for people who live in the state’s southernmost counties, where the problems are the worst. Chronicling those issues is also not really a new phenomenon, as local papers and broadcast outlets have done with varying degrees of success for some time.
West Virginians are just as accustomed to journalists, filmmakers and the like coming to the region to highlight their problems or lives in general. Regardless of their accuracy or intent, productions like documentary film “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia” and the television series “Buckwild” automatically make residents skeptical of future filmed endeavors.
There was talk (and grumblings) for weeks, then, about a film crew working on a project about the small town of Oceana, West Virginia and its relationship with prescription pill abuse. After hearing about “Oxyana” — the name of the film and one of the town’s dubious nicknames created from a play on words with the prescription pain pill OxyContin — I originally just wanted to see the film.
That proved to be one of the greatest challenges of writing these stories. The director premiered the film in Boston and gained entrance to the Tribeca Film Festival, but he had no plans for a local screening and declined to provide a copy for reviewing purposes. So, I was left to write about a film I hadn’t seen about a town whose residents had also not seen the film.
I found a few trailers of the film online, along with reviews based on the Tribeca showings and promotional materials on the film’s website. As I found out later, that’s what really irked many in Oceana: it likened their town to conditions experienced during a Medieval plague, one of many not-so-flattering descriptions.
So a seemingly simple film review turned into a project about trying to glean fact from fiction about Oceana’s relationship with prescription pills.
I spoke with a few upset residents on the phone, but that can be a perilous task in West Virginia. Many places have shoddy service, especially if they’re isolated. Cellphones don’t really work in much of Oceana, so it proved difficult at times to communicate. I ended up scheduling a few interviews, and made the two-hour drive with a photographer to the county.
Everyone I spoke with was friendly, open and knew about the film. Most were quick to admit the town suffers from a prescription pill abuse problem, but they felt Oxyana’s director Sean Dunne sensationalized the issues. They pointed to statements made in the trailers that they felt were obviously not true. At the same time, each had stories about neighbors, friends and relatives who had suffered from addiction. Most had a variety of reasons for the problem, as well as a few different solutions to help the town.
After coming back to Charleston, it made more sense to me to write the story as a three part series: present the film, issues raised in the trailer and the resident’s qualms with the project; factcheck the questions raised and examine the history of prescription pills in the region; and discuss solutions or ideas locals might have for addressing the town’s problems.
My editors were gracious enough to let me move forward with the idea, and the resulting product seemed to spark a little discussion in the area. Some of the statements from residents (and even a doctor) in the film proved untrue, lending credence to the idea that Oceana and Oxyana are two different towns and ideas.
Since the original story ran, the director did grant an interview and I was able to screen the film.
There are many candid interviews with addicts that are painful to watch. They talk about their own problems with addiction and how it has affected their community.
Many, though, either take drugs on camera or appear to be high on film. Plus, the director said he made no effort to check whether statements made by residents in the film were actually true. He said he didn’t think there was any way to factcheck those statements (like one from a man who said 70 to 80 percent of the town has Hepatitis C from intravenous drug use) and the film wasn’t about statistics or facts anyway.
The town has taken steps to address its problem. About 200 people attended a community meeting. The local court vowed to actually enforce a rule that allowed them to jail those who do not show up for court appearances (although that presents other issues.) With donations from the community, the town was able to make a down payment on a police dog for the local department.
Some, begrudgingly perhaps, credit the renewed attention to the community’s problem to conversation sparked by “Oxyana.”
Oxyana Trailer from Sean Dunne on Vimeo.