Meet "Heroin(e)" Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon
Amid the current coverage of the opioid crisis, with the media spitting numbers and statistics about users and overdoses, the Netflix documentary short “Heroin(e)” views the situation through a different, more human-driven lens. The film follows police chief Jan Radar, Judge Patricia Keller, and street missionary Necia Freeman as they dedicate themselves to fighting the opioid epidemic in Huntington, West Virginia. Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon set out with her husband, Kerrin, to create a documentary with the hope of providing an understanding of the faces behind the crisis. “We just felt a real urgency to add to that conversation," she says. "It’s a topic that makes headlines every day but we felt like we were interested in finding stories that maybe could provide some level of hope or some message of how we can move forward.”
A native of West Virginia, Sheldon hopes to encourage other West Virginians to have necessary conversations about the issues that face their state. “I think this whole idea of negatives and stereotypes have just not allowed us to have honest conversations about our economic problems, our social problems, because they are used against us as stereotypical problems,” she explains. “'Drug-addicted West Virginians' is used against us as a stereotypical image, so how do we reclaim our problems and talk about them? That’s one of the things I’d like to help us do.”
Sheldon and her husband are now working on a feature-length documentary that follows four men going through the recovery process. “We’re really careful in who we choose to follow around because they have to be media literate to some point,” she says. “A lot of media preys on people that don’t quite understand how they’re being represented, and so [the people we follow] have to have agency, they have to have a level of experience, and they also just have to be a complex person.”
On having an intimate understanding of the film's setting
“There’s a big debate around insider/outsider, who gets to tell whose story, and I’m not opposed to outsiders telling our stories but I think what often is overlooked is the underlying humanity behind all the stories, and treating others not as soundbites and headlines but as fully fleshed out human beings that are complicated. We like to see each other, unfortunately, in an over-simplified way, and so being from a place [gives you] the luxury of being able to spend more time with people; you also have the luxury of knowing context and history and understanding a place because you live there, because you pay the same power bill, drink the same water.
I don’t think you can ever do it perfectly, it has its drawbacks, but we’re just able to have a deeper conversation with people because they trust us more too. People open up to us differently because we live so close and we’re from here.”
On the role of documentary film in the opioid crisis
“I think there’s a lot of value in just watching people live their lives. That’s why I like documentary film, [not] because it’s providing solutions to extremely complicated problems. The opportunity is to hopefully show something that feels real and is actually representing what the realities are. I don’t think that a documentary can do more than that.
There’s certainly positive things that have come out of [documentary films] that could lead to solutions, but the power of nonfiction film-making is to just first show life and hopefully in that portrayal of life is that some people will better understand someone’s situation. It doesn’t provide all the answers and how to fix it. Often the role of the documentary filmmaker is confused with the role of an activist, and there’s certainly filmmakers that want to be that role but that’s not really my interest. My interest is to represent life as I see it here in Appalachia, and if I do that as accurately as possible then I think we’ve achieved a goal that’s hopefully helping connect people to stories that, especially in this political climate, they don’t feel connected to. I hope we’re breaking down those barriers and showing those commonalities we all have as humans.”
On challenging stereotypes
“I definitely hope that the people that are featured in the films challenge any one-dimensional stereotypes that people automatically associate with the region. But you know, within each stereotype there’s a level of truth as well. It’s a really grand statement to get rid of stereotypes because I think that, unfortunately, they play a role in society and understanding each other and whether they’re accurate or not, it’s hard to get rid of them. But I certainly hope that the people in the films help to sort of chip away at the stereotypes and maybe reveal something that’s a little bit more complicated or a little less one dimensional.
For me it’s important because we live here in West Virginia, so we have a responsibility to these people in a way that people who leave don’t. And it’s something that we take pretty seriously, we don’t want anyone to feel wronged, but that means we have to be as honest as we can and have conversations with them about what the films are. I think it’s good to be held accountable. I mean, you are taking someone else’s story, someone else’s life, and portraying it to the world. There should be a level of accountability to make sure you’re being as honest as you can be.”
On the totality of addiction
“I think that addiction is something people fight for their entire lives. Once they become addicted to a drug, it’s something that day in, day out they have to face and they have to battle and they have to have the courage to overcome it. They have to have the resources to be able to access [help] whether it be actual rehab or medically assisted treatment. There have to be resources for people to make good decisions, they can’t just make decisions out of thin air. And then compound that with the economic problem, when you do start to turn your life around and you try to look for work and no one’s hiring. Or you do start to turn your life around and you can’t afford healthcare, whatever it may be. In an economy that is struggling, you’re often seeing that the environment plays a role in helping people stay addicted. So how do we make Appalachia a more healthy environment for people to get clean and stay clean?
And I don’t think people understand the level that people are up against oftentimes when they’re trying just to get off heroin or any other drug. There are so many other factors that people have to stand up against, so I hope that’s what this other film shows as well.”
On documenting the Appalachian area in the future
“As long as I can tell stories here that don’t feel reductive and aren’t redundant versions of each other, I hope to continue to share stories from this region, absolutely. In terms of this topic, I don’t know how much longer we’ll cover but I’d like to see the positive change come from these two films. I think there’s a responsibility to some extent, because we have that understanding that I do as a native, as someone who grew up here to be a part of telling those stories and be a part of better connecting this region with the rest of America. Hopefully we’re shining a light on some things that are overlooked oftentimes. There are a lot of stories to tell and I hope to continue to do so.”
Feature photo by Kerrin Sheldon