The director of “Oxyana”, a documentary about drug addiction in the southern West Virginia coalfields, says he didn’t try to verify some shocking statistics used in it because he wasn’t concerned whether they were accurate.
Director Sean Dunne told West Virginia Public Broadcasting he was more concerned about immersing viewers in a drug culture that he says needs to be discussed and tackled.
The film became available on DVD and for download online Monday.
It shows people providing a variety of numbers and percentages about everything from homelessness, overdoses and hepatitis C cases to babies born addicted to methadone. Dunne said verifying those numbers wasn’t his mission.
“This isn’t a film that is meant to be informational in that way,” Dunne said. “It’s meant to be immersive. It’s meant to show the up-close and personal of what drug addiction looks like.
“These are their perspectives,” he said. “... We didn’t question those things; we just were a vessel to their voice.”
But there is one critical and verifiable figure: Wyoming County has the highest per-capita rate of fatal overdoses in the state. It led West Virginia in 2011 and came in second behind McDowell the previous four years.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention said West Virginia also had the nation’s second-highest rate of fatal overdoses from 2007 to 2009.
Dunne said he met Jason, one of the subjects, 10 minutes after an unplanned trip through the area.
“He started to tell us some pretty crazy stories and saying that the whole town was really kind of going downhill and they had nicknamed it Oxyana, and 10 minutes after that, he was shooting a pill into his hand,” Dunne said. “I personally had never seen anything like that. It really shocked me and we decided to come back.”
Dunne said he met Jason’s friends last spring, “and we just kept hearing the same kind of harrowing stories of addiction over and over.” Dunne’s own father had struggled with addiction, he said, so “it was hard to turn away from.”
“The fact of the matter is, it’s not something that discriminates,” he said. “And I think if we as a country can have a more well-rounded view of drugs and drug culture and why people are addicted in such large numbers, I think our approach could be better.”
Many West Virginians are upset about the film, concerned that the trailer and promotional items portray the community negatively.
“I think it’s important for people to realize that, at least from my perspective, Oxyana and Oceana are two very different things. Oxyana is a fleeting thing,” Dunne said. “It’s something that can go away with everyone kind of coming together and kind of identifying what the issue is and figuring out a new multifaceted approach and solution.”
Oceana is home to some of the nicest people Dunne says he’s ever met, and the film wasn’t meant to “throw them under the bus in any way.”
But Dunne said it was the brutal honesty of his subjects that made the community so compelling for a filmmaker.
“You’re looking for a stripped-down honesty,” he said, “and I saw it there in ways that I had never seen anywhere else. And I think it was courageous for a lot of these people to share their stories with us.”
Drug addiction is not unique to West Virginia, he said, and the stories from Wyoming County resonate nationwide.
“I think you’re kind of seeing this epidemic bleed into the fabric of the country,” he said, “and this film scratches the surface on this whole thing.”