Updated 1/23/2018: Elaine McMillion Sheldon's film Heroin(e) has been nominated for an Oscar in the short documentary category.
Original Story: As most know, the heroin and opioid crisis has reached stunning and heartbreaking heights across the nation. Huntington, West Virginia’s drug overdose death rate sits at ten times the national average.
A new film is out that documents the severity of the problem – but also shines a light on the tireless work of three women trying to fight against a wave of desperation in their hometown. Produced in part by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Heroin(e) is available for streaming on Netflix. We spoke with filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon about her film and what it’s like to document something that has affected so many of us in one way or another.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity:
Tell me a little bit about wanting to do this film. Obviously, the the opioid problem -- particularly, heroin -- has been a big problem around Huntington for a long time. But what specific moment happened that you said ‘I need to go make a film about this in this place’?
I felt like every time I would come home and open the newspaper or go on Facebook I would see another familiar mugshot or obituary. It wasn't about Huntington and Huntington's drug problem. It was just the fact that everyone I knew from middle school and high school were dropping like flies. And I just wanted to try to find a more hopeful side of that story. You know, there's no clear solution but these three women are working towards their own small solutions that I think are really admirable.
You did mention the three different women. I want to start off by talking a little bit about Jan Rader. She is the fire chief there in Huntington. And when you watch the film you get a really good sense about what kind of person she is. Describe for the listeners out there who she is and what it is about her that makes what she's doing so special.
Well in the film Jane says, ‘You know I'm a medic. I'm a nurse. I'm built for this.’ She literally has the ability to help people in her DNA. She's just an incredible human with the capacity to care for people – [the kind of personality] I've never really met in a public official. She's very funny. She's the only woman on an all-male fire squad and, so, you know she's very brave. And I just admire Jane a lot. I think she keeps her cool in the most crazy of situations. When we were filming, I just would sort of keep focused on her because she would keep me chilled out a bit -- because there was some intense moments and if I focused on the other things going around it would be a little bit too much for me because I'm not used to the situations. But she just goes into an emergency and fixes things. She's just an incredible West Virginian and an incredible woman that I just admire. A lot of the people that I have documented throughout the years I've fallen in love with, but I feel like Jan Rader is number one as far as someone that I hope to keep in touch with for the rest of my life.
There is a scene in the film where Jan is responding to an overdose where the man is unconscious behind the bathroom door – preventing first responders from getting to him. Describe what it's like to be there as a filmmaker, a reporter, a journalist -- an observer, even -- and what it's like to experience.
My husband and I made this film and there were times where -- you know, Huntington has six or seven overdoses every day – the fire department was calling us the ‘white cats’ because when we would come to town there would be no overdoses and we literally spent the night overnight at fire departments to see if we could catch something. It all felt very voyeuristic and strange at first and I really questioned why we were doing it. ‘Why would we follow these people that are trying to do their job potentially get in their way?’ But that was a conversation I had with Jan. She said, ‘You know you're doing your job, too, and you showing this could help others.’ And she really believed that. So, that helped me sort of get over the anxiety. But it's still the scariest thing I've ever experienced. When you were running up with Jan, you know, when she was alone getting that guy off the back of the door. She was completely alone in that apartment and walking into a situation we have no clue what we're walking into. I'm the only one with her there. [My husband] was out that day, actually. You know, a tiny woman like Jan can fit and squeeze in between that bathroom door. But, you know, if they would have been three minutes late and waited for someone else, he could have died. You just realize how close to death so many people come and you have six or seven of those every day in Huntington.
It's a great privilege to be able to witness something like that, but I don't take it lightly and that's one of the reasons why we spoke to everyone after they came to after the overdose and got their consent to use it. But we even still continued to blur faces -- because that's someone's brother, that someone's dad. And it's traumatic enough to wake up and see E.M.S. around you, let alone a camera. And to think that your worst moment being documented. We just want to make sure that we were not exploiting anyone and that the trust of the fire department and first responders wouldn't be hurt by us standing over top of them.
I want to switch gears for a little bit and talk about to the other women that are profiled in this film. Necia Freeman is with Brownbag Ministries. You know, I guess it could be said that Jan Rader is the very first responder, because she very much literally is. Necia, I think, would sort of be like a secondary responder in a way -- and not in an official way. This Brownbag Ministries is a nonprofit, I guess, right?
Right. It’s her church, Lewis Memorial Baptist Church.
So, tell me a little bit about spending time on that side of it and trying to help people after they've had their lives saved by someone like Jan.
Well, Jan is part of the fire department. She gets up. It's her job to go. Necia is a real estate agent and a single mom-- just is very dynamic -- she calls herself a dynamic church lady who spends her evenings going out and helping women that she knows are trapped into sex work because of their drug habit. She gives them food and tries to get them into rehab. And it's definitely a thankless job that Necia does. She's not paid for her work. She receives no recognition. She does it out of the goodness of her heart and she does it because she believes that something God wants her to do. She does it from a Christian perspective, which is very different than what Judge Keller and Jan Rader do. So, the three women together all play very different roles at different ends of the spectrum of addiction issues -- working with women who are currently trapped in that cycle and trying to get them out specifically targeting women. And what's interesting is that some of those women actually get into Judge Keller's drug court. So, the three women actually work together through the drug court treatment team. I haven't experienced drug court outside of Huntington and Cabell County, but what an incredible program they have going on there. And it's a volunteer position. Judge Keller doesn't even get paid to be the drug court judge. She's a family court judge. And, so, the three women had a great, obvious dynamic that would make for just energizing and hopeful 40 minute-film.
You use that word 'hopeful' and I'm curious about that. I spent a lot of time in Huntington. I lived there for eight years and this is really interesting to me, because it's a story that you keep hearing about again and again and again. Very recently, some people that I used to hang out with have overdosed and they're dead. It seems like the impact of this just keeps stretching further out. Is there a sense that this is ever going to get any better? I think all the women that you profiled in this film are working very diligently and very passionately in this area. But even they seem to have this bit of exhaustion about the whole thing. I mean they're dedicated to it. But is there any hope that this is going to improve?
I mean, I'm concerned for them long term. I don't know what the end of this is and it's actually getting worse. You know it's not getting better. Carfentanyl, Fentanyl is making it harder to bring people back from overdoses. It's not just heroin anymore. So, I don't know that we necessarily see a light at the end of the tunnel. But, if we have more people like these three women being empathetic and caring and helping the people that are trapped in addiction -- help them get into rehab help them find something that's that brings them fulfillment. I think in West Virginia we have this we have this economic situation that has left a lot of people feeling unneeded and I can't help but think that drugs are only a sort of symptom of a bigger issue. And so I don't know that we can address the drug problem in West Virginia without addressing larger social issues and economic issues we have in the state and the country, for that matter. So, I don't know that there's a ending to this. I have no clue. I don't know how it will work but we certainly could use some more detox beds and some more recovery beds. There's plenty of work to be done there's plenty of improvements to be made that not enough is being done.