Struggling with poverty and unemployment after the demise of its only industry—the mining trade that had historically nourished the local economy—Oceana, West Virginia, has become the epicenter of a drug scourge devastating towns across the country and leaving many good and honest communities forsaken. Known among its residents as “Oxyana” after the OxyContin epidemic quietly washing over this sleepy Appalachian town, Oceana is a tragically real example of the insidious spread of drug dependency in the U.S. today.
Set against the eerie backdrop of abandoned coal mines within the lush West Virginia landscape, to the melody of Deer Tick’s haunting score, Sean Dunne’s unflinchingly intimate documentary probes the lives of Oceana’s afflicted. He turns the camera on its many residents, allowing them to tell their stories in their own words and homes and illuminate how their unique stories have led them each to the same tragic inevitability of pill addiction. Dunne eschews the high-drama mode in which drug dependency stories are often framed in favor of a simple, sympathetic immersion in the day-to-day experience of a town living in the harsh grip of addiction.
‘Oxyana‘ screens at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, April 25, 2013 @ 7:30pm and Friday, April 26 @ 3:30pm at Clearview Chelsea Cinemas. We talked with Director Sean Dunne and interview subject Mike Moore about their experience at Tribeca, the current state of Oceana and a documentarians balance between objective observance and subjective content.
Buy Tickets for ‘Oxyana’ at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival – HERE
Specifically to the location of Oceana, West Virginia, where did the initial interest to make this film come from?
Sean Dunne: I was aware of this struggle through family issues with prescription drugs. About a year and a half ago Colby Glenn (executive producer) had mentioned terms like “Oxycontin Highway” and “PillVille“. Immediately it sounded like the title for a movie. We were on a road trip and stopped in Virginia on our way to Nashville. Some people had told us to stop in Oceana, specifically at “The Cow Shed“, which is a cool place with outdoor sports and ATVing. We stopped in and we met people with some very scary stories. What was even scarier was the repetitive nature of the stories.
Outside of the specific subject matter of the film, what were your impressions of Oceana as a destination?
Sean: Honestly it is a beautiful and inviting place, even with the drug use. Even the addicts, are nice people. These are good people. It feels isolated when you go there though. As an outsider, when traveling through the mountains you feel like you are going to a remote place.
What was the atmosphere like on site when you were conducting the ‘Oxyana’ interviews?
Sean: It is constantly nerve racking but, sadly, you get used to it. When we went back to the edit room I was reminded how nerve wracking it was again. It depends, when you interview someone like Mike the atmosphere is different even though the subject matter is heavy. When you are in a drug dealers house and they are showing you how they use and deal it is difficult, but you just have to be yourself.
Even though your role as a documentarian is mostly as observer, do you ever find a moral obligation to interject in the lives of your subjects? I ask because I am reminded of a sequence in the film when a young pregnant mother casually smokes a cigarette while describing her boyfriends addiction.
Sean: In a human way I try an not tell others how to live there lives. Who am I? Besides, by that stage in filming someone smoking a cigarette in that situation was the least of their worries. I could slap the cigarette out of her hand but this is a 19 year old squeezing 20 oz of Coke down this pregnant belly. She had the child a week later. It breaks my heart but it is not my place to judge.
I ask because every so often you can find an audience or audience member who latches on to specific sequences they may find offensive, sometimes causing quite a headache for the filmmaker down the road. Should such a situation happen with your film do you have a response to these people?
Sean: If anything we took a very hands off approach and wanted to depict it as real as possible. I am not going to go out and sugarcoat this problem as that would be hugely disrespectful to all those involved. I have seen the destruction of this drug and what it does to people and communities. Had we pulled any punches this film would have been ineffective. Had we made it more about statistics that would be biting off more than we could chew. By showing a comprehensive look at Oceana we can begin to understand that this problem is everywhere. As you well know…
Has there ever been a strong influence from corporate pharmaceuticals in the region? Why has this region been so susceptible to this particular form of drug use?
Mike Moore: Certainly when OxyContin came out pharmaceutical companies marketed it aggressively and not just in our area. It was called the next great pain reliever. I think there is multi-level reasoning as to why this has affected our area. For years the population looked at pills in a positive light. The pills were what kept husbands working in the coal mines. Also there has been recreational abuse of narcotics prior to OxyContin and this was viewed as the same thing, which it is not; It is a whole different animal. Hillbilly’s are fearless. They feel like they can do anything. I saw a guy jump a 4 wheeler and jump it 25 ft in the air with his girlfriend on the back and no helmets.
A common theme amongst many of the interviewees when discussing the reasons behind their drug use was boredom. How valid do you find that reasoning?
Mike: It is a convenient excuse. There is natural beauty all around us; fishing, hunting, hiking and more. The pills are prevalent and once you use them it is very easy to get hooked. I don’t think that having a movie theater or a mall has anything to do with this issue.
Sean: Those places would become havens for dealing the substances. That is how it is in my hometown.
Mike, you mention in the film that the region has also changed gradually in the sense that independent landowners have been bought out by larger companies with increased frequency over the last two decades. Do you think that this loss of personal property to the hands of larger entities adds to the issue of addiction?
Mike: I think it is cyclical as far as the coal mine opportunity goes. What happens is you get a very hopeful mindset. People develop this mindset that nothing good will happen to me now. The Pill makes them feel better. This kind of existential hopelessness plays a major role in this.
…And from a law enforcement perspective, how is this issue handled from a legal perspective?
Sean: The police and law enforcement are overwhelmed. To me that speaks to a problem of the drug war in general, but i will not pontificate on that issue…
Mike: We have a small population therefore small numbers of law enforcement, but that population is spread out over an immense area. Our law enforcement are really overwhelmed. They are trying to do what they can but what they can do is limited.
What about treatment options?
Mike: It is nonexistent. It is a 45 minute drive to the closest treatment facility. There are a few 12 step type groups
Sean: Which is tough because getting off the drug in the first place is not safe to do on your own. 12 step programs are great but they are still 12 steps down the line. Going back to law enforcement, we have to understand that they are part of the community too. A few people would say, especially off camera, that some members of that community were addicted as well. That may be the small town mentality of rivalries but I find that to be very disturbing.
To end on a bit of a lighter note, how have you found your experience at Tribeca so far?
Sean: Amazing! We had our premier last night and especially having Mike here. To premier my first feature in my home town is awesome.
-Interview conducted & transcribed on site by Steve Rickinson
About Sean Dunne
Sean Dunne was born in Peekskill, New York, in 1981 and attended SUNY Purchase. In 2008, his short documentary The Archive was nominated for an Emmy, and after four additional shorts, he has been hailed by Short of the Week as the “master of fringe Americana.” Oxyana is his feature debut.