The opioid epidemic in the United States has been well reported over the past couple of years – with Huntington, West Virginia, widely considered the “overdose capital of America.” A new film by 2008 Wingate grad Kerrin Sheldon and his wife, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, presents a more hopeful, though no less bleak, portrait of the problem in that city.

Heroine movie posterThis week, that 2017 documentary, “Heroin(e),” became an Oscar nominee. The Sheldons’ work is one of five films up for Best Documentary Short Subject at the 2018 Academy Awards, which will be held on March 4.

“Heroin(e)” tells the story of three women on the front lines of the opioid problem: a fire chief, a family-court judge and a mission volunteer. In cinema verite style, the 39-minute film shows addicts in drug court, prostitutes walking the streets, and first responders using Naloxone to revive overdose victims. It can be harrowing stuff.

“I think the toughest part is you’re filming someone at what could be the lowest point of their life,” the 32-year-old Sheldon says.

Sheldon majored in communications at the University and went on to receive a master of professional writing from Carnegie Mellon. After working at a travel company in New York for two years, he and a friend decided to travel the world making three-minute videos telling inspirational stories. They uploaded dispatches from India, Nepal, Iceland, Palestine and other countries. “That was almost our film school by fire,” he says.

After two years on the road, Sheldon started Xeno Productions, a company that makes short videos for hotels and other corporate clients.

But his true passion is long-form storytelling, and when his filmmaker wife received a “career grant” in early 2016, the couple decided to dive deep into the opioid crisis, since both are from West Virginia.

For nearly a year, they worked on the documentary, doing all the shooting and editing themselves. Eventually, the Center for Investigative Reporting, which was looking for short films about women making change, funded the rest of the production. Netflix stepped in near the end of the process and is the distributor.

Sheldon says Netflix’s involvement certainly didn’t hurt their chances of receiving an Oscar nomination. “They definitely have a little more clout and push to get your name out there,” he says.

Harrowing, but hopeful

It doesn’t take long for viewers of “Heroin(e)” to understand the magnitude of the opioid problem in West Virginia. Within 30 seconds, the Cabell County fire chief has responded to a fatal overdose in the bathroom of a pizza restaurant. “They have sort of been descended upon by the national media, because their overdose numbers are so high and so shocking,” Sheldon says.

The overdose death rate in Huntington, a caption in the film explains, is “10 times the national average.” At one point in the film, a first responder going over his calendar tallies up that he personally has responded to 27 overdoses in a two-month span.

“The opioid epidemic is everywhere but especially is pretty intense in Appalachia,” Sheldon says.

Cabell County fire chief Jan Rader

Cabell County fire chief Jan Rader is on the front lines fighting the opioid epidemic in Huntington, West Virginia.

The couple set out to find an interesting angle from which to tell the story. They decided to focus on three women on the front lines: Jan Rader, fire chief of Cabell County; Patricia Keller, a family court judge; and Necia Freeman, a volunteer who provides food and clothing to prostitutes in Huntington.

“They were all three great examples of what the individual can do to help curb the issue in their own ways, small and large,” Sheldon says.

Each woman takes a compassionate-but-firm stance, showing empathy while holding people accountable. The scenes are candid and can be brutal – “We wanted to tell a story that’s truthful and honest,” Sheldon says – but the film is ultimately somewhat uplifting and provides at least a sliver of optimism.

“Obviously it’s kind of bleak and tough, but they themselves, because of their empathy, because of their work each and every day, they show a very hopeful angle to this problem,” he says.

After cutting his teeth making videos under eight minutes in length, Sheldon found it satisfying to put together a longer documentary. “I don’t think that we ever thought that it was awards material,” he says. “We were just happy that we had completed something of that substance.”

During the same stretch that the Sheldons were filming “Heroin(e),” they were also working on a feature-length documentary about four heroin addicts in an experimental farming-based rehabilitation program. That film, which is in postproduction, should be out this year. Sheldon, who played soccer at Wingate, is also working on a documentary about professional boxers in Appalachia.

But before those are released, there is the Oscars ceremony. “I don’t think I’ve ever worn a tux in my life,” he says. “Just being there will be such a crazy experience. I’m not going to hold my breath on the victory, but just going is going to be awesome.”

Check out the trailer for Heroin(e).

And find out more about how the University’s communications major can help you learn the art of storytelling.