The opioid epidemic in the United States has been well reported over the past decade or so – with Huntington, West Virginia, widely considered the “overdose capital of the world.” A 2017 film by Kerrin Sheldon ’08 and his wife, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, presents a more hopeful, though no less bleak, portrait of the problem in that city.
“Heroin(e)” was an Oscar nominee and an Emmy winner last year. The Sheldons’ work was one of five films up for Best Documentary Short Subject during the 2018 Academy Awards, and it won Outstanding Short Documentary at the 2018 News and Documentary Emmys.
“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 verité 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 33-year-old Sheldon says.
Sheldon, a communications major at the University who went on to receive a master of professional writing from Carnegie Mellon, spent two years traveling the world with a friend making three-minute videos that told inspirational stories from India, Nepal, Iceland, Palestine and other countries. “That was almost our film school by fire,” he says.
Sheldon then started a company, Xeno Productions, that makes short videos for hotels and other corporate clients.
But his true passion is long-form storytelling, and when his wife received a “career grant” in early 2016 they 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 the documentary 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 monthly calendar tallies up that he has responded to 27 overdoses in a two-month span.
“The opioid epidemic is everywhere but especially is pretty intense in Appalachia,” Sheldon says.
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, 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.
“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.”
Sheldon has certainly been bitten by the documentary bug. While filming “Heroin(e),” the Sheldons were simultaneously working on a feature-length documentary about four heroin addicts in an experimental farm-based rehabilitation program. That film, “Recovery Boys,” is available now on Netflix and has gotten good reviews. Sheldon is also working on a documentary about professional boxers in Appalachia.
“I'm planning on the boxing film being a feature-length documentary as well,” he says. “We have a couple of other projects in the pipeline as well, so we’ll see if they turn into something larger as we move along. I’m a huge fan of the 35- to 40-minute documentary length. I think it’s one of the best lengths for most documentary subjects and allows ample time for screening and discussions.”