The national media has covered the opioid crisis in West Virginia extensively, but College of Media alumna and Peabody award-winning filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon (BSJ, 2009) takes on the story through a new lens—one of hope.
She is the director of “Heroin(e),” a Netflix Original documentary that follows three women in Huntington, West Virginia, as they fight the opioid epidemic and try to make a change in their community. The film features Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader; Judge Patricia Keller, who runs the local drug court; and Necia Freeman, who works with Brown Bag and Backpacks Ministry delivering food and Bible passages to prostitutes and addicts.
“Heroin(e)” was produced in partnership with The Center for Investigative Reporting through the Glassbreaker Films initiative to support female filmmakers.
Ally Kennedy: How did this documentary come about?
Elaine McMillion Sheldon: The Center for Investigative Reporting announced in 2016 that they were funding short films by women directors that focus on women making change. My husband, Kerrin, and I had met Jan Rader, Judge Patricia Keller and Necia Freeman the February before when we went to Huntington on a reporting trip. We had about a week of production under our belt, but the footage was sitting on a hard drive because we refocused our efforts and were working on a 90-minute film about four men going through recovery. Once the Center for Investigative Reporting decided they were funding films made by women about women, we realized that we had a week of production down with these women and that we could go back and spend more time with them and pitch the short film. The Center funded it, and we went back and shot 30 days over the course of a year. During editing, Netflix came on-board and the film became a Netflix Original Documentary.
AK: Have you always been interested in the opioid epidemic?
EMS: I’m interested in the stories that impact West Virginians. I live here. I’m from here. The opioid crisis is something that is certainly at the top everyone’s radar. The crisis is something I have a personal connection to—most West Virginian’s do. It’s not something I was dying to cover because typically the drug epidemic is covered in a very dire or exploitive way, but once we found these women and saw that there could be a more change-driven and hopeful story come out of this, we were very inspired to document it.
AK: What do you hope to accomplish?
EMS: Decreasing stigma and increasing empathy are two of the goals. Now, those are huge goals. Someone asked me, have overdose numbers gone down since the film has come out and the answer is of course not. This is a crisis that has been going on for decades and it has grown into what it is today and it’s going to take a long time to get us out of it. We’re just hoping as many people watch the film as possible and increase education around what addiction is and how we can truly be helping people. We hope the film can do what any good film does, which is get people talking.
AK: What surprised you?
EMS: What surprised me is the amount of positivity that Huntington represents. Huntington has the short end of the stick in a lot of media representation being called the overdose capital of the country, but what they represent is transparency. There are a lot of West Virginia communities that are suffering. They just don’t want to talk about it because they know it hurts their image or they just don’t want to face the facts. Huntington has been totally transparent about overdose numbers and statistics and because of that, they have been able to create change on the ground and create a more positive atmosphere about where we can go from here. I’m just impressed and surprised by the level of resilience that these three women and the other people working towards this issue in Huntington represent.
AK: What was it like emotionally to make this film?
EMS: Emotionally, it’s a challenging film because as a filmmaker you question ethically the decisions you make. How can you shoot a scene so that you aren’t revealing someone’s identity and still show the impacts? I think it is very important to show reality. I make nonfiction films because I think people need to see the things they often don’t want to see. It was emotionally hard to come to terms with why are we doing what we’re doing and how we make sure it helps people and we’re just not documenting it for the sake of documenting it. It was a conversation we often had with Jan. Jan was very supportive of taking us on calls and letting us see what everything happening because she felt that other people needed to see it. It’s traumatic to see people potentially at their lowest moment, and you wish you could do more. Hopefully telling their story and being a witness to these things can help wake the country up.
AK: What has the reaction been like after the film?
EMS: The reaction has been crazy and overwhelming positive. Once Netflix got on-board and opened up an international audience to us all of our expectations changed. With attention from the LA Times, Washington Post, the Daily Show, Mother Jones, we’ve just been able to insert this film into a discussion that’s already being had, but from a personal angle. I did not anticipate this many people seeing the film and reaching out to us. I’ve never experience something where people will reach out to you and thank you for making a film. It’s pretty amazing. We showed it at the Obama Foundation Summit, and it was the only film there. We got to meet President Obama, and he had seen the film. It’s just a huge honor to be able to share these women’s stories and have an audience who wants to hear it.
AK: Why is storytelling so important to you?
EMS: I was raised on storytelling. Whether it was listening to stories from my grandpa in the mines or listening to Logan county ghost stories, it’s such a part of our culture in Appalachia. I find storytelling is a way for me to be a part of other people’s lives. I’m interested in other people and why they do what they do. I think we need storytellers because it’s nice to see society reflected back. I think sometimes it helps us to take a step back and see what we’re facing with fresh eyes. I hope the stories I tell not only document current day Appalachia or America, but in some way allow us to see something in a new way. Storytelling is my life, and I hope to keep it that way.
AK: How did you decide you wanted to become a filmmaker? And how have you been making it work?
EMS: I never was really interested in making a living doing film, but what was clear to me was that when I graduated in 2009, newspapers were not hiring. I was not going to be able to be the writer and photographer I thought. I just had to learn new skills, so I taught myself how to make films. I interned at the Washington Post digital documentary department where they taught me how to make short films. I think there are more outlets than ever that are willing to fund short documentaries and feature length documentaries, but I don’t think anyone should be expecting to have an easy life if they want to be a documentary filmmaker. I’m self-employed. It comes with a lot of ups and downs. I would say it’s a lot of self-education and getting up every day and making sure you’re working towards something you are passionate about.
AK: How did your education from the College of Media prepare you?
EMS: The College of Media gave me the foundations of being a great producer. I think knowing how to produce really elevated my ability to survive as a filmmaker. I start every film project the same way I would a writing project that I learned in J-School, which is making spreadsheets of all the people I need to call, having links to other articles that have been written and doing a good amount of research. Doing the research and going in informed is something the J-School taught me that I use today.
AK: What’s next?
EMS: I’m finishing a feature-length documentary about four guys going through recovery from opioid addiction. It will be out early next year hopefully. My husband and I are working on a few documentary projects in Kentucky and West Virginia about a number of topics like the economic and social and cultural issues. We live in Charleston, and we’re going to continue to make work here as long as we can.