The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 30, 2013

Sean Dunne: Message of hope is in ‘Oxyana’

— “When you watch a film like this, it’s hard to take away a message of hope,” Oxyana filmmaker Sean Dunne said. “But it’s in there and it’s in the people and it’s in the love that they have for each other and the compassion they have for each other.

“This community can pick themselves up and I think we can all help.”

Oxyana, a documentary that highlights the prescription drug abuse epidemic in Oceana, will be available for rent for $3.99, digital download for $9.99, or purchase on DVD for $20 or Blu-Ray for $25 July 1 at www.oxyana.com.

This chilling, raw film takes a look at several people in Wyoming County and the devastating toll prescription drug abuse has taken on their lives.

Cringe-worthy scenes show men wrapping tourniquets around their arms, crushing oxycodone pills, liquefying them and shooting them directly into their veins.

One young woman estimated that it would take $600 to $800 per day in prescription drugs just for her to get high.

Another man shares a tragic story about how his father killed his mother, his younger brother and then himself in a dispute about pills.

Another older man, who was living under a bridge in Oceana, holds his hands up and says, “I let drugs put me right here.”

Many of those interviewed in this documentary express how much they love their home state — the mountains, the four-wheeling, the hunting, the fishing and the good people.

But also within those beautiful mountains lies a darkness that is sweeping the area. This darkness, the prescription drug abuse epidemic, has affected so many lives that an Oceana dentist said every person in the area directly knows someone who has died from drug overdose.

While some people blame the problem on doctors over-prescribing medications, others say, “There’s just nothing to do around here.”

Wyoming County, while it might be rich in natural beauty, certainly lacks on entertainment, especially for the younger generation.

One man said it takes 45 minutes to an hour just to go bowling or to go see a movie, and he’s right — the closest towns with either of those entertainment options are Logan or Beckley.

Regardless of what created the drug problem, there is no denying its prevalence in this small town.

After Dunne captured these heart-breaking and tragic stories on film, he was asked to present Oxyana at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City this spring, where he won an award for “Best New Documentary Director.”

“I was shocked and relieved to see how well it went over. These are audiences that are not from West Virginia and the film really resonated with them, and I think that it shows that this isn’t a problem that discriminates.”

He said many people in the audience came up to him after the film and told him how they or a family member had struggled with drug abuse. Many even thanked him for making the film.

“There was a sense of urgency coming out from people there for us to get this film out. We kind of forewent the other distribution opportunities we had and now we’re putting it out ourselves so that the people who really need to see the film can.”

Dunne got funding through an online fundraising platform called KickStarter, and he said after sharing the finished product with his backers, he’s been receiving the same reactions.

“The reactions have surprised me, people thanking me, who either live there now or have lived in Wyoming County at one point. It’s been really positive so far. Everyone has agreed that it’s an important message.”

Prescription drug abuse affected Dunne from a young age, as he watched his father struggle with addiction.

“It’s a really complex issue because it’s something you’re getting from your doctor and it is something that a lot of times is needed and can help someone’s life.”

He said his dad has since cleaned up, but when he saw this struggling community, he couldn’t turn away.

“When I came across a place like Wyoming County and just seen such a concentration of people struggling and hearing the same kind of harrowing tales of addiction and suffering from just the people we were talking to and visiting, it was alarming and it was hard to turn my back on, so we went back with the cameras.”

When Dunne first came to Oceana, he didn’t understand the drug culture or the underground economy, but he said after a while, he became desensitized to it.

He said he believes many Wyoming County residents are desensitized to the problem as well, simply because they see it every day.

“It’s like anything. For instance, my sister has really bad epilepsy. She can have up to 50 seizures a day. If anyone else saw her having one of these seizures, they would be calling 911 and having her airlifted to a hospital somewhere. But my family deals with it every day, so we become desensitized to it. I almost feel like this is what it’s becoming in areas like Wyoming County and communities that have dealt with this for like a decade. You see people die and you see people go through these struggles and it’s hard to not become a little bit desensitized to it.”

While the crew was filming, Dunne said he was shocked with how consistently they were getting openness and honesty across the board.

“There wasn’t one person who held back. I think that really speaks to the desperation of that type of situation.”

He said he felt that the people who were being interviewed saw this as an opportunity for their story to be told in a bigger way.

“I think it was really courageous for every single person that spoke to us, whether it made it into the film or not, I think it was really courageous. It really speaks to how dire the situation has gotten.”

As for how the interviewees were selected, Dunne said they did not discriminate.

“If someone wanted to talk to us, we would talk to them. It started with just interviewing a couple people we had made friends with on our scouting trip and it really spread from there. Somebody would have a talk with us and tell their friends, ‘That was really therapeutic for me and you should give these guys a chance. You should tell your story.’ Then it just spread within the community.”

He said the editing process was a bit more challenging, as they tried to choose the best cross-section that demonstrated the issue.

For the most part, Dunne said the Wyoming County residents were very welcoming, but a couple of e-mails and posts on Topix put a red flag up for his film crew.

“Some people were saying if we came down here and started messing around in the drug culture, that we could be prepared to be met by Smith & Wesson. As outsiders, it’s hard to say how seriously to take those things, but we treated them seriously. We treated the whole thing with the utmost sensitivity.”

Ultimately, there were no such confrontations, which allowed Dunne to put together a highly compelling film.

“Getting a debate and a dialogue starting about this is really what a film like this is all about. That’s really what this film was meant to be in the first place, to humanize this a little. To look at it with a little bit of compassion and maybe reapproach it with a more compassionate view on this whole thing, as opposed to just blindly walking up and caging the people who are struggling with drugs.”

One story in the film is particularly haunting — a double murder-suicide told by the son of the gunman.

“That was probably the most shocking thing I’ve ever heard in any interview I’ve ever done. It wasn’t something we necessarily expected him to talk about. We had heard some rumors from other people about the ins and outs of that particular story, but to hear it come from him, it’s honestly, and I’m not exaggerating, it’s the one moment in the movie that I’ve sat through it a couple times, but that’s where I need to get up and take a break.”

The man tells how he and his father both abused drugs, and one day, his father’s addiction took a tragic turn.

“It’s something that doesn’t get better with neglect. The more we just choose to ignore this segment of society, not only in West Virginia, but everywhere, the people that are struggling with drugs, we’re not doing them any favors by ignoring these people and these stories. Hopefully this film can be a voice for them.”

He said he was fascinated to learn the ins and outs of the underground drug economy and how people are willing to pay their last cent for a pill.

“The underground economy of this place called Oxyana and the crime, and the prostitution, and the murder and all those things that surround it, it’s really scary.”

He said from the moment he heard someone use the term Oxyana, he thought it sounded like an appropriate title for a film about a place that was going through a tough time with drug abuse.

“I didn’t want to call the film Oceana. This isn’t Oceana, this is Oxyana. In my mind, they’re two very different things.”

Dunne has created five other short documentaries, but Oxyana is his first feature-length film.

“It’s kind of bittersweet. It’s exciting to burst onto the scene and be recognized for filmmaking. It’s unfortunate that this is the message that comes along with that. Drug abuse and drug addiction have been a big part of my life.”

At the film’s end, the camera shows close-ups of everyone interviewed, but ends on the face of a young couple’s newborn child, suggesting new life and hope for this small town.

“I do have hopes that this movie can bring change to the area. It’s really something that’s just becoming clear to me now as we’re starting to see the reactions leading up to the release. I think that there is a real want and a desire for the people down there to make this problem go away. I’ve always said I think the hope really is in the people down there. They’re some of the kindest, most good-hearted people I’ve ever met anywhere.

“I think that this film will be eye-opening for a lot of them and it’s going to take some healing and digesting before we can just go throwing solutions out there. I hope that if anything, this just gets the dialogue started about addiction and abuse and some more well-rounded compassionate ways we can look at those things.”

— E-mail: wholdren@register-herald.com

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