West Virginia native and documentary filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon has been nominated for an Oscar in the short documentary category for her new film Heroin(e). An examination of the heroin and opioid crisis in Huntington West Virginia, the film follows three women who are fighting against a public health crisis which threatens to engulf their town. Available for streaming on Netflix, you can watch the trailer here.
I had the pleasure of first meeting Sheldon at the Digging In Retreat at the Center for Documentary Studies in 2014. Fresh from her Peabody award and Emmy nomination for her work leading the interactive documentary website Hollow, Sheldon made several presentations about her work and that of other media makers who were documenting place. Discussions revolved around the issues of representation, trust, community engagement and history. She also offered feedback for scenes from Blanket Town, the documentary film I was working on.
Hollow, the interactive documentary that brought her work to national prominence, looks at the collapse of McDowell County, West Virginia. It’s a self navigated site that allows viewers to choose where to look, read or hear. The material is arranged thematically, so you can meet people through their portraits- short films and pictures where they talk about what is important to them. It might be starting up a new business in one of the town’s abandoned storefronts or going to the high school football game on Friday night.
I suspect the non-linear form of Hollow is an important way for an outsider like myself to navigate this Appalachian story. Sheldon is aware of how the story of places like McDowell County can get reduced to stereotypes- in the way that stories of Appalachia so often get reduced- only depicted as places of poverty and desperation. By refusing to offer a linear film, she challenges viewers to accept and deal with a more complex view. You can read here to learn more about Hollow.
I watched Heroin(e) last night. It offers a complex take that drills beneath the shocking statistics of the opioid crisis in the U.S. What we see in the midst of this ravaged landscape are survivors- not only the addicts and former addicts who have literally been brought back to life numerous times, but also the three heroines who have survived this crisis with their humanity intact. These flat footed, no-nonsense women each offer pragmatic help to addicts, with clear boundaries. More importantly they refuse to succumb to feelings of despair in the face of overwhelming odds. They don’t seem numbed by death, prostitution, or lies from the very people they are trying to help. Instead they continue to bring compassion into each encounter - treating whoever crosses their path as a person, not a statistic. Heroin(e) offers a nuanced view of some of the stories behind the headline news.