It was a Juggalo who introduced filmmaker Sean Dunne to the underbelly of Oceana.
Stopped in the small West Virginia town on a road trip, Dunne connected with a local Juggalo who had seen Dunne’s previous film, American Juggalo. As it turned out, there was more to Oceana than ATVing and high school sports.
“He said, ‘I’m gonna break it down to you what this town’s really about,’” Dunne recalled. “‘It might be called Oceana, but people here call it Oxyana. All there is here is dope.’ That kind of fascinated me. Within 20 minutes of that, he was shooting OxyContin into his hand.”
A few months after his initial visit, Dunne returned to Oceana and began work on the feature-length documentary that would become Oxyana, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film is harrowing in its unflinching portrayal of a town ravaged by drug abuse, but it’s also remarkably sympathetic to its subjects. As Dunne told BuzzFeed, making the film was largely a matter of giving Oceana’s residents a chance to talk.
“We had made friends with them when we were down there last April, and we interviewed those people,” Dunne said. “I think a lot of our subjects found it to be very therapeutic. Through word of mouth, other people would come to us. In terms of establishing trust, we did gain their trust pretty quickly. That spoke more to how desperate the situation was down there and how desperate they were to be heard than anything.”
There was, of course, some resistance from the townspeople, particularly those wary of the way West Virginian life had been depicted in past films and TV shows. While Dunne was making Oxyana, MTV was filming Buckwild, and promos for the “Appalachian Jersey Shore” had already turned off residents. The film The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia had also left a bad taste in many West Virginians’ mouths.
MTV recently chose to cancel Buckwild following the death of series star Shain Gandee. Dunne agrees with that decision, mostly because Buckwild “was not that good.”
Tonally, Dunne’s film is nothing like the MTV show, which has been condemned as exploitative “poverty porn.” While Buckwild was designed to get laughs or head-shakes from viewers, Oxyana is edited with compassion and sincerity. These are people, not punch lines.
“There couldn’t be a more opposite approach, other than both things taking place in West Virgnia,” Dunne continued. “Those are things that preceded us that were stumbling blocks when we got down there, because people said, ‘Oh, you’re going to be like Buckwild’ … But really all I wanted to do was tell a story about the concentration of OxyContin addicts, and I wanted to tell it in a really open and honest way, through their voices.”
In interviews, Dunne was able to get his subjects to open up about their history of prescription drug abuse, their fears of the future, and even the horrific acts of violence associated with the underground drug trade. It’s intimate, but Dunne keeps just the right amount of distance from his subjects. The tone is appropriately matter-of-fact.
“You get caught up, and you end up becoming friends with these people,” Dunne said, “but you realize there’s very little that we can do then and there that we can do to help the situation. But it is tough on me, and that’s what weighs on me, especially when I go into the edit room and have to relive these stories over and over.”
As a viewer, much of Oxyana’s imagery is equally troubling: shots of children walking barefoot over dilapidated wood, a man riddled with brain tumors struggling to speak, and, of course, constant snorting and injecting of OxyContin.
Just as Dunne was shocked when he saw his first Oceana resident casually shoot up, seeing so much unabashed drug abuse takes viewers aback. What’s especially remarkable is that so many of the users have already suffered legal consequences for their drug use and could face serious jail time if caught again.
“No one expressed to me any concern about filming any of the stuff,” Dunne said. “I wasn’t prompting them to do drugs. This is something they did and decided to do on camera.”
Mike, the town dentist and one of Oxyana’s subjects, explains that this brazen drug abuse is less addict behavior and more a product of the environment. As Dunne put it, “There’s a certain machismo that people have — hillbilly culture doesn’t really care about consequences. That was something that I wasn’t really aware of.”
There may not be shyness, but there is shame. It doesn’t come from Dunne, who keeps a steady, nonjudgmental tone throughout, but from the addicts who understand the depths of their disease and feel hopeless against it. In one of Oxyana’s most heartbreaking moments, a tearful mother hopes her daughter goes on to have a better life than she has.
For audiences — and for Oceana residents in particular — it may be difficult to watch. Mike the dentist, whom Dunne has had the most contact with since filming wrapped, told him, “If it’s real and it’s honest, how can I say anything against it?” And Dunne hopes he carries that message back to the town.
“He’s kind of a pillar of the community down there, so I’m hopeful that once they actually see the film, they’ll realize what we were doing was not something derogatory or meant to hurt anyone,” Dunne said. “This was meant to shine light on an issue in a real way.”
Dunne stressed that there’s more to Oceana than OxyContin abuse, though he acknowledges that even for non-addicts the drug is a part of daily life. One of the things Dunne is proud of is the way the film has helped the disparate parts of Oceana realize the larger issue and begin to talk about ways to alleviate the problem.
“I think it’s gonna open up a dialogue, and I think that’s the most positive thing I can do,” Dunne said. “This isn’t a film with answers. It’s a film that exposes the issue, and hopefully the answers then come from it.”
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