A Director Looks for Beauty in Her Home’s Opioid Struggle
Posted June 29, 2018 4:02 p.m. EDT
These are tense times for filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon, who has seen many of the people she grew up with in West Virginia get caught up in the state’s opioid epidemic. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported West Virginia had the highest rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in the United States in 2016, the majority attributed to synthetic opioids and heroin.
It was a depressing phenomenon that Sheldon, who still lives in West Virginia with her husband, producer and cinematographer Kerrin Sheldon, wasn’t anxious to explore in depth — she had been “avoiding it for a while,” she said.
But she realized a vital piece of the story was missing. Having witnessed the epidemic in her own backyard, she craved stories of hope that countered the addiction stigmas and stereotypes that have become synonymous with “coal country.” The “othering” has been frustrating, she said, ultimately motivating her to create her own nuanced portrayals of West Virginia’s opioid struggle — the “good, bad, ugly” along with “what’s beautiful.”
The first was last year’s “Heroin(e),” a short documentary tracking caretakers and emergency medical workers combating the epidemic, which received an Academy Award nomination. Now comes “Recovery Boys,” debuting Friday on Netflix.
“I had seen enough in the media about the problem,” she said. “I wanted to show life through the eyes of people in recovery.”
“Recovery Boys” follows Jeff, Ryan, Adam and Rush during their six-month stay at Jacob’s Ladder, the farm-based rehab in Aurora, West Virginia, founded by Dr. Kevin Blankenship. His own son is in recovery.
“When we embarked on this, it really was trying to find something that gave me hope,” Sheldon said. “I wanted to find people who were actively trying to do something about the situation.”
Sheldon, 30, discussed “Recovery Boys” by phone from her home in Charleston, West Virginia. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: When did you notice changes in your community from the opioid epidemic? How did it affect you personally?
A: I grew up in a small town called Logan, West Virginia, which has been flooded with opioids. I saw the effects of it. I saw a lot of workers getting hurt and getting addicted. But, I personally, as a kid, didn’t know what I was seeing.
Once I graduated college, that’s when I really started seeing people dying, seeing more mug shots of girls and guys I went to high school with and [seeing them] getting their kids taken away. It felt like every other person I knew from my science class in high school was, in some way, impacted by this.
Q: Do you worry that a film about addiction and recovery in West Virginia might feed into existing stereotypes about the region?
A: There’s always a risk when you’re covering a serious topic that people will make their assumptions about West Virginia or Appalachia. This film could be made anywhere in America, but it’s made here in my backyard. I want to see this place change, and I want to see it improve. I want to help people understand recovery is day-to-day. This is a lifelong effort for these guys, and we have to sort of change that perception and understand that relapse is part of a lot of people’s recovery, and not shame them.
It’s a tight rope to walk when I live here. I personally have an amazing life in West Virginia. I love living here. I choose to live here. My life is not always reflected in the films I make, and that’s a point of tension for me.
Q: “Recovery Boys” is a very intimate film. What did you need to do to establish trust between you and the men in the film? Did you get any resistance?
A: Our relationship grew over the six months. Some days we’d show up, and they’d say they were really excited to see us. It was like having your friends around. There were moments when we would put the cameras down and meditate with them. Or maybe we would put the cameras down and work on the farm with them. I can’t really explain why I did that. I wanted to do it. The most important moments were when the camera was down, and we were showing up day after day.
We were yet another person in this very compassionate space that was rooting for them because, at the end of the day, we want to see all of them live happy, healthy lives.
Q: Did you ever want to step in and help or offer advice while filming?
A: It’s really hard watching people struggle. You want to step in and help, but that’s not really your role. There were times when Adam needed a place to sleep and I asked Kerrin, my husband, “Should I let him sleep on our couch?” And we decided no — that was an ethical boundary we just couldn’t cross. The motive is always do no harm; your job is to tell the truth, and document what’s happening.
That doesn’t mean that when the scene has sort of lived out its life and ended, you don’t put the camera down and sympathize with them and talk through things that you wouldn’t talk through on camera, human-to-human.
Q: Have you noticed more interest from networks in films set in rural America since the election?
A: While the demand is greater, I’m not seeing foundations and networks finding people like myself who are embedded in communities. I’m seeing [organizations] give money to folks that are distant from those communities. I’m excited that there’s more attention drawn to the issues and the stories of this place, but I worry that it’s just more of the same. More of this outside view looking in.
I always get really defensive when people call places like where I’m from “Trump Country,” even calling this place “coal country.” It’s an “othering” that really bothers me, and it’s not wholly true. West Virginia went for Bernie [Sanders] pretty hard, actually, and we don’t talk about that. Rural America is not that hard to understand. It’s pretty similar to a lot of the other places that we look at.
Q: What do you think other filmmakers or writers get wrong about West Virginia and Appalachia?
A: When people come to a place like Appalachia, they’re coming here because the overdose rates are high, because the child welfare system is overwhelmed. That’s their angle, rather than trying to find the resilience or the hope for the change makers that are actually doing things about it.
When you’re dropping in and out, and you’re not staying for long — or long enough — you don’t get to see the beauty, the resilience, the humor, all the layers of a crisis. People continue to change their lives. And if you’re only coming in for a day, you’re not going to see that.
Q: Is “Recovery Boys” the next chapter after “Heroin(e)”? Where do we go from here?
A: We feel we have contributed to the conversation that’s already happening, with “Heroin(e)” seeing what’s happening on the front lines from a community response and “Recovery Boys” from an individual response — Dr. Blankenship stepping up to help these guys taking the steps to change their lives.
But I think one of the bigger stories is what’s going to happen to the kids — the generation behind the people currently suffering from substance abuse disorder, overdosing and dying, locked-up in prison, or getting their kids taken away from them. [That is] the next impending crisis that we have to look at.