2 films, 2 W.Va. towns, 2 viewpoints
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two documentaries about drug-ravaged, economically downtrodden communities in Southern West Virginia are opening nationally within two weeks of each other. Both are set to doleful soundtracks, with plenty of ominous background footage of empty roads and abandoned houses.
One has been embraced by the community it depicts, with praise and well-attended public screenings, while the other, which hasn't yet been seen in West Virginia, has brought derision.
"Hollow," an interactive documentary about McDowell County that was directed by Logan County native Elaine McMillion, was released online on June 20, West Virginia Day.
"Elaine allowed us to tell our story," said Linda McKinney, who runs a food bank in Welch and is featured in the film. "I was born and raised in McDowell County and McDowell County has been good to us. Elaine came in and became part of our family, she didn't come in with an agenda."
The other documentary, director Sean Dunne's "Oxyana," premiered in April at a New York film festival but has not been seen since. It will be released online July 1.
In the meantime, the town of Oceana has been outraged by the trailer and promotional materials for the movie, holding a town meeting to fight the film and also to search for solutions to the town's prescription drug problems.
The May 31 town meeting was attended by dozens of federal and local officials, including a U.S. senator, a U.S. congressman and West Virginia's secretary of state.
"Mr. Dunne spent three weeks filming and he used those three weeks to try to define our town," said D.J. Morgan, a local lawyer who organized the meeting. "Today, we start to define ourselves on our own terms."
"Oxyana" documents the prescription drug epidemic that plagues Oceana, McDowell County and many similar communities in Southern West Virginia and the rest of the country.
The story is told primarily through interviews with about a dozen drug addicts and recovering addicts in Oceana. Four people inject or snort prescription pills on camera.
The trailer's quotes that have enraged Oceana residents are less central when stretched over an 80-minute film rather than a two-minute clip, but they're still there. And they present a problem for a film that bills itself as a "tale told with raw and unflinching honesty."
One anonymous 23-year-old Oceana resident claims that half his high school graduating class is dead, a claim that town residents say is impossible to believe.
"This film was meant to be, and is, a view into the people who are going through these struggles," Dunne said. "This is the perspective of somebody sitting there who, I guess he feels like he's watched half of his high school class get buried."
Nobody denies that Oceana has a prescription drug crisis. Citizens at the May 31 town meeting feared losing an entire generation to the epidemic. However, when anonymous drug users are shown claiming that 70 percent to 80 percent of the town has Hepatitis C -- about .03 percent of West Virginians are diagnosed with hepatitis C each year according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention -- it undermines the more legitimate claims, residents say.
West Virginia has the nation's highest rate of death from drug poisoning, according to 2010 CDC data.
The movie's title and the town's derisive moniker, Oxyana, isn't the only -- or even the saddest -- reference to the prescription painkiller OxyContin. One drug dealer in the movie, who says he regularly pays $1,000 to a Washington, D.C., doctor for a prescription with a street value of about $13,000, refers to kids who die from overdoses as having been "oxycuted."
"Every person I know personally knows someone who has OD'd and died," says Michael Moore, a local dentist, in the movie.
Rick Staton, the former prosecutor in Wyoming County, where Oceana is located, says in the movie that police had to stop doing drug buys because they were overwhelmed with too much paperwork.
James, whose last name is not given, says that his father killed his mother, his brother and then himself, likely in a dispute over drugs.
"I woke up every day to do pills," James says, wearing a T-shirt dedicated to his brother. "Nothing means nothing to you, the only thing you care about is a pill."
The success stories in "Oxyana" are the ex-addicts, who proudly show off their Suboxone, a prescription drug that suppresses urges for stronger painkillers.
"If it weren't for drugs in this town, my opinion, wouldn't be no town," one person says.
The citizens at the Oceana town meeting -- proud, defensive, looking for solutions and ready to fight for their town -- do not show up in "Oxyana."
They are, though, mirrored in the people who show up in "Hollow," which gives a more hopeful portrayal of a community that has just as serious a drug problem and an even more depressed economy.
Marsha Timpson is one of 38 McDowell County residents featured in "Hollow."
"I grew up in the '60s," Timpson says. "There was pot and stuff, but not like this, not these soul-taking drugs that people will do anything for."
It's a quote that could be pulled straight from "Oxyana." McDowell County has the nation's worst death rate for prescription pill overdoses.
Timpson's interview, though, is one of only two or three that focuses on drugs, out of dozens that make up "Hollow."
"Hollow" shows McDowell County through the eyes of its residents, many of whom were given cameras to tell their own stories.
Unlike Dunne, McMillion is revered by people in the community she portrays, not reviled.
Renee Bolden lives in Wyoming County but was born in McDowell County and founded the McDowell County Historical Society.
"As far as 'Oxyana,' Sean Dunne just set out to exploit the people that he interviewed in that movie," said Bolden, who hasn't seen that movie. "And 'Hollow' was the exact opposite of that. The stories were told by the people . . . it just showed how the people here have lived."
McMillion spent more than a year in McDowell County, while Dunne was in Oceana for a few weeks.
McMillion has seen "Oxyana" and took no shots at Dunne.
"The films just have very different missions and goals, and that filmmaker had his own interest and I had mine," she said. "I think it's a film that is receiving a lot of criticism, but one the whole state needs to see."
McDowell County has gone from one of the country's richest counties, when coal was booming in the middle of the 20th century, to one of the country's poorest. It has lost nearly 100,000 residents since 1965.
"Hollow" doesn't ignore these realities. It shows how home building has slowed to an absolute trickle after booming for decades. It says that 67 percent of sewage in the county goes straight into mountain creeks because of a lack of infrastructure.
Darren Blankenship owns a tattoo shop and wants to avoid working in the coal mines. By the end of his segment in the film, his shop has gone out of business and he's driving a coal truck.
Anita Wolfe conducts screenings for black lung disease and is now seeing it in younger and younger miners.
"These miners still want to continue working. Technically, they shouldn't. The disease is going to get worse," Wolfe says in the film. "But realistically, they have to, because it's the only thing in their community to do. It's either be a coal miner or be unemployed."
There is a definite hopeful air to the film, though.
We see a high school student from Iaeger who dreams of starring on "Saturday Night Live" and is off to West Virginia University's College of Creative Arts as his section of the film ends.
Ed Shepard has owned and operated the Union 76 service station in Welch for 63 years. In a couple sentences, he encapsulates the problems facing McDowell County and the reasons that its remaining residents are so reluctant to leave their home.
"I would love to see it boom again, but I don't see any possibility of it," Shepard says in the film. "I'd be lost to death if I didn't have this place to come to. What would I do?"
"Oxyana" will be available starting July 1 at www.oxyana.com. Digital rentals are $3.99, digital downloads are $9.99 and DVDs are $20.
"Hollow" is available for free at www.hollowdocumentary.com. It is best viewed using the Google Chrome browser. It has been screened in Welch and Caretta. A screening is planned at the Clay Center on Sept. 3.
Reach David Gutman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5119.