Director Sean Dunne makes his feature directorial debut with Oxyana, a documentary chronicling the demise of a West Virginia mining town in the words of its own residents. Beset by a failing industry and an epidemic of prescription drug addiction, Oceana is the America that the government has left behind. Here, Dunne answers some questions about making the film and the politics behind it.
Oxyana premiered last week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It screens tonight at 7:30 and tomorrow at 3:30. You can watch the trailer here.
Morgan Davies (MD): What drew you to Oceana and the subject matter? How did you decide to make a documentary about what was happening there?
Sean Dunne (SD): We actually came across Oceana somewhat by accident on a road trip in January 2012. Once we were there, we talked to some of the locals and the subject of Oxycontin came up early and often. I had some personal experience with prescription pill abuse by a close family member so the subject was near to my heart. We went back in April, talked to some more people and decided then that we needed to document this.
MD: Many of your interview subjects are incredibly honest and share very painful personal stories. How did you build a rapport with the people and community that made them so willing to participate in the film?
SD: We made friends and let them decide for themselves if they wanted to speak with us. One of the first people we interviewed was a man named James whose family was killed over the drug. We sat down with him and he started to tell this insane tale of drugs and coal mining and dealing and murder. I was astonished by his candor. Afterwards he told us that was the first time he was reliving some of this stuff, and it felt therapeutic to get it off his chest.
Others were just anxious to have their voices heard with the hope that somehow this could bring some attention to this problem.
MD: The film has a very distinct aesthetic throughout, but I was particularly taken by the montage sequences showing the often dilapidated buildings in Oceana. What made you decide to incorporate those sequences in the film, and to shoot the movie in the way that you did?
SD: It really fascinated me as a filmmaker how much the physical decay of this town mimicked the actual physical decay of a drug user. Businesses and houses that were still functioning but dying from neglect the same way the addicts lose their teeth and develop scars and wrinkles. Those buildings and closed mines juxtaposed with the visuals of the absolutely stunning natural surroundings that this place was blessed with seemed almost poetic.
MD: There are a lot of highly political implications to the content of the film, but you rely exclusively on your subjects’ testimony without verbally editorializing. Did you always know you were going to structure the film this way, or did that grow out of post-production?
SD: We went into this film as we do with all our films, long or short, with a set of guiding principles. From the onset this film was going to forgo "expert testimony" or narration or titles and instead let the story unfold from the voices of the people that are there and dealing with this epidemic everyday. This way we weren't putting certain subjects on a pedestal. Everyone was treated the same way, on screen and off. This was a conscious decision made to humanize the addicts and put a face on this issue. The political implications were there from the second we started rolling, and it's all there on the screen, from the people's voices. I didn't need to, nor was I interested in editorializing beyond that.
MD: Do you think there are any solutions to the drug problem in Oceana, or at least ways out for some of the young people there? What do you believe is the future of the place?
SD: There are always solutions but it's going to take a change in the cultural attitude towards drugs and drug addiction. Us versus them doesn't help anyone in this situation. Hopefully this film can help repair that divide and create an atmosphere that is more sympathetic to those who need help. There is hope for Wyoming County, but it's not the government, or coal mining, or God, the hope is in the people. Addicted or not, these are great people with big hearts, who I think are capable of rising above this. But it has to start with an open mind.