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Tribeca: Breakout Director Sean Dunne Talks ‘Oxyana’ and a Portrait of a Town’s Addiction

Tribeca: Breakout Director Sean Dunne Talks 'Oxyana' and a Portrait of a Town's Addiction

When people describe Oceana of ten years ago, they describe an idealistic small town–“kind of like the 50s,” says one man interviewed in Sean Dunne’s first feature documentary “Oxyana.” People in the town of 1,400 used to keep doors unlocked and let children play freely in the streets. Now, people are afraid to walk alone in a residential neighborhood. Locked doors don’t prevent break-ins from people “trying to feed addictions.” People have nicknamed the town Oxyana, after oxycontin, the drug that has addicted hundreds and taken countless lives in the West Virginia town.

With “Oxyana,” director Sean Dunne, who was nominated for an Emmy for 2011’s “The Archive,” has created a sensitive, powerful, and important account of a particularly dark moment in a quiet American town.

Why did Dunne call his documentary after the nickname rather than the town’s actual name? “It’s set in Oceana but to me Oxyana is not Oceana. They are two separate things. To me Oxyana is a temporary thing and a temporary place. It’s something that could go away, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to go away any time soon.”

The people whose stories comprise “Oxyana” are astoundingly candid. They are open about their addictions, how their habits have destroyed families, and the terrible measures they’ve taken to get fixes–prostitution and murder frequently among them. Many of the people in “Oxyana” take pills, snort, or shoot up oxycontin on camera. It’s hard to watch, Dunne agrees, saying that looking at his own film has caused him to turn away at moments. 

“I couldn’t censor them, I just gave them a forum to speak about their issue,” he says. “We really need to be careful because we are taking on responsibility for taking on a place and a serious issue going on in this place. I couldn’t pull punches and sugar-coat this film because it would have been a huge disservice.”

Dunne says many urgently wanted to talk on camera. When the residents of Oceana saw a film crew and microphone, they saw their chance to tell their story in a town that wasn’t talking. Dr. Mike Moore, a dentist in Oceana, told me that within the community there is “zero dialogue.” There is shame and judgment and denial in the town. But in the interviews Dunne filmed, there is a completely raw, desperate candor. They need to speak and “Oxyana” lets them.

“From the beginning we wanted to make something that was immersive as opposed to informative, a portrait as opposed to a social action-type documentary,” says Dunne. There is a conscious choice to keep the documentary devoid of statistics, or graphs, or narration, or labels. “This is to give these people a voice,” Dunne says, “There are no experts in this film.” 

Dunne filmed “Oxyana” over four weeks from May to September of 2012. He lived there with the crew–interviewing dozens of residents about how oxycotin has affected their lives. Dunne says executive producer Colby Glenn still gets calls from friends they made–but with many of them who harbor dangerous habits, good news is not always expected. “It’s one of those nerve-wracking things. The phone rings and it has that area code there and it’s like this could be one of the worst things about somebody we really like. You wish you could help, but you really almost don’t know where to begin.”

In language evoking a something like WWII, a 23-year-old interviewed says half of his graduating class is dead and he personally lost nine close friends in the past two years. He hears people refer to dying from an overdose of oxycontin as “oxycuted.” 

Moore said these nicknames help to compartmentalize the issue. “It’s a lot easier to coin a half funny term about your friend dying from something you’re also doing,” says Moore, “it keeps you from having to think about it too much… They all have to deal with the fact that someone died from something they’re going to do right after the funeral.” 

Dunne also speaks to the denial throughout the town, “They mention that it’s an epidemic, but it’s not treated like that there. In the newspapers people are dying every day from overdose but the word ‘overdose’ isn’t mentioned.”

“The survivors don’t want people to talk about it or know about it,” says Moore, “It always says the same thing ‘Male, 34, died of a short illness.’ Everybody there can put two and two together… They don’t do autopsies, they don’t want to talk about it,” says Moore.

Both Moore and Dunne say that most of these life-ruining habits start as stress relief, but while “it starts as very innocent, it will take or ruin your life very quickly,” says Dunne. Moore explains that they don’t know that it will be addictive and a pill seems innocent. But oxycotin is its own gateway drug. First it’s taken orally,  then snorted, and “then they’re hooked and looking for the needle,” says Moore, “It’s an easier step to take than you might think. This one is tough to get off of.”

But hearing these stories–and perhaps seeing them documented in Dunne’s “Oxyana”– will serve as a warning sign of the highest order. Moore, who has two daughters sixteen and seventeen and has taken in several “at-risk” teens, says that his daughters and some of their friends have learned a lesson that the generation before didn’t. “My kids are scared to death of all pills because they know too many people who are buried now because of oxycontin…  That’s the hope, that their eyes are opened enough to see what’s happening so they can say, ‘oh I don’t want any part of that.’ The generation before, their eyes weren’t open. They thought it was just another pill.” 

Dunne continues: “We ended with a child being born. Is that a symbol of hope? Or is this problem just continuing, because look what this child is born to. What could this life be like? This face of a newborn baby, a clean slate–I wanted the audience to decide for itself.”

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