Oceana, a small coal mining town in Wyoming County, West Virginia, is, on the surface, like any other small town in Appalachia. An hour away from almost any major city, and with an approximate population of 1,400, it’s small, close-knit and not necessarily very open to outsiders. But quietly simmering underneath the surface of this municipality, an insidious epidemic is growing; a scourge of OxyContin and prescription pills that has devastated the town and given it the unfortunate nickname of “Oxyana.”
Directed by Sean Dunne (the helmer behind Emmy-nominated documentary short “The Archive” and the Insane Clown Posse Juggalos documentary “American Juggalo”), “Oxyana” is a gripping and sometimes hard-to-watch portrait of this struggling township under siege by a drug epidemic. Dispassionate in the best sense of the word, “Oxyana” is respectful to the point of being detached. Aside from some hauntingly broken down music by members of Deer Tick (which resembles the wailing violins and trudging drums of The Dirty Three), “Oxyana” almost never editorializes. The film is told almost 100% through talking-head interviews from addicts who are more than willing to share their stories.
And as sometimes customary and commonplace (even boring) as the talking-head style documentary can be, it’s absolutely the correct method for these compellingly told, brutal and sobering stories. Struggling with poverty and unemployment, the town has a legacy of being exploited via its coal mines, and therefore the pill abuse — a perfect way to keep on slogging through the backbreaking work — is well explained. Yet somehow, Oceana went from a generation of hardscrabble coal miners using pills to get by, to a newer generation that has abused the drug to the point of death.
To this end, it’s very easy to cry exploitation when telling the stories of the poor, uneducated and disadvantaged, yet Dunne and his team form a respectful and simple portrait: turning the camera on and simply letting these people share what they want to. Names are never used, no postscript of where they are at in the conclusion is employed, and the interviewers are never seen or heard. It’s stark, but powerfully effective stuff.
And the stories of “Oxyana” are many different shades of unfortunate and tragic. A father and dentist laments the demise of his town, one that he won’t leave because he simply cares and loves it too much despite the uptick of violence, overdoses, crime and deaths. Several addicts tell their stories with raw, open-wound vulnerability, including one couple with a withering and emaciated husband dying of brain cancer excruciatingly stuttering away as he struggles to tell his tale. One young man has a baby on the way and knows he wants to be a good father, but he cannot help but shoot oxy into his veins just to maintain an even keel. Another heavy-set, thickly-drawling 20-something has felt the consequences of the drug problem first hand and appears as if he is just waiting to die. His drug-addicted father shot and killed his younger brother and mother and he was a witness to the bodies only a few short hours later. Former addicts talk about the destitute lows they had reached — prostitution, crime, sleeping under bridges on dirt — and the absolute controlling power the drug has when it quickly coils and forms a bitterly hard-to-break addiction.
Parents, mothers, addicts and members of the community speak candidly and at length about how their families have been affected. The brief law enforcement section of the documentary almost feels too short, but overwhelmed with processing paperwork, it’s clear they have mostly given up the fight in drug busts and can only handle major crimes.
Not for the faint of heart, several addicts shoot up on camera, and the aforementioned couple with the man dying of brain cancer is painfully difficult to watch. But what makes “Oxyana” absorbing and tolerable is its considerate non-judgmental approach. By giving each person his or her due in a simple, straightforward manner, the documentary humanizes each one of these addicts without turning them into victims. They are who they are, and their portraits and stories are presented plainly for you to make of them what you will.
“Oxyana” doesn’t provide a lot of answers, but it would be dubious to assume it should. It spends time with various people, all of whom don’t have a lot of hope for the region, stuck and trapped in its vicious cycle. Even worse is how the drug contagion has become an embedded part of the sleepy town’s already depressed economy. With the coal mines largely abandoned, a haunted pall hangs over the town, and Dunne captures this in an eerie, yet honest fashion. Crime and violence is on the rise and several participants discuss loved ones who have disappeared and turned up as bodies months later. There’s a not a lot of hope to be found.
Dunne wisely sidesteps any drama or melodrama in the movie (a Q&A after the film suggested some much uglier forms of violence took place with some of the couples near the end of the shoot, but the filmmakers decided to eschew it and stick to their portrait). Unwavering and unflinching, “Oxyana” is anguished and hard to look at. It’s a pained and uncompromising look at horrors that have decimated a community, and while raw-nerved and difficult to stomach at times, Dunne’s respectful ability to never look away from these harsh realities is what makes the doc so vital, powerful and striking. [A]