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Tribeca Review: The Unflinching ‘Oxyana’ Soberly Charts An Insidious Drug Epidemic In West Virginia

Tribeca Review: The Unflinching 'Oxyana' Soberly Charts An Insidious Drug Epidemic In West Virginia

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]

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viewer from CA

Callie, maybe Oxyana is like any other town but for a town of that size to have a DOA every day in the ER is not typical, nor is the number of prescriptions written for a population of that size. In addition where is the pharmacy that will fill a prescrAdn who is the doctor in Wash DC who wrote that prescriptions? Why wasn’t that explored? Sad state of affairs.


This documentary is naive and one sided. Whoever created this is not at all concerned with the town as a whole.


There is a great podcast with Sean Dunne on the Rocks Off site.

Callie Daniels

I live in Oceana and I just have to say, the people that were actually in the documentary were chosen very well and for a reason. He only chose people that portrayed the image he was trying to put out there. He didn't talk to your normal, everyday townspeople. The people he talked to are the people behind the scenes that you rarely actually have to interact with when you live in this town. They are a part of the town, but not the whole town. I have lived all over the country and the drug problem here is no worse than it is anywhere else. My family founded this town, and it really irritates me that he only chose to show one side of it. A documentary about an entire town should show the whole picture of that town, not just one little piece of it. I also was irritated with the statement about the police. I have family and friends that are police officers. It's not that they have given up trying to fight drugs, the problem is that the laws aren't on the side of the police. It's not against the law to abuse your own drugs. As long as the prescription is in your name, you can take it in any way that you want to and there isn't anything the police can do about it. It doesn't matter if the police know you are a druggie, if they don't see you themselves in the act of buying or using drugs and have proof of it, they can't do anything about it. These laws affect the entire state, not just our town. I think someone needs to come in here and do a documentary and do it right by looking at the whole town. Not to mention, he completely ripped off the name "Oxyana". MTV did a documentary years ago that had Oceana in it they called us Oxyana. Wouldn't have killed him to be a little original.

Michael Stein

I thought your comment about talking heads being frequently boring was interesting (even though you say that this film uses them very well). I never know why film people say this. In documentary, people with stories are the whole reason we make films. We want to hear from these people and hearing them allows us to emotionally connect with them. I know there is a movement away from using talking heads, but that seems to be only in the service of breaking a convention. What we're losing when we don't connect with real, live people on camera is frequently the emotional heart of the story. This film is a great example why talking heads are not just "talking." They're sharing the depths of their souls.

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