Elaine McMillion Sheldon, director of Netflix’s Oscar-nominated Best Documentary Short Subject, “Heroin(e),” knows her topic too well. While she is a ninth-generation West Virginian who went to graduate school on the East Coast and interned at The Washington Post, many of her peers weren’t so lucky. Two years ago, she and her producing partner husband, Kerrin Sheldon, moved back to their native state to document the opioid crisis. “I personally have had a lot of friends and classmates from middle school and high school become addicted or are currently in rehab, or in longterm recovery,” McMillion Sheldon said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a story that was haunting us both.”
Huntington, West Virginia (population: 48,000) experienced 10 times the national overdose rate in 2015. “Heroin(e)” protagonist Jan Rader — the state’s first female fire chief — fields calls for up to 26 opioid overdoses per day. She explains in the 39-minute film that since the town’s workforce is largely comprised of construction, manufacturing, and mining jobs, “A lot of people in this area got hooked on pills through a legitimate injury, and have now moved on to heroin because they can’t get pills anymore.”
Huntington and West Virginia have are often used to illustrate everything that’s wrong with America. British chef Jamie Oliver chose the city for the first season of his former ABC series “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” following a 2008 Associated Press article that christened Huntington “America’s fattest and unhealthiest city.” As recently as 2016, West Virginia trailed all other states in its employment-to-population ratio. At this writing all public schools in West Virginia are closed, as teachers go into their third day of picketing for improved paychecks and benefits.
“This place — especially Appalachia and especially West Virginia — is sort of the moniker of Trump country,” said Sheldon. President Trump won all 55 of the state’s counties in the 2016 election, with more than 42 percent of voters preferring him to Hillary Clinton. The Sheldons, who will release a feature later this year called “11/8/16,” emphasizes the state’s low voter turnout; less than 58 percent voted in the presidential election. “It feels very apolitical in a lot of ways, and a lot of people just don’t really talk about it other than they want to be left alone. They want a job,” said Sheldon.
Rader told IndieWire that Huntington mayor Stephen Williams “is very adamant that to deal with a problem, you must own the problem … his philosophy is we will be defined by how we deal with it.” While the filmmakers live 45 minutes away in Charleston, West Virginia, McMillion Sheldon said they were drawn to Huntington’s “openness”: “They’re very transparent about the numbers and were actually allowing media to go on ride-alongs and to understand how they were dealing with [the crisis].”
Huntington is also the site of progressive, somewhat controversial pushes to help curb addiction, such as participating in the North American Syringe Network Exchange. In a meeting featured in the film, Rader is challenged for being a proponent of Naloxone, a rescue medication that helps overdose victims start breathing again. “The only qualification for getting into longterm recovery is you have to be alive,” she says in the scene. “And I don’t care if I save somebody 50 times.”
The Sheldons met Rader through the Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy in February 2016. “Kind of every interview we did before that point no longer felt relevant,” said McMillion Sheldon. The now-23-year veteran of the Huntington Fire Department introduced the couple to many community change-makers. These included her friends like Cabell County Judge Patricia Keller — endearing even as she’s jailing defendants — as well as realtor, Baptist, and feminist Necia Freeman, who operates Backpacks & Brown Bags, a ministry that provides meals, hygiene kits, and shelter options to local sex workers. The trio meets before every session of “drug court” (which Keller oversees), an intensive recovery program for those referred by law enforcers and justice department officials.
McMillion Sheldon secured “Heroin(e)” funding through the Helen Gurley Brown Foundation’s Glassbreaker Films initiative at the Center for Investigative Reporting, which specifically sought nonfiction shorts about women making a difference. She and Sheldon, who also served as cinematographer, decided to focus on Rader, Keller, and Freeman, using a strategy that kept Freeman in her car, Keller in the courtroom, and Rader as their guide throughout the city.
Prior to becoming a first responder, Rader spent eight years in the jewelry business. In 1993, she worked at a Washington, D.C. shop with a bay window where customers could watch their belongings get repaired. One day, while talking to a jeweler, Rader recalls “watch[ing] a lady turn blue and collapse, right in front of the doorway.” She called 911 and among the dispatched crew who helped revive the woman was a female paramedic. “I just really never realized that was a career choice for women,” Rader said. Her jogging group included male firefighters, who said she’d make a great colleague. Within a couple of weeks, she began her new career with a CPR class, “because I really didn’t ever want to feel that helpless again.”
A significant part of the story follows Rader as she responds to overdoses everywhere from apartments to a restaurant and a gas station. Rader even comes across a man she’s already revived earlier that week, a common occurrence. “It’s an emergency situation, so the most important thing is that we don’t get in the way of the people doing their job,” said McMillion Sheldon.
In instances where filming was possible, when victims regained consciousness the director introduced herself as a local, independent documentarian requesting use of the footage, promising, “‘I won’t exploit you, I will try to protect your privacy, we will agree to blur your face.'” Although the couple worked on the film intermittently for 15 months, they never witnessed a single death. McMillion Sheldon said the firefighters and medics are “are so good at their job, and they’ve been responding to these calls for so long that they can do it with their eyes closed.”
Editor Kristen Nutile eventually spent a month cutting together their material. Once they had a rough cut, the Center for Investigative Reporting tipped off Netflix’s director of documentary original programming, Jason Spingarn-Koff. The couple knew him well; they worked with him while making films for The New York Times’ Op-Docs platform (“For Seamus,” “The Marijuana Divide,” “West Virginia, Still Home”). In late spring 2017, Netflix said they wanted to distribute the film, which premiered in late summer at the Telluride Film Festival, ahead of its September 12 streaming debut.
“We’re so new at this, and we actually make a lot of films without any money for a long time before people come on, typically, and so we’re used to having creative control,” said McMillion Sheldon, a 2013 Peabody Award winner for “Hollow,” an interactive documentary in which she followed 30 residents of West Virginia’s McDowell County. “I was worried at first, working with [Netflix], if they would change [‘Heroine’] into something that is that sort of grim-statistics type thing. But they didn’t … They helped us add more breadth into the film, make it less transactional, going from scene to scene, and make it more cinematic, [with] more of these poetic moments.” McMillion Sheldon said Spingarn-Koff always supported her cinéma vérité approach, and encouraged more screen time for Mickey Watson, a onetime addict, now sober, whose life Rader saved.
With a presence in almost 200 countries, Netflix not only made the film available to a massive home audience, but also promoted it with events hosted by activists like Rashida Jones and Cheryl Hines. The site also prominently included McMillion Sheldon in its marketing: online ads read, “Four women fight to break the cycle, one life at a time,” placing her picture alongside her stars. “Heroin(e)” has good Oscar chances in the category that garnered Netflix its first-ever statuette a year ago, for “The White Helmets,” another Telluride-launched film.
Rader watched it for the first time at the moment it made its streaming premiere, unaware that she was the main character. “I was scared to death,” she said. Thankfully, she was “blown away” with the “refreshing,” uplifting result. “The reality of these women’s lives is they go to bed every night not without the ups and downs but they feel the motivation to keep going, and so that’s how the film needed to end,” said McMillion Sheldon.
Now Rader has a dress for Sunday’s Academy Awards, and she has promoted the film on “Meet the Press;” McMillion Sheldon stopped by “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.” At last month’s State of the Union address, Rader was West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s guest. The film has been screened for the entire West Virginia legislature, as well as the Aspen Institute and the Obama Foundation Summit, where the cast and filmmakers met the former first couple.
“I have been contacted by first responders throughout the country that are like, ‘I didn’t believe addicts were worth anything, but you’re actually opening my eyes and changed my view,’” Rader said. “We take an oath to save lives and property, but nowhere in there does it say we have the right to judge. But we’re humans, and we tend to do that. But there’s these stereotypes and stigmas associated with substance-use disorder, or what most people call addiction. And when you start looking at it differently, you realize that those stigmas are all wrong, and I don’t know how they got started, but we need to change that.”