Exclusive interview with Sean Dunne on Oxyana — Director of powerful documentary about the prescription drug problem in Oceana, West Virginia, comes clean about his Appalachian opus.

Oceana, West Virginia, is the town that US Senator Joe Manchin doesn’t want you to know about.

When documentary filmmaker Sean Dunne was getting ready to release his hard-hitting portrait of the town nicknamed Oxyana – after the prescription drug Oxycontin – he received a personal call from Manchin asking him not to. The senator, like many people who have come out against the film, had not even seen it.

Oceana is a town gripped in the global war on drugs. The oldest town in Wyoming County – an old coal mining hub with a population of 1,351 – Oceana, like the rest of West Virginia, has a rate of fatal prescription painkiller overdoses more than twice the national average.

Sean Dunne found out about the town through a subject in another of his documentaries, American Juggalo, about the fans of Insane Clown Posse, and arrived shortly after to talk to its residents and share their stories.

The film has proved controversial, in part, because it is open-ended. It doesn’t present itself as objective – looking at all sides of the story – and doesn’t present any grand solutions to the insidious problem.

Instead, Oxyana focuses on a certain strata of the society and, quite simply, let’s them speak. In not neatly tying up all the loose ends, Dunne invites his audience to dig further into the issue and come to their own conclusions.

Oxyana is a deeply personal film. How difficult was it to witness those moments as they unfolded?
I guess you can’t help but get swept up in whatever it is they’re talking about. I try to just really be in the moment with them and a lot of times it didn’t really hit me until we were out of there. Like, ‘Did this guy just sit there and tell us about discovering his dad, who’d killed his whole family and then himself?’ It’s one of those things that’s hard to describe but you can’t help but have a deep sense of empathy for these people.

How difficult is it for you to remain distant and professional?
You know I think first and foremost it’s important to be a human being. I have a hard time representing myself as anything but what I am. The people in Oceana were so generous telling us their stories that all I could do was facilitate these moments for them to talk and not judge them or look down on them but really try to look at them with compassion. And I think that also speaks to how we behaved back in the edit room. I think a lot of that empathetic compassionate attitude really translated. There were a lot of tears in the edit room I can tell you that much.

You approach much of your documentary work as more of a curious person than a journalist, which is something people have criticised you for. But is this a conscious decision?
Oh absolutely. I’m not a journalist, I have never wanted to be one, and I don’t ever intend to be one. I’m a filmmaker. I hesitate to even say documentarian because that implies a lot of negatives. When I go do these things, they’re not interviews, they’re conversations. These people are inviting me and these cameras into their worlds and I just try to treat them with respect and facilitate a moment. I try to just make it comfortable for them to open up and establish what little trust you can establish with somebody in that small amount of time.

What did you feel your responsibility was to the people you interviewed in Oceana?
I think my responsibility to them was to give them a voice and tell their story in a way that was actually reflective of the environment down there. There’s a tendency in a lot of documentaries these days for the filmmaker to stand there and say, ‘Oh here’s the problem, look at these awful people, and there’s what my solution would be.’ But I don’t think that’s my place. What I needed to go down there and do was to give these people a voice and give them a platform to get their stories heard because otherwise they never will get heard. And I think that speaks to why so many people even wanted to talk to me for this film. I think they saw an opportunity like, here’s an outsider in our little town of 1500 people that is going through a really hard time, let’s throw our trust towards this person because maybe he can get our story out there in an effective way. And I hope I did that.

How difficult was it to walk away after people have given you their trust? What did you want to leave behind?
Well I still haven’t. We’re a few years out from that shoot and I think about that place and those people everyday. It’s a big part of my life. Like I said, I’m not a journalist, I’m a person, so if I saw an opportunity to help someone while we were there, we did. For instance, the last shot in the movie is that couple with their newborn child and they live in a cheap trailer without air conditioning and it’s 100 degrees everyday so we were able to find a cheap air conditioner through our resources down there and get it over to them. We were kind of able to help with little things like that in the moment. But all I could really do was try to present this in a way that was really honest about what they were going through and hope that others would look at them the same way I do. And they have, you know? Someone’s set up a scholarship fund for people in Oceana and people are really rallying around this community. But the bigger point of this film is that this town is a microcosm of something that’s going on all over the world and it’s due to the war on drugs. I didn’t want to have any overt political messages in there, I really wanted to trust the viewer to kind of put these things together for themselves, or interpret for themselves, but this issue is the result of the pharmaceuticals, which are basically big drug cartels.

If this film got into the hands of a policymaker or someone in government, what impact would you want it to have?
Resources. A film like this is meant to lift the stigma off a drug addict, like, let’s normalise it, let’s look at these people like human beings and not the scourge of society. That’s what I would want to communicate if policymakers of any kind were to see this. Instead, the US Senator from West Virginia Joe Manchin, called me before the film was released, he hadn’t even seen it, and basically said, ‘What can we do to have this movie not see the light of day?’ There are 100 US senators in total and one of them called my cellphone. So I think that speaks to the prevailing attitude here in the US when it comes to drugs. People are embarrassed about it. I think we have a lot of healing to do when it comes to the issues surrounding the drug war.

Where do you fall on the legalisation of drugs argument?
I don’t think it’s our government’s place to tell us what kind of altered states we can be in. I believe we deserve sovereignty over our bodies and our consciousnesses and if we want to do drugs we should be able to. I think all drugs should be legal. The money you can generate from that can be poured into education and treatment and then all of a sudden you’re not going to be looking at towns like Oceana. It’s actually quite simple but it never appears that way in mainstream media. Follow the money. Look, for instance, at who’s paying the anti-marijuana people. It’s the pharmaceuticals. That’s just a small example of how this segment of society have become completely disposable. And normally we lock these people up, but if we can ignore them you get towns like Oxyana.

Your work is representative of a wider trend in documentary making away from a stats-based, journalistic approach to a more subjective, artistic approach. Films like The Act of Killing spring to mind. Are you excited by that movement?
I love that, what an important film. Yes, I am, because I think the audience deserves it. I think people are interested in the human condition and if my films are preaching anything, it’s acceptance. It’s, ‘Hey, here’s a little capsule of what’s going on. Let’s look at it normally as opposed to laughing at these people or looking down on them in anyway.’ I’ve always been of the mindset, with my films, and it comes from being an active viewer of documentaries, that people remember how they felt when they saw a film, not the bits of information that they picked up. I’m there to talk to people and hear their stories and present them in a raw and honest way and I see other filmmakers working in that same style and all I can think is that it’s a reaction to how uptight, formulaic and predictable documentaries have become. There’s almost a silliness to them. I watch people’s work and I feel like, ‘Why did you make this? Did you just want to make a documentary or do you have a real passion for the people?’ Because they’re not honouring their subject in any way. The audience want more, and that they’re smarter than you think. If you respect that, audiences will come and watch these films in droves, and we can make this more of a viable medium.

Is your documentary making also a reaction against the mainstream news media in America?
Yeah I guess you could look at this as news. I just don’t want any film that I make to end the conversation on a given subject. I want to open up a world of questioning in the audience’s mind about the subject that I’ve covered. I want to scratch the surface and expose something raw, and do it in an entertaining way, and then let the audience draw their own conclusion. The news is complete bullshit. They’re trying to make something overtly sensational. They’re interested in the black and the white, they’re not interested in the grey, or nuanced conversation, or raising questions. I want people to watch my film and be like, ‘Damn, what the fuck is going on with this war on drugs? Let me go and do a little research myself. Maybe I’ll go and make a short film.’ Maybe it’s even simpler than that, maybe somebody will watch Oxyana and say, ‘Oh shit, maybe I need to look at my drug addict uncle a little differently. I’m gonna extend my consciousness a little bit and look at him like a human being.’ It’s not magic, it’s just a genuine curiosity on my part and remaining conversational and non-judgmental. Those are good tools to take into your life too. I’ve become a more positive person since becoming a filmmaker. I’ve been inspired by the humanity I’ve captured, and probably most of all the people down in Oceana. Those are strong people, and they’re going through a really tough time, and they need our love and compassion and support, just as much as anybody else. So I hope a film like this can inspire people to not just rally around that particular community, but rally around anyone in their world that might be going through these types of problems. Compassion keeps everything going. If my films can reflect that, not in a cheesy, hippie way, then I’ve done my job.

It was refreshing just to see these conversations happening, outside of the internet too.
It’s funny because the films that inspired us were from the ’70s and ’80s – Harlan County, USA, by Barbara Kopple, Vernon, Florida, by Errol Morris – these are films that are ingrained in me, and they inspire me, like, ‘Wow, it can be very simple.’ Oxyana is meant to be a very, very simple film in a lot of ways – just people talking, people sharing their experiences. And the fact that it can be so gut-wrenching just speaks to the power of their words, and the power of cinema. The subjects of my films are on the fringes of society, they’re hiding in plain sight and I’m just trying to give them a voice. There is a tendency in a lot of documentary that you need to be exposing some evil, and instead what I’m trying to do with my films is expose something in the viewer. I want people to watch my films and question something about themselves.

How do you respond to people who have criticised you for not painting a complete picture?
One of the guys who was in the film, Mike the dentist, he put it really well, he said, ‘No one forced Sean to come down here. He didn’t come down here to make a film about our high school football programme. He came down here to make a film about a drug issue.’ And the people who gave me the time of day and listened to me really got behind this film. The people who were rallying against it, were rallying against it before they ever saw a frame of this thing. They were using the film as the centrepiece of their anger but it has nothing to do with the film, it has to do with the frustrations of living in that type of place and thinking that someone’s trying to exploit it. Once people saw the film and saw the level of compassion it was approached with, I never heard a word about that type of stuff again. It was really amazing. And that was part of the reason we released the film ourselves. We had a ton of offers, but everything seemed inappropriate. I couldn’t give this over to someone else because they didn’t know these people like we did. So we wanted to make sure that we handled it so we could honour them properly, and so that someone else wouldn’t exploit them.

Have the people in the film seen it? What do they think?
Yeah, yeah they have. Actually Mike the dentist came to the premiere. It was his first time in New York City and he sat in front of 500 people and was as calm and cool and confident as I’ve ever seen anyone. He came up to the stage in tears and the first question from the audience was to him, ‘What do you think of this film?’ And he was crying and he said, ‘I wish I could say that this isn’t exactly how it is down there but it is.’

You’re very prolific. You’ve made a lot of films. What keeps you motivated?
People. That’s it, plain and simple. People are just endless inspiration. I’ve been completely fascinated by people my whole life. I really like talking to people and I think I can get a certain tone out of people that works really well for the types of films I’m trying to make. Anytime I come across a certain subject matter that speaks to those things, I’m there. My next film is about women who do sex work via webcams – again people hiding in plain sight. I’m just going to keep trying to get better at what I do and take the audience on these journeys. It really interests me, I’m addicted to it. I’m leaving tomorrow for another shoot. It never stops.

And because you choose to sidestep the bureaucratic film industry no one can stop you?
Yeah exactly, screw all that. I don’t need any of it. For voices like mine to emerge, we have to take the approach in the first place of not asking for permission. Who the fuck is going to fund something like what I want to make? I’ve realised from day one of this, no one cares about what I’m doing until I put something in front of them. I could probably go through the proper channels and figure out to finance these things, but I just go on Kickstarter and try to appeal to the people who are going to watch these films. I’m not going to make money from these films, that’s not why I’m in it. I’m more devoted than I am ambitious. I never really let asking permission stand in the way of making any of these films. I don’t know how I’d be doing them otherwise because there’d be a whole load of bullshit corporate hoops to jump through.

People say we’ve lost a generation of talent because young people can’t afford to work in the creative arts full time anymore. Do you think that’s true or is there a positive spin?
This art form is very expensive and you’ve got to figure out ways to make these things work for cheap. That’s the most overwhelming part of it. It takes a lot of strength to stick with it. Now I’m in the position where a lot of people want to throw money my way and I have to say no. If a company like Vice approached me, for example, fuck them. Leave me alone. They are the people squashing out the voices of this generation because it all becomes ‘Vice’s voice’. And what good does that do anyone? They’re just a big corporation like the ones I’m rallying against.

It’s amazing that one film like Oxyana can shift a person’s entire perspective, that’s powerful.
That’s the idea. To keep building on these things. Whether it’s sustainable or not I don’t know. I do commercial work and pour the money into my film projects. Everything is changing out there but artists need to really realise what being an artist is, and it’s not about material pursuits. People get obsessed with paying the bills. Fuck the bills! Start living more modestly. In the past year everything changed in my life. You have eye-opening experiences, like meeting the people of Oceana, and you reconsider your life. I always try to take something positive away from every subject.

You can watch the film on the Oxyana website.

Read Sean Dunne discussing his two latest projects Cam Girlz and Florida Man.

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