"It’s like this black mark on the most beautiful thing ever."
You can’t help but think of The Hunger Games when watching Sean Dunne’s Oxyana, a film in contention for best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival. Like Katniss Everdeen’s District 12, the small Appalachian town of Oceana sits nestled in an idyllic landscape of ancient forests and streams that belies the destitution and desperation of the people who tend the land. With the already physically and emotionally taxing coal mining business in decline, over the past 10 years this once vibrant hamlet has transformed into a nightmare of Oxycontin addiction, economic hardship, and death. In response, the region has christened Oceana with the portmanteau Oxyana, serving almost like a canary to neighboring towns, warning that this too could happen to them.
Told entirely by its residents, Oxyana is a powerful portrait of people struggling with addiction born out of over-prescribing and convenience. Pills that represented escape from actual physical pain (one woman became hooked after her father beat her so badly her doctor prescribed the drug) and the boredom that comes from living in a remote town without many entertainment options, soon became a nightmare. After progressing from snorting to injecting the drug, users soon needed more pills for a fraction of the initial high, and at around $50 per hit, many turned to dealing (if they could get a prescription) or prostitution (if they couldn’t). The drug has taken a significant toll on the town as well: one resident in his early 20s believed that half of his graduating high school class had died, either by overdose or Oxy-related violence.
While the film begs for more context around the socio-economic climate that led to this epidemic, as well as possible ways of addressing it, Oxyana is still worth a look. One resident, a dentist who treats many on the drug, explained the cycle of depression in Oceana thusly: there’s a sense of fatalism that permeates Appalachia and is passed from generation to generation that dictates that nothing good will ever happen for its residents because of a history of corporate avarice. These people have internalized this belief and feel powerless to overcome it; the drug helps them forget.
But it’s important that we don’t. The closest many of us will ever come to this part of the country is when we fly over it. It’s about time we stop and actually take a look at what’s happening to the people that inhabit this country’s postcard-friendly, but clearly gilded forests.
Oxyana is playing on 4/25 and 4/26 at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC. Click here to watch the trailer and here for more information on the screenings.