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From West Virginia to the Red Carpet

With an overdose death rate 10 times the national average, news about the Mountain State has been bleak, but a West Virginia filmmaker chose to tell a story of resilience and hope. 

In 2016, CNN called Huntington, West Virginia, “America’s drug death capital.”

 

Since then, West Virginia has become the face of the opioid epidemic. With an overdose death rate 10 times the national average, the narrative being shared about the Mountain State has been bleak.

But, one year after the CNN headline, a West Virginia filmmaker chose to tell a different kind of story about the opioid crisis — one of resilience and hope. Elaine McMillion Sheldon (BSJ, 2009) directed and co-produced the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Heroin(e),” a film focused on three women fiercely dedicated to fighting the opioid crisis in their home community. 

Growing up in Appalachia, storytelling has always been deeply rooted in Sheldon’s personal history. As a child, she remembers listening to Logan County ghost stories and her grandfather’s stories of working as a coal miner.

“Storytelling is a way to be a part of other people’s lives,” Sheldon said. “I’m interested in other people and why they do what they do. I think we need storytellers because it’s nice to see society reflected back.”

Sheldon’s love of storytelling led her to major in print journalism. But while at WVU, she also learned how to shoot photographs and video, and she helped launch “West Virginia Uncovered,” a multi-media storytelling and training project for West Virginia’s smaller newspapers. After college, Sheldon added to her skills by studying filmmaking at Emerson University.   

Her award-winning film career began with the interactive documentary “Hollow” (hollowdocumentary.com), which examined the future of rural America through the experiences and struggles of people living in McDowell County. The film received a 2014 Emmy nomination and a 2013 Peabody Award, one of the highest honors in broadcast journalism.

Heroin(e)

Sirens blare in the background as Jan Radar drives to the scene of another overdose. In route, she explains that the fire department responds to as many as seven overdoses a day—a drastic change from the occasional call they received 20 years ago when she started this job. Rader stops her car and runs up the steps to the apartment of a man in distress. She knocks and yells “fire department!” — not expecting a response — before throwing her weight against a door to get inside the bathroom where a man has collapsed. She helps drag him into the bedroom and administers naloxone.
As a first responder and the first female fire chief in West Virginia, Rader is on the front lines fighting the opioid epidemic every day.

Sheldon and her husband, Kerrin, were on the scene when Rader saved that man’s life. They had been in Huntington for a reporting trip on another story when they met three women who changed the course of their project. The women included Rader, Judge Patricia Keller, who presided over Cabell County Drug Court, and Necia Freeman, who founded Brown Bag and Backpacks Ministry that delivers food and Bible passages to prostitutes who are addicted.

Elaine and her husband, Kerrin

Kerrin and Elaine Sheldon are on the set of “Recovery Boys,” their debut feature-length documentary.

Through these women, Sheldon saw a story that could offer a stark contrast to the national coverage that has characterized the opioid crisis as a lost cause. Instead of letting this epidemic define their community, Rader, Keller and Freeman were doing something to help solve it.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon with subjects from Heroin(e)

Jan Rader, Patricia Keller, Necia Freeman, Elaine Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon attend the Meet the Press Film Festival with the American Film Institute.

“Huntington has gotten the short end of the stick in a lot of media representation being called the overdose capital of the country,” said Sheldon. “We were impressed and surprised by the level of resilience that these three women and the other people working towards this issue in Huntington represent.”

Even after she started shooting, Sheldon wasn’t quite sure what she had.  Her original footage sat on a hard drive until Sheldon heard that The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) was funding films made by women about women. So, she pitched the concept for “Heroin(e).”

After learning that CIR agreed to fund her project, Sheldon and her husband returned to Huntington to shoot more footage over the following year. Netflix came on board during the editing stage and the film became a Netflix “Original Short Documentary.”

Sheldon’s goal for “Heroin(e)” was to help decrease the stigma surrounding the epidemic and increase empathy for those who are addicted. With Netflix’s involvement, the film was made available to a worldwide audience, giving it the exposure that might help reach that goal. In fact, there has been a community screening in almost every state in the U.S. where residents are contending with the opioid crisis.

“It’s traumatic to see people potentially at their lowest moment, and you wish you could do more. Hopefully telling their story and being a witness to these things can help wake the country up.”

“We’re just hoping as many people watch the film as possible and increase education around what addiction is and how we can truly be helping people,” said Sheldon. “We hope the film can do what any good film does, which is get people talking.”

As a documentarian, Sheldon believes it is her job to show people what they need to see and not necessarily what they want to see, but that can be a strain on the filmmaker.

“It was emotionally hard to come to terms with why we were doing what we’re doing— making sure it helps people and we’re not just documenting it for the sake of documenting it,” explained Sheldon. “It’s traumatic to see people potentially at their lowest moment, and you wish you could do more. Hopefully telling their story and being a witness to these things can help wake the country up.”

The film quickly garnered national media attention after its release. Sheldon has made appearances on several radio and television programs including “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah and “Meet the Press,” and NPR.

The documentary premiered at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival as part of the main program alongside films like “Lady Bird” and “The Shape of Water.” But a highlight for Sheldon was when “Heroin(e)” had the honor of being the only film screened at the Obama Foundation Summit, where she, and the three women from the film, met the former president and first lady. 

“The reaction to ‘Heroin(e)’ has been overwhelmingly positive,” Sheldon said. “I did not anticipate this many people seeing the film and reaching out to us and even thanking us. It’s pretty amazing.”

The Academy

“We plan to stay the course and continue to tell stories from our own backyard that move us.”

In January 2018, “Heroin(e)” was nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary Short Subject, which began a new and exciting chapter in Sheldon’s life as a director. Sheldon, Kerrin and the three heroines featured in the documentary—Rader, Keller and Freeman—made the 2,000-mile journey from West Virginia to the red carpet in Hollywood, California.

Sheldon never dreamed of receiving an Oscar nomination this early in her career. But before she knew it, she was stepping out of her limo at the Dolby Theatre for the 90th Academy Awards in a custom-made gown - donated by designer Joanna Johnson who saw “Heroin(e)” and wanted to support the filmmaker- while 26.5 million U.S. viewers watched from home.

Elaine and her husband, Kerrin in the red carpet at the Oscars

Elaine and Kerrin Sheldon attend the 90th Academy Awards.

While “Heroin(e)” didn’t win the Academy Award, Sheldon says she is most rewarded by the impact of the documentary in helping to change perceptions about the people affected by opioid addiction.

“We hope that the international attention that can come from an Academy-Award nomination will only bring more resources and solutions to the ongoing crisis across America,” Sheldon said.

What does a filmmaker do after being nominated for one of the most prestigious film awards in the country? According to Sheldon, exactly what she did before.

“We plan to stay the course and continue to tell stories from our own backyard that move us,” she said. “We're humbled, honored and excited for the next steps.”

Sheldon’s next project is the documentary, “Recovery Boys,” set in Aurora, West Virginia, at Jacob’s Ladder Rehab Farm program. The feature-length film follows four men as they go through the recovery process and try to reinvent their lives after years of addiction. It premiered at the 2018 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, Canada, in May and is now available on Netflix.
Heroin(e) Recovery Boys