Heroin(e) | Docs/ology

Heroin(e)

Director: Elaine McMillion Sheldon

Runtime: 39 minutes

The opioid crisis has commanded national attention on media outlets, legislation offices, and everyday conversations for years now. And rightly so. Yet the conversations surrounding it are often filled with hopelessness and despair. How can a country begin to fix such a massive problem with such deep roots? 

Perhaps it starts with just one person at a time.

That’s exactly what Peabody award-winning filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon set out to prove when she took to the streets of blue-collar Huntington, West Virginia to showcase the efforts of three women. A judge, a fire chief, and a local ministry leader are the three pillars of resilient hope that Sheldon’s 2018 Oscar-nominated documentary Heroin(e) highlights—three pillars holding up an entire community. 

Known as the overdose capital of America, Huntington, West Virginia sags underneath its heavy identity with their overdose rate ticking in at 10 times higher than the national average. And now with heroin running plentiful on the streets, the very fabric of the city is threatened. A single question lingers on: how many more generations will fall prey to addiction?

Heroin(e), though short in length, packs a powerful, lasting punch. In just 39 minutes, Sheldon not only breaks down generalizations and misunderstandings surrounding the opioid crisis but she also humanizes the struggle with addiction in a surprising way that elicits an unfamiliar compassion from its viewers. From the first opening scene, all the way through the bittersweet end, we are shown compassion not only from the three brave women who were shown rising so vividly to the challenge and refusing to let hope die but also compassion for the many people who didn’t yet know how to fight for themselves and rid their lives of addiction.

Among the three women showcased in the movie, Jan Rader stands out the most. Named the first female fire chief in the state of West Virginia, she led her team with an integrity that was undeniably laced with steadfast conviction. To her, the addicts her team responded to every single day weren’t just addicts—they were human beings with the potential to defy the pull of addiction. So it didn’t matter if she had to resuscitate the same person twice, three times, or more—she stood in front of her townspeople and declared that she’d rescue the same person 50 times if it meant she could give someone 50 chances to get into long-term care and rehab with the possibility of a clean future.

Rader along with drug court Judge Patricia Keller and Necia Freeman from Brown Bag Ministry continue valiant efforts day in and day out, even while the very people they seek to rescue relapse and overdose –– all for the few who successfully complete rehab and come back to Huntington as once-again fully functioning members of the community.  

Because in the words of Rader: “We will not be defined by this problem.” 

That captured spirit of resilience is enough to warrant a standing ovation not only for Elaine McMillion Sheldon but also for the three heroines who are rebuilding Huntington, West Virginia one addict at a time. 

— Angelina Danae