Huntington, West Virginia has been called the overdose capital of the world, with an OD rate 10 times the national average, and an estimated $100 million spent in healthcare costs related to IV drug use in 2015 alone. With this many overdoses in just one city, the opioid and heroin crisis plaguing the entirety of America might feel like a battle destined to be lost. But three women in Huntington are fighting back, and their story is being told in a new Netflix documentary short called Heroin(e). Not only does this timely doc showcase the incredible women tackling a major crisis, but it might just go home with a golden statue come Oscar night.
Directed by Elaine McMillon Sheldon, Heroin(e), now available on Netflix, follows three women as they battle Huntington's overdose emergencies and rehabilitation efforts. Jan Rader is the chief of the city's fire department — and its first female chief ever — is on the front lines, responding to every overdose call that comes in through dispatch. Sometimes she responds alone if other EMTs or firefighters are busy, and other times she may come on scene once EMTs are already attempting to revive an overdose victim. During many situations, Rader has to make the call to administer Narcan or Nalaxone, the drugs used to revive those who've dangerously overdosed.
Then there's Judge Patricia Keller, who is in charge of "drug court," which decides the fates of citizens arrested for drug use, buys, or possession. But rather than tossing them all in jail, Judge Keller treats those who step into her courtroom more like patients in need of an open ear than criminals. She listens to their plights, empathizes with their suffering, and often gives them a second chance — unless they step out of line. For example, when one user tries to debate with her about the number of hours he's received for community service, she quickly corrects him. She informs him that she's in charge of the courtroom and the outcome of his case, so he needs to essentially shut up and listen. Judge Keller celebrates when users have reached new goals of being clean, and encourages those in recovery to return to the courtroom to tell their stories to those new in the program.
Finally, there's Necia Freeman of the Brown Bag Ministry. Freeman drives the streets at night, asking young women if they're out planning to use, if they're also sex workers who'd like help making alternate plans, if they'd like help finding a place to stay, or if they need help with a recovery plan. Most of the time, though, she just hands out brown bag meals or hygiene bags to folks getting through the night. Freeman has a markedly feminist outlook on the problem of women becoming sex workers to pay for their drug use. Citizens may call to complain about the women walking up and down the street, but, as Freeman says, if there weren't men driving up and down the street looking for these women, they wouldn't be here. "So quit arresting the girls and start doing some reverse stings and arresting some men," she says.
The women face significant cynicism from the community, especially from citizens wondering why addicts should be helped instead of just left to their own devices. But the women power on despite the backlash, and their empathy for addicts is inspiring. For instance, when someone in a meeting suggests that the increased presence of Naloxone might give addicts a false sense of security, enabling them to continue using, Rader responds with, "I don't care if I have to save someone's life 50 times, that's 50 chances of them getting into long-term recovery." Later, Rader faces down another firefighter who asks if they are legally obligated to use the Naloxone on overdosing patients. Her response is one of shock, as if she can't believe that her fellow first responders wouldn't want to help save someone's life.
It's this balance of strength and empathy, toughness with heart, that make the characters in Heroin(e) so captivating to watch. It's just one of the reasons why the doc has been nominated for Outstanding Documentary Short Subject at the 2018 Academy Awards. Not only does the film highlight and celebrate women who are trying to change one of America's most troubling problems, but, as a film directed by a woman, it's also helping make change in Hollywood, too.
As we all know, the industry is in desperate need of more women behind the camera, but thankfully, Sheldon is hard at work on her next projects. But before those films arrive, make sure to catch Heroin(e) — a movie that not only might go home with an Academy Award, but gives a glimpse at some of the incredible women tackling one of America's biggest issues.