“Heroin(e),” a short documentary highlighting the work of three women battling the opioid crisis in West Virginia, has inspired far-reaching effects. The Netflix original documentary, directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon and co-produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting and Requisite Films, follows three women working to break the cycle of drug abuse in Huntington, a city with an overdose rate 10 times the national average.
After premiering on Netflix in November 2017, the film prompted an immediate and far-reaching response. Soon after the documentary premiered, West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito announced $350,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to Huntington to address the opioid epidemic.
Necia Freeman, founder of Brown Bag Ministry, says that she was given a building in downtown Huntington by a church and the city in order to create a constant, stable location for the women she serves, largely as a result of being featured in the film. She has also received financial donations from about twenty people from across the country who have seen the film. Others have sent donations of warm clothes, personal hygiene products, and gift cards for Brown Bag Ministry to distribute through their work.
In addition to streaming on Netflix, the film was featured in a robust series of community screenings around the country to address the way communities and individuals are responding to the opioid epidemic. Screenings were organized by health professionals, first responders, government officials, local advocates and concerned citizens, among others.
“We went to my parents’ church about five hours away and it was standing room only,” said Judge Patricia Keller, who appears in the film, of one screening. “These parents who had just buried their son the day before from an overdose still wanted to come and watch and to talk. I think it was so important and healing for these parents. And that’s part of what’s so invaluable about this documentary, it gets people to start talking.”
“Heroin(e)” was nominated for an Academy Award for short-form documentary subject earlier this year, received a News and Documentary Emmy, and was a Peabody Award finalist, among other accolades.
In the wake of the film’s release, The Center for Investigative Reporting commissioned a study by Lindsay Green-Barber of the Impact Architects to evaluate the process of making the film as part of its ongoing mission to track and amplify the impact of its work.
The study identified several elements that contributed to the project’s success and offered recommendations for future projects. The findings include:
–Filmmakers, many of whom often work alone, can benefit from the support of a producing organization.
McMillion Sheldon said that the support of CIR was absolutely necessary for the production of “Heroin(e),” from financial support to research and production.
–Reporting and filmmaking done by individuals who have deep community roots fosters trust and allows for deeper and more intimate storytelling.
Sheldon’s roots in West Virginia and track record of producing projects about the community meant that the people featured in “Heroin(e)” trusted her from the beginning of the process. The women highlighted in the film noted that while they did not see the film until it went live on Netflix, they had faith that Sheldon would fairly represent their lives, work and community.
–Documentary film is a tool that can be used to create opportunities for different sectors of a community to come together in conversation.
A variety of community members and institutions, including researchers, faith groups, professors, government agencies and first responders, saw “Heroin(e)” screenings as an opportunity to have productive, solutions-based conversations about concrete paths for addressing community challenges associated with the opioid addiction crisis.
–A focus on positive change, rather than problems, can generate a shift in perspective among audiences.
By humanizing individuals struggling with opioid addiction and focusing on the work being done by community members to combat the crisis, “Heroin(e)” shifted audience perspectives and inspired action. The website resources and screening guide that were produced to accompany the film provide further information for those inspired to take action.
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