Louis Therouxs’ latest documentary is a harrowing and fleetingly hopeful one. Heroin Town chronicles widespread opioid addiction in Huntington, West Virginia, a city of 49, 000 people. Heroin Town is one of a three part series called Dark States, Therouxs’ foray into the dark underbelly of the U.S. In addition to West Virginias opioid crisis, Louis explores sex trafficking in Houston, and murder in Milwaukee in the upcoming BBC series.
At Carltons Cinema Nova, accompanying the screening of Heroin Town, which is only an hour in duration, is an exclusive interview with the documentarian himself. We take a look back on Louis’ lengthy career – his beginnings with filmmaker Michael Moore on cable television cast as self described “beanpole British” observer of American life. There is insight into Louis’ practise as a documentarian – he only meets documentary subjects upon beginning of filming, and is always committed to remaining as objective as possible. We are reminded that this objectivity was interrupted somewhat when Louis encountered neo – Nazis in Louis & The Nazis (2003). Memorable Louis moments also include his challenging of Megan Roper – Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in The Most Hated Family in America (2007).
Though iconic, Theroux is not beyond reproach – he has received criticism in the past for applying his often awkward style to sensitive topics like autism in Extreme Love: Autism (2012). This is something Simon Usborne of The Independent (2012) discussed – Louis has made the shift from early work like Louis Therouxs Weird Weekends where he spotlighted UFO believers, to taking on topics like autism and dementia. It is always a valid concern that these more serious issues be given the level of sensitivity they deserve, especially when a documentarian is undergoing a shift in style. Indeed, in documentary generally there is a fine line between exploitation and compassion but from the viewers’ perspective in Heroin Town, Theroux seems to prioritise the people of Huntington. Even when people around him are using heroin, Theroux remains calm, non – judgemental (although concerned) and it is his approach to the interviewees that defines the tone and the audiences’ response.
While observational style no doubt characterises Louis’ work, his documentaries are much more than passivity – Theroux is unfailingly curious in his encounters. Heroin Town is no different, and Louis is compassionate in his encounters with those society often deems as beyond it. In Heroin Town, we meet three individuals who are engaged in an active addiction to opioids, most notably, heroin, or the even more lethal fentanyl (typically laced with heroin). One of the most captivating people we meet is Katillia, a young woman dependent upon heroin who uses six to seven times per day. Her addiction costs her hundreds of dollars a day, alleviated by her boyfriends’ ability to supply her with drugs. The toxicity of the relationship is something Katillia is more than aware of, but she is willing to remain in a violent partnership not so much for love of heroin but for need of it. It becomes clear that even with a Theroux film, opioid addiction is something one can never understand if they haven’t experienced it.
Heroin Town does well at conveying the dark reality that opioid addiction is to be understood as an epidemic, with its origins in the manual labour legacy of West Virginia and the wider Tri-state area. Many of the people in the film describe their addictions as beginning with prescription painkillers, many either stolen from relatives with workplace injuries or being prescribed to them for recovery from car accidents or the like. Indeed, fire chief Jan Rader (who is spotlighted in the Netflix documentary Heroin(e)) describes that while the pharmaceutical industry made billions from painkiller prescriptions, they have remained largely unhelpful in cleaning up the situation they created. Heroin Town reserves it’s damning criticism for the pharmaceutical industry rather than those addicted to opioids.
Perhaps one of the most defining aspects of Heroin Town is our insight into Nates’ life. Nate is an active opioid user who lives on the bank of the Ohio River, where a number of folks in similar situations have begun to dwell. Unlike Mickey, one of the film’s few recovered opioids users, who attributes his recovery largely to God – Nate discusses the benefits that heroin has – it keeps him high and in good spirits. Many of the other interviewees exhibit more awareness that their opioid use is detrimental to their lives, but Nate has no plans of quitting. Nate is despondent, Mickey is inspiring – but it is the latter who is the outlier in Huntington.
Of course, implicit in Heroin Town is hope – through real life superhero Jan Rader, the drug Narcan which reverses opioid overdose, and new mother Alisha and her newborn son Archie who are both on track to surviving opioids influence on their lives. The defining mood of the film however? It’s bleak. Nate shouldn’t be viewed as a fool – instead he knows that overcoming heroin would take a mammoth effort and a whole lot of pain – it took Mickey over one hundred overdoses to get to sobriety.
Heroin Town is in many respects a call to action, and a cry for intervention for towns like Huntingtown which have been ravaged by opioid addiction. More than that though, it leaves you wishing that we could go back in time and stop these interviewees we grow to love from ever being subjected to the horrible addictions that a billion dollar industry has profited from.
Heroin Town will premiere at Cinema Nova on November 17.