Opioid victim channels her grief into a documentary film focusing on the drug epidemic in West Virginia

Mary Sue Connolly; Director of Overdosed, a documentary about the US opioid epidemic. More importantly, I am also a family member of someone who was lost to addiction. I lost my 21 year old nephew, Paul, to an overdose on November 24th 2016 in Morgantown, West Virginia. Since the devastating loss of Paul I have been on a journey to find answers about how this epidemic unfolded and snowballed into the largest public health crisis the country has seen.

Overdosed the documentary is my personal journey into the costs and causes of the US opioid epidemic, focusing in West Virginia, the state where my nephew was lost to an overdose at the age of 21. The day I lost Paul was the darkest day of my life, but it gave birth to this project in a quest for justice for the people of West Virginia, who were being treated as disposable by billion dollar drug companies. West Virginia was a marketplace, and my nephew was just another statistic. I couldn’t rest with this fact and set about letting the world know the pain and suffering that has resulted from corporate greed. We wanted to show the human face behind the opioid epidemic. Though my heart was shattered into pieces, I felt very strongly that this journey, which was essentially an investigation into how this epidemic unfolded, was the only option for me. It was my way of fighting back, in honour of Paul and in honour of all the lives lost to this manmade catastrophe. 

Impact on the audience; 

The most common piece of feedback I get is that Overdosed is so real and raw. This was a genuine effort for myself, Bre and everyone involved. We didn’t want any frills or high production values in Overdosed, we didn’t have the budget for such anyway, but mainly we wanted it to be raw and real and just speak for itself. While I was editing the film, I became hesitant to even raise the music a few decibels (as recommended by a sound technician), because I was worried that it would dramatize or take away from the honesty of the footage, so I held off. We didn’t use any lights while filming. All of this was done in an effort to not detract from the truth, and the truth was the core of our story. So I am glad that we were successful in this way.  

I made a clear decision early on to not show people using drugs. Though shock value sells, we deliberately avoided that out of respect for those in active addiction. 

When I show the film outside of the US, I generally get an audience that is shocked by the subject matter. They never imagined that events like this take place in today’s world. Sadly, I wish that were true. The extent of the opioid crisis in places like Appalachia has not reached very many audiences outside of the US, so I really am grateful for every opportunity to show the film abroad.

Many viewers are also surprised to find out that the doctor is actually working for the state of West Virginia now. While other doctors with similar allegations went on to serve decades behind bars, it’s quite uncommon that things played out the way they did for the doctor in the film, but I think that is partly because it was still very new territory for the DEA diversion agents in bringing cases against doctors and pharmacists, and they faced a multitude of challenges.  

Another thing that we were conscious of while filming was of not feeding into the hillbilly stereotype of West Virginia. This was a no-brainer for us because everyone we met was sharp, articulate and incredibly well informed. The most common question we get asked after screenings is where everyone is today. I feel like the audience were invested in our interviewees and wanted to know more about their story, so perhaps we were successful in touching their hearts. 

I remember one festival programmer telling me that she was haunted by the stories, I was happy with this feedback. 

What I hope to accomplish; 

I hope that this film will touch people’s hearts and minds. I hope that it makes them reflect on the stereotype of who a drug dealer might be, and who a drug user might be. We live in a multi-tiered world of drug dealing, where the top brass tends to avoid any jail time, while those at the bottom of the ladder suffer the direst consequences and face the most stigma. I hope that they will come to realize the injustice West Virginia (and all of the states at this point) was served, through no fault of their own. I hope that they will essentially be left empathetic to those suffering from the brutal hand of addiction and that it will reflect on their relationships to those around them bearing the same burden. I hope that they will also question the greed factor when it comes to corporate culture and the pharmaceutical industry. It’s not fun to have to question your doctor, or to question the objective of some drug manufacturers, but sadly I feel like we need to be diligent about matters like this today. 

Were those two things similar?  

Honestly, I went into this film with absolutely no idea of what the end product was going to be. I was literally just on a mission, led by my grieving heart, to get to the bottom of this catastrophe. It was a personal catastrophe for me, but it was also a massive public health crisis which wasn’t being sufficiently documented. I felt like I was in a war zone with no other war photographers. I kept wondering where everyone was? Why was this not on the headlines of every paper and every news show? It didn’t take me long to realize that there was an effort to quench stories like these. But I am really glad that the film is making a difference. That it is being used within the educational community, in addiction advocacy communities, the DEA use it in training their agents, it seems to be reaching the people it needs to reach. It was well received at many film festivals, where it was thrilling to have such an engaged audience. Though there was little fanfare associated with Overdosed or its Amazon release, simply because we did not have any budget for marketing, but I feel like it is quietly revealing a truth and that it will continue to do so. I certainly hope so.  

Close: Answer the “So what?” question. Why should people care? Give a call to action, moves the reader to do something or feel a way. 

Our only hope of a better future is through rebuilding our communities, offering help to those lost in the scourge of addiction, showing kindness, respect and empathy to those who have lost their way. We need to understand what has led them to this point in their lives. The stigma surrounding this epidemic is our biggest enemy as a community. I feel like we need to eradicate all shame associated with drug addiction. Please encourage people to carry narcan if they are in high risk areas. Sometimes even one small act of kindness, directed at a person at the lowest point in their lives can make an incredible difference. Supporting each other is how we will rise.

Overdosed is available on Amazon Prime 

The director’s cut is also available on vimeo 

The website for our film is  https://www.overdosedfilm.com/

More Press and Podcasts here https://www.overdosedfilm.com/screening-press

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