- Associated Press - Saturday, September 23, 2017

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) - When it comes to fighting against a drug epidemic that appears to have swallowed the city whole, three women are standing by the notion that Huntington will not be defined by its drug problem.

This is the premise behind the documentary “Heroin(e),” which was released Sept. 12 on the streaming service Netflix. The documentary follows the lives of three women - Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader, Cabell County Family Court Judge Patricia Keller and Necia Freeman, a Realtor who organizes a ministry for sex workers - as they work to aid their community that has been forever altered by the opioid epidemic.

The documentary was screened in Keller’s courtroom that Tuesday afternoon following the conclusion of drug court.

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While Rader and Freeman had viewed the documentary earlier that morning, this would be the first time Keller had watched the roughly 40-minute film.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to watch it,” she said. “I’m really shy and I don’t like all that (attention), but I’m so glad to get to see it, and even more important … it was so nice to get to see it with Necia, with Jan and with some of our drug court participants. It meant a lot to me.”

Throughout the film the three women can be seen providing support and tough love toward those struggling with drug addiction.

From Freeman, who drives the streets of Huntington at night as part of her Brown Bags and Backpacks ministry in order to give food and the word of Jesus Christ to women in Huntington who have turned to prostitution, to Rader, who works daily to save the lives of those whose addiction has brought them to the brink of death, and finally to Keller, who sees people at their worst but uses a stern hand to guide them on the road to recovery.

To put it plainly, Freeman said Rader revives them, Keller reforms them and Jesus redeems them.

Though the documentary shows Huntington at its very worst and most vulnerable, bombarded with one drug overdose after another, the mood in the court had a surprisingly light heart as the film played and the sounds of laughter mixed in with a few sniffles and tears.

“Watching it with this group allowed us to be able to do that and you know somebody outside of our world would not understand or get that so that was nice and unique,” Rader said.

Several of the drug court participants featured in the film were also present at the screening, including Najah Menapace.

Throughout the documentary, which was filmed over the course of a year, Menapace can be seen in the early stages of drug court when she announces that she is now five months sober as well as on the day she becomes the first graduate of Cabell County Drug Court’s Women’s Empowerment and Addiction Recovery (WEAR) program.

“I’m grateful for drug court,” she said after watching the film. “I never had discipline or accountability and they helped me with that. I’m almost 40 and I’m just now keeping a job and having my own place. … I feel honored and privileged to know (these three women) personally and be involved. It makes me so happy.”

Since the documentary first aired as the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, director and producer of “Heroin(e),” said she has been flooded with messages from people from all over the United States and beyond who have watched the film.

“It’s really cool to see how one film can hit 190 countries at one second and how it’s so interesting to see how different people react to it,” she said.

Following the film’s premiere in Colorado, West Virginia native McMillion Sheldon participated in a Q&A;, which she said drew an incredible response.

“People shared personal stories and asked questions about these women and about West Virginia and it was just a really great conversation that showed how relevant this story is to audiences in different parts of America,” she said.

While audiences hundreds of miles away from where the documentary was filmed appreciated the story that was told, McMillion Sheldon said her biggest hope following the film’s release was that the three women featured would have the same reaction.

“It is a challenge to condense the life’s work of these three women into 40 minutes but I hope that people get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes and get a better sense of the fight that they are fighting in Huntington and hopefully walk away with a more hopeful view of the ability for one person to make a change,” she said.

Freeman said she was also fearful about how her work would come across in a short documentary but was impressed by how McMillion Sheldon was able to portray her heart in those 40 minutes.

“I think the community, by what I’ve read online, everybody thought it was just another negative documentary on Huntington to put us in bad light and I hope that what people walk away with is that, no matter what position you have in the community, we have a responsibility to change our community if it needs changing,” she said.

Even though Huntington has received a great deal of negative press because of its drug epidemic, McMillion Sheldon said she hopes the film is a way to change peoples’ perspectives.

“I just hope that everyone gives this film a chance and watches it in honor of these women that are working so hard… in honor of the people who haven’t lived through their addiction,” she said. “I think that we have a responsibility as citizens living in a society plagued with this to really inform ourselves about what we can do on the ground to make a positive impact. I understand peoples’ gut reaction; that ‘Oh great, another drug film,’ but I hope people realize that this isn’t a film about drugs, it’s a film about three women trying to make Huntington a better place.”

McMillion Sheldon said she has plans to host a screening of “Heroin(e)” in October and will also make the film available for educational and community screenings later on as more material is developed.

The film was funded by The Center for Investigative Reporting through its Glassbreaker Films initiative.

For more information about the film, go to https://heroinethefilm.com.


Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, https://www.herald-dispatch.com

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