A Between Coasts Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Elaine Sheldon


Elaine Sheldon’s Heroin(e), a timely portrayal of the work three women in Huntington, West Virginia are doing to combat the scourge of addiction, has been nominated for an Academy Award. At a time of intense political polarization and of renewed interest in the vast swaths of territory between New York and Los Angeles, it’s no surprise that her work is being recognized. Sheldon has spent many years exploring the nooks and crannies of her home state West Virginia and of places and things often ignored, avoided, or hidden.

Heroin(e) focuses on three women who are making positive changes in Huntington. It’s not poverty porn. It’s a different kind of story, focused on transformative, even heroic, women: fire chief Jan Rader, drug court judge Patricia Keller, and a street ministry volunteer named Necia Freeman.

There are parallels between Sheldon’s hands-on approach to filmmaking and the hands-on approach to the opioid epidemic exhibited by the women in Heroin(e). Sheldon’s work, like Rader’s, Keller’s, and Freeman’s, suggests that to solve a problem, members of communities must be willing to get in the trenches, to go where the problem is. In the same manner, Sheldon goes to where the story is and digs in. She spends time with her subjects, gets to know them, includes them in the process. When working on her interactive documentary Hollow, she gave cameras to thirty people and asked them to film their lives. Sheldon is the epitome of grassroots or local craft journalism.

Hollow won a Peabody, an Emmy nomination, and 3rd Prize in the World Press Photo Multimedia Awards. Chicken & Egg Pictures gave her the inaugural “Breakthrough Filmmaker” award in 2016. Sheldon was a Future of Storytelling Fellow in 2013 and was named one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by Filmmaker Magazine and one of “50 People Changing The South” by Southern Living Magazine. She has created work for FrontlinePBS NewsHour, the Center for Investigative Reporting, New York Times Op-Docs, People MagazineThe Washington Post, and The Bitter Southerner, among others. We met her at Between Coasts Forum #1 in January 2017 and interviewed her on December 8, 2017.

NB: This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and so that the editors will sound smarter than they actually are.

Jack: We’re struck by the range of subjects of your documentaries, from lionfish hunting to Seamus Heaney, to, of course, social issues in West Virginia. How do you find your subject matter? What types of stories exert the strongest attraction on you?

Elaine: I think the first requirement is that I have to be curious and not know everything about it. I am just naturally drawn to better understanding the place I’m from and trying to represent it in a way that is not only honest, but in some way helps people connect to this place. I think that people sometimes feel distant from [places we don’t know]. And we all do. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in LA. I have no clue what that experience is and I feel somewhat distant from that daily life. The same with Appalachia and same with West Virginia because this is the place that I know so intimately.

There’s sort of a fun experiment to see how to make experiences that are so local here be universal for other people. I grew up in southern West Virginia, in a place that certainly is defined by its struggles more than its triumphs. I think I’m just drawn to those struggles, whether it’s overcoming drug problems, or economic problems, or education problems. Whatever it may be. But also trying to find solutions within those because there’s plenty of other media just saying what the problems are. I don’t think it’s enough to just say, “Look, here’s a problem.” Instead, if you have the capability to potentially highlight things that start conversations and don’t just depress people, I think that that’s a good goal.

The lionfish thing came about because my husband’s a big scuba diver, and I got certified to make that film with him. There’s this whole local movement of how humans are coming up against nature–so there’s resilience and struggle again–and the innovative ways that they’re trying to address this problem. My husband also introduced me to Seamus Heaney, and Ireland reminds me a lot of Appalachia in the way Seamus writes about family and roots and home. Those things feels very familiar.

Lizz: I like the commonalities between your subjects. Going back to something you were saying about local people and telling stories and communities and things like that … Places like West Virginia are often depicted by parachute journalists, people who come in, do a story, and then leave. There’s been a lot of talk lately about who is “qualified” to tell stories from these types of places. Many assume that locals are the best candidates for that, but what do you think needs to be kept in mind when considering who should or should not be telling certain stories?

Elaine: Storytelling is hard work. I had a phone call right before this one with someone who is coming to West Virginia next week to cover the drug problem, and they literally asked me to give them names of people they should speak to. That’s mind-blowing because I would never ask someone else to do my work. That’s the work. The work is building trust, the work is finding people, the work is building relationships with those people. And I’ve made the mistake in the past of helping journalists because they said all the right things, that they were coming here for the right reasons, and I’ve led them to people that I have dear relationships with that I’ve built over five years and they’ve totally screwed them over just by coming in, and getting a photograph, and leaving, and not respecting their rules or whatever it was.

So I’ve become a little cautious of being too much of an umbilical cord for the rest of the national media. I live here. If I screw up, we feel it. We are held responsible by the people that surround us, and there’s not a lot of room for error if you’re living in the communities that you’re documenting.

With that said, parachute journalism has played a role. Without parachute journalism, would we have had the images that have sort of defined this region as black and white and impoverished? With the War on Poverty images and those types of things. I’m not saying that’s a positive role, but it’s definitely played a role in the stories we tell, and sort of the fight that we feel we’re fighting. We’re not denying those things exist and we certainly don’t not document them, but we’re trying to say they’re in parallel with many other things. West Virginians often say this is a place that we value family, and family has a really strong connection. That is true, but what is also true is that the foster care system is completely overwhelmed by parents who can’t take care of their children because they have massive drug issues. Those two things can exist in parallel and not negate one another. I think that that’s what I’m interested in, that gray area, but the national media typically just covers one side.

Two versions of every place, three versions of every place exist everywhere around the world. You don’t know that unless you put in the time to be in that place and to understand that place and understand the people in a way that’s beyond a headline.

Jack: You’ve been working West Virginia for years, and we’re going on one year of a Donald Trump presidency. What do you think of the post-election hand-wringing about Appalachia? I mean, all kinds of things were brought up after the election, from saying that Appalachia caused his election to saying that the roots of his election were in the problems that people face in Appalachia.

Jan Rader, from Heroin(e), credit: Rebecca Kiger/Netflix

Elaine: Certainly there’s a lot of people here that voted for Trump. They’re scared because we have poor leadership in this state that will not move our economy beyond a mono-economy built on coal, which is declining in relevance all across the world. We are just sitting here denying it. My dad worked in the coal industry, my brother still works in the coal industry, my cousins go underground every day. It’s something I’m intimately familiar with and the loss of a coal job is so much bigger than Donald Trump and the economy. It’s the loss of a community, it’s the loss of a tribe, it’s the loss of a connection that people have, and it’s been deteriorating since the ’60s. I still am shocked that we’re having the conversations that we’re having to this day.

For me, it’s not about coal or no coal. It’s about poverty and it’s about hopelessness. It’s just gotten so bad, so yeah, I think that coal miners and working poor became that scapegoat.

It’s not saying that the rest of the country owes them anything, but certainly, I think that there’s a missing component in understanding each other’s suffering and understanding the country as a whole and the challenges that every day we get up and face. I don’t think we really understand each other, and that’s not just someone in New York understanding West Virginia. I don’t think West Virginia understands New York. There’s just such a lack of forward motion of a unified vision, and we’ve put a guy in the office to lead this country that doesn’t have a unified vision.

Lizz: I was watching some of your documentary shorts last night and one that I found really powerful juxtaposes the young man with the family who was planning to go into coal mining with the older coal miner who was struggling with black lung disease. Their different perspectives and different experiences. So how do you engage the communities that you document? Do you take different approaches for a film like Heroin(e); than for the one like Hollow? Can you talk a little bit about your processes? You’re going into these different communities and talking to these very different people.

Elaine: Yeah, yeah, just different with each one. It’s all relationships. Frontline commissioned the piece about Dakota. His name was Dakota, he wanted to get a mining job, and Dave. Trying to find people to tell that story, which is a really large burden for them to bear, of telling this extremely political and complex story. That’s always scary, especially knowing that you only have seven to ten days to produce that piece, so that requires fast trust. You just approach it differently than a film like Heroin(e)where we shot over the course of a year. We became very close with Jan Rader and the other women, and we were able to sort of gain access, a different level of access, of trust with them.

How deep can your relationship be on a seven-day shoot? Not that deep, unfortunately. You try to understand someone’s situation as best as possible and not depict it with pity or not depict it with poverty porn, beautifying struggle, all these things that you see people typically do. Either make them really noble or pity them. Hopefully we present them closer to how they see themselves.

I still have relationships with a lot of the people that I document because it’s just ongoing. Some of it’s for interest and, “Oh, maybe there’s a story update to this person’s life!” But another part is just I feel like I owe them. We have a friendship and I feel like I owe them a piece of my heart in some way because they’ve given me access to their lives. I think every time I pick up a camera and start documenting, “Why in the world would anybody agree to this? To agree to have a camera pointed at them?”

Jack: Do you ever worry about objectivity in those situations? Your role as a journalist?

Elaine: Being a journalist is certainly something that I identify with. I went to journalism school. I still believe in the code of ethics of not accepting gifts from people and all those types of things, but I also think that it wasn’t until I made Hollow where I broke down a lot of those sort of fake objectivity notions of keeping distance. I learned that there were more interesting stories to be told if you could get closer to people and maintain, still, a level of distance. It’s like you’re not judging them but you’re also questioning. You constantly have questions that you’re trying to find answers to rather than just accepting everything they’re telling you.

I think that’s the difference between just totally going all in and not questioning anything the person’s saying or just making something that is simply art or something that’s beautiful or something that’s glorifying. But instead, keeping it challenging, keeping the relationship one that’s challenging for both of you.

Lizz: Yeah, and even thinking about building these relationships, which you talked about a couple times now, and the importance of compassion. There’s the goal of objectivity to some extent like you were just talking about, but also thinking about compassion and treating these people just as people and not trying glorify them or do the poverty porn or romanticization or anything like that.

One thing for me that always comes across in your work is a real humanity, both from the people being documented and from how they’re being portrayed. In the interview you did with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, you were talking about some potential solutions to the problem of the opioid epidemic. You said that first, it’s important to just pay attention to it and take it more seriously. But then also as a culture decide that we need to treat one another better and to try to bring humanity back to these systems that exert such influence on the lives of those suffering from addiction. The women in Heroin(e)really demonstrate this humanity in a lot of different ways. So how do we normalize this humanitarian approach? How can we shift our cultural values? Just throwing you a little, you know, softball question right there.

Jan Rader, from Heroin(e), credit: Rebecca Kiger/Netflix

Elaine: Yeah. I mean, I try not to get overwhelmed with the big picture of taking everyone’s hearts in mind because it’s just not something that I can really wrap my head around. Like, how do we do that on a large scale? But these three women pass it on daily.

My parents have definitely changed their tune around talking about people suffering from addiction, from worrying about their house being broken into because they know there’s drug activity up the holler from them, to now my dad carrying naloxone and having training on naloxone. That’s a huge jump. I have to focus on the people that I can personally touch.

There’s the idea that showing suffering and pain is just voyeuristic unless it reaches people that can actually help make the change. It’s a bad paraphrase of something Susan Sontag said. Showing pain and suffering is always, whether you intend it or not, voyeuristic unless it reaches the people, the doctors, the medical community, the people in recovery themselves, the actual people that can make the change. That’s sort of the goal: target the people that have already taken the steps to start caring more.

I mean, film’s manipulative. Its emotional music, its scenes cut in ways you know are going to move people. The nonfiction elements are what’s actually happening, but the emotion is something that’s created in the edit room, oftentimes. That’s kind of problematic. I think we think we can assume people will respond a certain way, but really don’t know how people will respond.

I have to just focus on the people right in front in me, so whether that’s my family or people on the ground in West Virginia, and just work to make people care more. It’s something I’m working on. I think it’s just something we all need to work on, looking around us and getting off our fricking smartphones and caring about people that are less fortunate than some of us. Divided politics and social media do not bring us together in so many ways that it’s not even funny. But I do think that I just can’t focus on that big “change the world” thing. I have to look at changing the corners that I associate with and have connections with because then that gives me hope. As corners start changing, corners can make it to the middle once they grow larger.

Jack: I’m curious as to how filming something like Heroin(e) affected you. There’s a scene where the firefighter is talking about seeing only the bad, bad, bad and then you see a lot of bad and you get a bad attitude. Then he pauses and says, “And then you drink.”

Elaine: Yeah.

Jack: It’s a great moment. He’s right, though. How do you cope as a documentarian filming bad things?

Elaine: Talk. I’m lucky to have a filmmaking partner, my husband. After filming we just decompress. We just talk through everything. You’re so in the moment when you’re filming. You’re so just focused on what’s right in that tiny little screen, your viewfinder.

Sometimes someone will say something, like when he says what you’re referring to, and you’re like, “Wow.” That’s very impactful in the moment, but because you’re thinking of everything through this viewfinder, it isn’t real life until you put the camera down. Then you have to sort of come to terms with the responsibility to share quotes like that. How will he feel about that, and will that help someone else, and will people relate to that? I know I certainly do. Those are the questions that you have to ask once the camera stops rolling.

I run, I read a lot, I write a lot, I try to take care of my physical and mental wellbeing and I try to have a good balance of life. We can go hiking a lot, try to travel, but it’s just a lot of reflecting and decompressing.

We’ve been following four guys going through recovery from heroin addiction for, well, it’s almost two years now, but the film’s finished. We followed them through a six-month program and then a year later. That’s the hardest. The overdosings are intense and you feel totally, epically murky when you go up to that person after they’ve been revived and talk to them about what you just filmed and ask them to sign a release form. It’s all very uncomfortable and you’re not sure why you’re doing it, you’re hoping that you’re doing it for the good, for people to understand, to show real life, all those things.

Those moments are difficult because of those dilemmas, but I think the more difficult thing is seeing people struggle and not being able to help them. Like watching guys in recovery with a couple of our guys doing really well and being able to maintain their sobriety and get jobs, and then some of the other ones that have three felonies and apply to every fast food restaurant in that town and they can’t get a job, and they also can’t leave because they’re stuck on probation in that town. You just want to scream and help them. That’s the hard part, I think, those people, the people that I follow over a long term are sort of the ones that I dream about, have a lot of fears around, and am constantly wondering what I could do to help even though I know I can’t. That’s the thing. You feel bad about documenting low moments of people’s lives and you just hope that you’re presenting it in a way that can help someone else. That’s the goal, but there’s surely no way to measure that until it’s out and people are responding to it.

Lizz: Yeah, and just hearing you talk about the complexity of that moment alone is only one little piece of these bigger complexities that some people, like the women in Heroin(e), are trying to help with; to come up with these on-the-ground, local solutions. I sometimes idealize this notion of community and sort of vaguely assume, “Oh, if communities can just kind of come together, if we can just help each other on this local level then a lot of headway could be made into a lot of these issues.” But, no doubt, it is more complicated than that. Can you share your perspective on the role of community in addressing local issues? What are the strengths of this idea and what are the limits?

Elaine: I mean, that’s where it starts. If it’s not happening there, no matter what is happening on a national level, it’s never going to make change. You can throw money at a problem all day, but unless there are boots on the ground making sure that money’s going to the right place and caring for other people, forget about it. It’s just another program that’s actually doing more harm than helping. I really believe that. I don’t believe that anything that can come from the national level is going to be as informed as something that could come from grassroots … I think local leaders are fantastic, especially the ones that are enlightened and have the experience needed to lead, but I think sometimes we’re stuck with a stock of leaders that aren’t actually interested in moving us forward but instead, keeping us in the same place.

Everything starts in the grassroots level for me, personally. I’ve seen communities totally change their situation by just meeting every Wednesday and deciding that that’s what they’re going to do for the next three years. That’s incredibly empowering and I think it’s where it all begins.


Between Coasts Staff