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Small film creates furor in small town West Virginia

OCEANA, W.Va. - It's a tale of two cities.     

In Oceana, hardworking, God-fearing people try to make ends meet with what they have. As in many West Virginia coal mining communities, production in Wyoming County isn't what it used to be. But there is hope.

In Oxyana, drugs have precipitated the slow decay of a small, struggling town. There are drugs. There are prostitutes. There are dead bodies in pools. There's the inevitable sense that nothing can stop the runaway train that is prescription pill abuse.

Both are true. Both are false.

Critics herald a documentary film chronicling the worst in this isolated town as a gritty look at a larger problem. Residents decry a film most haven't seen as the parachuting cheap shot all too familiar to West Virginians.

Both are right. Both are wrong.

There is a common thread between the perceptions and realities of the town: There are problems. Residents hope a town hall meeting, outreach programs and awareness will help the county find solutions. It won't be easy.

Related: Oceana officials admit drugs a problem, seek solutions.

Film and reception

Last summer, documentary filmmaker Sean Dunne came to Oceana for a project. He had received more than $50,000 through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to look at the town's problem with a highly addictive prescription painkiller called OxyContin.

He called the resulting product "Oxyana," a nickname he had heard for the largest town in Wyoming County. The film earned a spot at the Tribeca Film Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Wall Street Journal said the film was "fascinating in its raw honesty."

Dunne, through a spokesperson, declined several requests for an interview or copy of the film. The spokesperson said he's working on another project while trying to get a distribution deal for "Oxyana." Without such a deal in place, most Oceana residents have seen only trailers or teasers of the film.

In the trailer, one man who says he is 23 years old claims half of the people in his high school graduating class are dead. Another man says he has seen children as young as 8 "shooting up dope," and viewers see a small child wearing nothing but a diaper grabbing a wire fence.

On the film's website, Dunne calls the town beautiful and full of honest, welcoming people. In other descriptions on the website, Oceana is called a "nightmarish dystopia" in the "valley of Death" that sits in "one of God's blindspots."

More than half the residents are addicts, it says. It equates life in the town of roughly 1,400 people "to the world of a medieval plague." The town's story of losing hope is a "nearly Biblical narrative of American forsakenness."

Some people who say they are Oceana residents on social media say they're happy about the film. They say they hope it brings attention that spurs change.

Many Oceana residents don't feel the same and don't even like to use Dunne's name.

"They weren't looking to talk to me really; they weren't looking to talk to the dentist or the doctors and the preachers," said small business owner Stephen Anderson.

"They were looking for the most horrible-looking creatures they could find down here to pimp that trailer out so they could get some money to shoot what they wanted to shoot."  

Anderson, 42, is an Oceana native who returned home after years on the road as a golf pro. In 2007 he started a business giving ATV tours of the Hatfield-McCoy trails. He said he gave Dunne and his crew a tour of the mountains. He took them to a local vantage point to catch a sunset.

He said they told him they wanted to capture the natural beauty of the area along with its problems. That didn't prove true in the trailer Anderson saw. He thinks the film will exaggerate the problem and focus on exceptions to the norm.

Gritty but true?

Local dentist Michael Moore appears in tears in the trailer. He says the town has a problem but he loves the people and place too much to leave.

Moore is one of the few residents of the town to have seen the film. He already was planning to fly to New York City for the official premiere when one of the producers invited him to the screening. Paying for most of his own expenses, Moore saw the film twice.

"The trailer, as with any film, kind of focuses on kind of the real grittiest parts, I guess I would say," Moore said in a phone interview. "Not that the film is substantially less gritty; it's not. But, the film does offer a little wider perspective. Not a lot wider."

Dunne uses Cinema verite, or direct cinema, for "Oxyana," said documentary filmmaker Elaine McMillion. The style relies entirely on interviews with residents, not data sets or officials or voice-over narrations, she explained.

McMillion is working on an interactive documentary film, "Hollow," which will be a look at life in McDowell County. In the course of her work she heard about Dunne's film. After reading his description of life in Oceana from his Kickstarter page, she emailed him some complaints.

A West Virginia native studying in Boston, McMillion saw "Oxyana" when Dunne screened it at the Independent Film Festival there. She said she's happy the film was made and was impressed with Dunne's ability to get people to open up on camera.

But most of the people in the film appear to be intoxicated, McMillion said. She questions the ethics of interviewing people who are high.

"To me, as a filmmaker, I couldn't sleep at night knowing I'm sort of exploiting that type of mindset," McMillion said.

She thought Moore, the dentist, helped balanced that a bit; she thought he came across as a "genuine, hardworking" resident. He's the type of person that the "Hollow" project team tried to feature, she said.

Moore said a prosecuting attorney and doctor from Raleigh General Hospital also were included in the film. One of the doctor's statements - that half the babies born there need treatment for drug addiction - raised eyebrows in the community.

Moore said the statement stood out to him, as did other ideas represented as fact: the man's claim about the rapid extinction of his high school class and another person saying the town would crumble without its illicit crutch.

"Now, is that that person's perspective, their opinion? Maybe so," Moore said. "But to me, that's just not something that I believe. If I believed that, I wouldn't stay here."

His neighbors don't agree with that either, so he understands why the trailer upset them. The people of Oceana have more pride than the residents of any place Moore, a native of Braxton County, has ever lived.

Dunne's characterization of the town in several interviews as "the scariest place I've ever been" is laughable to Anderson and others. D.J. Morgan, a trained attorney working as a teacher in the county school system, says Oceana isn't a scary place - it's small-town West Virginia.

McMillion spoke with Dunne at Tribeca and said the filmmaker told her he received death threats. She gave him credit for going into dangerous situations but said those environments probably led to his fear.

"You have to understand if you're going into the homes of drug dealers, no matter where you are, it's going to be the scariest place you've ever been," McMillion said.

Anderson, Cook, Morgan and others fear Dunne greatly exaggerated the extent of the substance abuse problems in Oceana. Moore said the film doesn't show every aspect of the town, but rather a glimpse of it - one that perhaps has been ignored for too long.  

"It is a story about drug abuse and drug abusers. For me, that's only a part of our community," Moore said. "I don't think anybody asked Sean to come down to make a convention and visitors bureau film."

While McMillion reiterated that she was glad the film was made because it pointed out problems, she thought it left viewers confused and concerned without providing a way to help.

After the screening in Boston, she said Dunne and his crew tried to answer questions about the community.

They didn't have the answers, she said. But how could they, after spending a few weeks in the town?

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him at

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