'It needs to make you uncomfortable': the opioid documentary set to shock America
The Guardian'It needs to make you uncomfortable': the opioid documentary set to shock America The Trade is a new docu-series focused on the stories of addicts, their families and the law enforcement officials trying to curb the epidemic that kills 91 Americans a day
Fifteen minutes into The Trade, a new docu-series about the US opioid crisis, a woman is seen injecting heroin in a dingy Atlanta hotel room.
“I hate this shit,” she mumbles as the drug takes hold.
It’s now her friend Skyler’s turn. He ducks into the bathroom to use and soon the two are sitting on the bed: the woman sobs while Skyler simply offers her a cigarette and sits quietly by her side. He’s not panicked and it’s clear this isn’t the first time they’ve gone to a hotel to shoot-up.
Each day, 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose. The five part docu-series, which premieres Friday on Showtime, bypasses the didactic timeline of how the US got to this position and instead places the audience in unvarnished scenes of human suffering.
It’s an intimate style the director, Matthew Heineman, used in the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land, and it puts a face to people impacted by the crisis.
The camera keeps rolling as women with children are investigated by police for their connection to the opioid trade in a home filled with kilos of heroin, in a car driven by an intoxicated mother and in a front yard, being taken away by child protective services.
The children’s faces are blurred, unlike those of almost everyone else in the film, including the main characters: police, people with addiction and Mexican poppy growers.
Given the harsh criminal penalties and stigma attached to drug use, the access to people on the frontlines of the crisis is stunning – and often excruciating to watch.
In one wrenching scene, Jennifer Walton, the mother of two adult sons in recovery from addiction, faces off with her son, Skyler, and his friend, who appear to have just been using drugs. This violates the house rules, prompting Walton and her husband to force the pair out of the house.
Seeing the response from Walton, whose two sons became addicted around 2008 and 2009, is a dark reminder that there is no clear protocol, no matter how many times you’ve been in that situation before, for when your adult son and his friend, in the throes of drug use, stand, locked out outside your house, yelling, pounding on the front door and ringing the doorbell.
Walton said scenes like that were necessary.
“It needs to make you uncomfortable. You need to discuss this,” Walton said to the Guardian. “I think anonymity keeps people sick.”
Walton’s sons are now in recovery from addiction, something she wants showcased more in the media.
We’ve beat a horse a bit with the addiction side of it,” Walton said. “It’s time to start talking about recovery and looking at the 25 million people who are in recovery. I feel like The Trade gave us an opportunity to do that.”
Pagan Harleman, the showrunner, said Walton and other family members made the documentary possible because people with addiction might not have a phone or address and were generally difficult to contact. “All of the families, for them to choose to share this was really a testament to their desire to help other people,” Harleman said.
Harleman has worked on several award-winning documentaries, but said getting access for The Trade was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done”.
The result is a riveting story with beautifully crafted shots of desperate scenes.
But being immersed in the intimacy of these scenes, without narration or historical context, leaves little room to acknowledge the system that has made the opioid crisis a predominantly American problem – the US consumes more than 80% of global opioid pills even though it has less than 5% of the world’s population.
The plight of Guerrero, Mexico, the top source for heroin in the US, is one of three main threads in the series, but there is not equitable attention paid to the US healthcare industry that made it possible for enterprising drug cartels to profit off of addiction.
“The aspect of how people were making billions of dollars off of this is shocking, but it was more of an investigative fact,” Harleman said. “It’s something that we couldn’t do so well in our show. It comes up in different areas but we didn’t have a chance to delve into it in depth.”
The documentary instead looks at key policy developments that took place during the shoot, which lasted from July 2016 to November 2017. This includes the synthetic opioid fentanyl emerging as a significant threat, a new president figuring out how to respond to the public health crisis and lawmakers filing lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies.
Harleman said: “We really wanted to show people the personal costs of a lot of this and raise the more challenging questions that we feel need to be asked about the opioid epidemic and the drug trade as a whole.”
That personal cost for the Walton family is on full display in the series – as she, her sons and husband grapple with how opioids impact their lives. “Addiction can tear your family apart and there are some days I think: how has it not?” Walton said.
Despite these challenges, a decade into the journey to her sons’ recovery, Walton was hopeful about the years ahead. Walton said: “I really, really want people to understand: where there is life there is hope.”
The Trade begins on Showtime on 2 February with a UK date yet to be announced