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Tribeca: Breakout Director Sean Dunne Talks 'Oxyana' and a Portrait of a Town's Addiction

Thompson on Hollywood By Maggie Lange | Thompson on Hollywood April 23, 2013 at 2:56AM

When people describe Oceana of ten years ago, they describe an idealistic small town--"kind of like the 50s," says one man interviewed in Sean Dunne's first feature documentary "Oxyana." People in the town of 1,400 used to keep doors unlocked and let children play freely in the streets. Now, people are afraid to walk alone in a residential neighborhood. Locked doors don't prevent break-ins from people "trying to feed addictions." People have nicknamed the town Oxyana, after oxycontin, the drug that has addicted hundreds and taken countless lives in the West Virginia town.
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Oxyana

When people describe Oceana of ten years ago, they describe an idealistic small town--"kind of like the 50s," says one man interviewed in Sean Dunne's first feature documentary "Oxyana." People in the town of 1,400 used to keep doors unlocked and let children play freely in the streets. Now, people are afraid to walk alone in a residential neighborhood. Locked doors don't prevent break-ins from people "trying to feed addictions." People have nicknamed the town Oxyana, after oxycontin, the drug that has addicted hundreds and taken countless lives in the West Virginia town.

With "Oxyana," director Sean Dunne, who was nominated for an Emmy for 2011's "The Archive," has created a sensitive, powerful, and important account of a particularly dark moment in a quiet American town.

Why did Dunne call his documentary after the nickname rather than the town's actual name? "It's set in Oceana but to me Oxyana is not Oceana. They are two separate things. To me Oxyana is a temporary thing and a temporary place. It's something that could go away, but it doesn't look like it's going to go away any time soon."

The people whose stories comprise "Oxyana" are astoundingly candid. They are open about their addictions, how their habits have destroyed families, and the terrible measures they've taken to get fixes--prostitution and murder frequently among them. Many of the people in "Oxyana" take pills, snort, or shoot up oxycontin on camera. It's hard to watch, Dunne agrees, saying that looking at his own film has caused him to turn away at moments. 

"I couldn't censor them, I just gave them a forum to speak about their issue," he says. "We really need to be careful because we are taking on responsibility for taking on a place and a serious issue going on in this place. I couldn't pull punches and sugar-coat this film because it would have been a huge disservice."

Dunne says many urgently wanted to talk on camera. When the residents of Oceana saw a film crew and microphone, they saw their chance to tell their story in a town that wasn't talking. Dr. Mike Moore, a dentist in Oceana, told me that within the community there is "zero dialogue." There is shame and judgment and denial in the town. But in the interviews Dunne filmed, there is a completely raw, desperate candor. They need to speak and "Oxyana" lets them.

This article is related to: Documentary, Documentaries, Tribeca, Tribeca Film Festival


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.