Sanya Nijhawan

Documentary filmmaker Elaine Sheldon dedicated her Thursday evening to a room full of students to discuss ways to deconstruct stigma surrounding drug overdose.

Davenport College hosted Sheldon to discuss media practices for representing the drug crisis. She is best known for her documentary “Heroin(e)” — which was released in 2017 and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject the following year. Sheldon also produced “Recovery Boys,” which was released in 2018.

The event featured a screening of several clips from the two films and “Hollow – An Interactive Documentary.” The three works focus on the community of rural West Virginia, from which Sheldon and eight generations of her family hail. Sheldon said that as a native of the Mountain State, she is an insider of its communities, but as a filmmaker, she is an outsider. These two roles allow her to document her subjects well, Sheldon added.

“I truly believe media representation of many communities around the nation has beaten them down,” Sheldon said. “I think there is a real growing identity crisis that none of us really want to look at.”

Sheldon’s work focuses heavily on the opioid crisis in Appalachia and how popular representation of it has affected these communities. “Heroin(e)” details the lives of three women who work with first responders and individuals addicted to drugs in Huntington, West Virginia — a city notorious for widespread drug abuse.

“Recovery Boys” follows four men who work at Jacob’s Ladder — a foundation based in Aurora, West Virginia, that helps people addicted to drugs and alcohol achieve sobriety.

“Place is so important in how we identify or don’t identify ourselves,” Sheldon said. “I’m from a place that is often pitied by the national media and whose stories are often controlled by the national media. I’m from West Virginia, and I’m sure everyone has seen their fair share of stereotypes from that place.”

She said filmmaking allows her to tell honest stories about her home and support her community. Sheldon called herself a “cheerleader” for those seeking recovery from addiction. “Heroin(e),” Sheldon explained, focused on other such supporters, including social workers and first responders. By focusing on men in recovery with “Recovery Boys,” Sheldon believes she was able to more actively support their journey to sobriety, though it was “painful to document suffering.”

According to Sheldon, the broader Yale community should care about the opioid crisis because it affects all regions, races and classes in the United States.

“It’s about opening up the conversation so that it’s not just about Appalachians,” Sheldon said. “Anyone, low, middle or upper class, can become addicted … We have to recognize small places and the value they added. We need to recognize the conditions there — that if they were in other countries, we’d send a lot of money. But because they’re here we don’t care.”

Lily Mirfakhraie ’19, who hails from Morgantown, West Virginia, helped organize the Thursday event.

Mirfakhraie — who co-founded the Rural Students Alliance at Yale last year — said the tea provided an opportunity to foster campus conversations about drug addiction.

“I had thought about her as someone who’d be great to talk about West Virginia here,” Mirfakhraie said.

Luisa Graden ’20, who attended the talk, said Yale’s academic offerings do not provide a deeper understanding of rural America.

Graden, a student from rural Idaho, said Sheldon’s talk not only worked to fill that gap, but also celebrated a stigmatized part of the country.

“When we talk about poverty, it’s so based on an urban worldview that it’s hard to make it relevant to rural America,” Graden said. “It’s so wonderful for someone to bring that voice to Yale, but not about all that’s wrong in rural America.”

Both “Heroin(e)” and “Recovery Boys” are available to stream on Netflix, while “Hollow – An Interactive Documentary” is available online at the website of the same name.

Sharla Moody | sharla.moody@yale.edu