Prescription pills

Opioid addiction was the focus of one of this year’s many film festival sessions. Photo by viafilms, courtesy iStockphoto

“And my little girl is on the floor, dead.”

Of all the ways to shed light on the country’s opioid epidemic, that voice in the documentary “Chasing the Dragon” delivers a painful reminder of drug addiction’s human toll. The film’s trailer was shown as part of the APHA Global Public Health Film Festival session “Reel to Real: Public Health Strategies for Combatting the Opioid Epidemic” today at the APHA 2018 Annual Meeting and Expo. And each of the three films shown as part of the session were powerful in their own way.

Alex Hogan was on hand to screen his short documentary “Runnin’,” which shows his personal connection to the addiction crisis. More than 12 kids Hogan grew up with in the same Somerville, Massachusetts, neighborhood have died of opioid overdoses since 2001. He turns the camera on himself as he chats with childhood friend Marky Pantanella, who started using the prescription painkiller OxyContin in high school and speaks with searing honesty about the effect the drugs have had on his life. Much of the film is hard to watch as Hogan gives us a close look at the deaths of his friends Kevin, Sean and Alex.

Julia Cort, deputy executive producer of the PBS science series NOVA, showed an excerpt of “Addiction,” which delves into the science behind opioid use.

“Right now, a large percentage of Americans believe that opioid addiction is due to personal weakness,” she said before screening the 8-minute excerpt that included a clear explanation of the brain changes that happen with drug use. “When we see addiction as a medical disorder, not a moral failure, treatment is much more effective.”

The yearly APHA film festival showcases the power of film to not only educate about public health issues but also inspire people to get involved and find solutions. Cort said she and her colleagues realized that not everyone will take the time to watch the 52-minute long “Addiction” film, so some of the content is available as short Facebook videos and across other online platforms.

But even a four-minute Facebook video had the power to bring some audience members to tears during today’s Annual Meeting session. The video featured a woman who had adopted two boys born with drugs in their system. She told filmmakers that she knew the 3-year-old had witnessed injection drug use by the way he wrapped a belt around his arm and tightened it with his teeth.

An estimated 2.1 million Americans are addicted to opioids, and drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans younger than 50. Nearly all the childhood friends highlighted in Hogan’s film “Runnin’” first tried the prescription OxyContin in high school and were immediately hooked.

Shane Dana and Michael Kulstad of the FBI told session attendees that their film, “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict,” is meant as a “conversation-starter” and has been distributed to every FBI field office. More than 40,000 copies of the film have gone out across the country for screenings in schools, churches and other venues.

“The goal was to humanize this,” Kulstad said about the addiction cycle that often starts with prescription painkillers and leads to heroin use.

Like so many of the tough problems that public health professionals are grappling with, opioid addiction is one that can’t be solved without a lot of collaboration, Dana said.

“We have to work together,” he said. “We have to include each other in our strategy to be effective.”