Almost everything viewers need to know about the mortal consequences of the fentanyl epidemic portrayed in Colin Askey’s new Vancouver-set documentary “Love in the Time of Fentanyl” is contained in one exchange between two users. One man talks about how coming off heroin was hard but manageable, essentially Netflix and chilling in his apartment for a week—but detoxing from fentanyl? That led to the emergency room. Given that and the spread of fentanyl throughout the city’s illicit drug supply, it is easier to understand the argument for the safe-injection site which the film documents. At the same time, seeing that site as anything but a Band-Aid on a grievous wound is hard.
Askey’s Independent Lens-bound film is a humane, loving, and sorrowfully impassioned portrait of the people who staff the Overdose Prevention Society (OPS) in Vancouver’s addiction-riddled Downtown Eastside neighborhood. Following a quick preamble about the wave of overdose deaths sweeping the city and the establishment of OPS without any official approval, the film slides into an organic fly-on-the-wall style that seems to reflect Askey’s time spent in the neighborhood. He tracks several of the people who work at OPS, mostly former or current addicts. Their routine appears not dissimilar to many social workers’—a mix of humanitarian and janitorial duties—but with an extra layer of darkness courtesy of the looming specter of death.
Though Askey has made a message film, it is strongest in portraying the people caught in the epidemic. The OPS workers are a gentle yet vivacious bunch, their mission-driven desire to help spiked with the antiauthority aesthetic and mentality that comes from many of them being outcasts themselves. Ronnie, a soft-spoken but authoritative leader with an Alan Moore beard and vibe of a man who has been through the wars but feels no need to burden others with his past, comes across as a bulwark against the site’s endemic chaos. While he and Trey, a punk-ish artist who manages his grief through graffiti memorials to the dead, appear surprisingly well-balanced, other staff are operating on more of a knife’s edge. One of the most affecting staff members is Dana, a chipper and sweet-natured spirit with an ongoing habit; in one of the film’s hardest-to-watch moments, he whistles the “Andy Griffith Show” theme while injecting himself in the neck, blood leaking down.
As has been seen in other overdose epidemic documentaries—PBS’ 2017 “America Addicted” is a great example—a feature of the recent ravages of opioid addiction has not been the familiar struggle (weaning addicts off their habit so they can return to society) but a more terrifyingly fraught one (keeping addicts from dying). That state of emergency lies behind everything in “Love in the Time of Fentanyl,” whose subjects continually talk of the “crisis” afflicting their community. It is also what appears to drive most of them to carry out the seemingly hopeless work of running a safe injection site with clean needles (to avoid infection) and trained staffers with Narcan (to bring people back after overdosing, several instances of which Askey captures). It’s a nightmarish scenario for the staffers, like paramedics stationed at a hairpin curve where they wait for a driver to crash. Day after day, addicts grateful for a clean, quiet, safe place to inject nod out or have to be revived with Narcan; the latter happens so frequently that Ronnie gains the nickname “Narcan Jesus.”
That sense of inevitability makes Askey’s film realistic—besides being more likely to cause fatal overdoses, fentanyl is far more potent than other opioids and so much harder to kick—but also limited in scope. Despite the mentions of a crisis, and an advocacy march demanding better treatment options, the film does not tie its central message (keeping addicts from dying in the street) to a deeper examination of the crisis. Though OPS is apparently a rogue operation, Askey does not delve into any of the challenges it faces from its opponents. In the worthy interest of showing support for those swept up in addiction, the film fails to grapple with attendant issues (particularly getting people into treatment, which is barely mentioned) and becomes more of an activist echo chamber.
It is not the documentary’s duty to provide answers to a problem for which few experts have a consensus solution. But the film’s lack of a forward-looking vision ultimately makes an already bleak situation appear even more dire. [B]