The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - PHILIPPA HAWKER

This month a new Louis Th­er­oux work comes to cin­e­mas. It is a dou­ble bill: an hour­long doc­u­men­tary, Heroin Town, from a three-part se­ries set in the US, and a 36minute over­view of Th­er­oux’s ca­reer, ap­proach and meth­ods.

Th­er­oux has tack­led the sub­ject of ad­dic­tion be­fore, and says he needed to ap­proach it in a dif­fer­ent way this time. Heroin Town is set in a city with a prob­lem of ad­dic­tion that’s part of a United States epi­demic whose causes are clearly es­tab­lished.

“There’s no am­bi­gu­ity about that, it’s ac­knowl­edged uni­ver­sally that’s what’s hap­pened,” Th­er­oux says. It is the “hang­over of ram­pant over­pre­scrip­tion of le­gal opi­ates and painkillers” that has led to an epi­demic of de­pen­dency. “And once they tight­ened up the pre­scrip­tion of the opi­ates, there was a mass mi­gra­tion into heroin.”

Th­er­oux doesn’t in­ves­ti­gate the back­ground to this any fur­ther. And he didn’t want to tell the story from the law en­force­ment point of view, he says, “but from the side of the com­mu­nity of users”.

Mak­ing Heroin Town be­gan with what he calls “our usual MO”, ini­ti­ated by a re­search team. “When I say team it sounds like 11 foot­ball play­ers, but it was ac­tu­ally just one guy, (as­so­ciate pro­ducer) Oli Roy, later joined by our di­rec­tor, Dan Child,” he says.

Even­tu­ally they de­cided to con­fine them­selves to a rel­a­tively small place: Hunt­ing­ton, West Vir­ginia, pop­u­la­tion 49,000, which has 13 times the US av­er­age of fa­tal over­doses.

Hav­ing de­ter­mined the lo­ca­tion, the next step was for Roy and Child to find doc­u­men­tary sub­jects.

“They meet peo­ple, maybe make some con­tact with law en­force­ment, emer­gency ser­vices, and visit the nee­dle ex­change, get a sense of what char­ac­ters we might be able to get on board,” he says.

What they try to look for, Th­er­oux says, are “con­trib­u­tors who have some vi­tal­ity, who are right there at the coal­face of the prob­lem but not so beaten down by life and by ad­dic­tion that they are sort of supine or in­ca­pable of ex­press­ing any­thing”.

A few weeks later, Th­er­oux and his crew ar­rive, ready to start shoot­ing.

“That’s when I meet peo­ple,” he says. “And that’s why the films have a sort of fresh, or­ganic qual­ity. It’s a sleight of hand in a way. I’m meet­ing peo­ple for the first time who very of­ten my di­rec­tor or AP may have al­ready met.”

The sub­jects are pre­pared, Th­er­oux says, in that they have a sense of what the film is about, and they know they are go­ing to be on cam­era.

“Then we roll up, and it’s a case of film­ing fairly in­ten­sively,” he says.

That’s how the film­mak­ers get “a lot of the things that give it a sort of fresh­ness and an un­self­con­scious di­men­sion … Those mo­ments of can­did­ness or of the un­ex­pected”.

He men­tions an in­ci­dent that takes place early in Heroin Town, when he goes to visit a young woman called Katil­lia, an ad­dict who lives with her boyfriend, Alvin.

“Per­haps one of my favourites – favourites is an odd word – one of the most re­veal­ing mo­ments in Heroin Town is when we go to Katil­lia’s house, and her boyfriend’s there and he leaves the room,” he says.

Katil­lia then takes the op­por­tu­nity to tell Th­er­oux some­thing he says was en­tirely un­ex­pected – some­thing that gave him a bleak new per­spec­tive on the re­la­tion­ship.

Why does Th­er­oux think she de­cides to speak to him then, as she is be­ing filmed?

“She ob­vi­ously knew she was on cam­era but was reach­ing out for help,” he says.

“I think it’s com­pli­cated to try to ex­plain ex­actly what she was do­ing. I think at some level she was look­ing for al­lies against Alvin. At the same time per­haps she was more am­biva­lent about him than she let on.”

There’s an­other scene in which Alvin and Katil­lia sug­gest that Th­er­oux comes with them when they go to buy drugs.

“I was very sur­prised when they say, ‘We’re go­ing to score, do you want to come with us?’” Th­er­oux says. “And I thought, well this is very im­mer­sive. I don’t want to sound too odd about it, but it is a sort of priv­i­lege to be in­vited into that level of in­ti­macy and see things that re­veal a hid­den side of that world.”

Th­er­oux does find him­self won­der­ing why peo­ple agree to be in­ter­viewed and in­sti­gate cer­tain ac­tiv­i­ties on cam­era.

“I think there are dif­fer­ent im­pulses at play,” he says.

“I think some peo­ple en­joy be­ing filmed; there’s no guilt or shame at­tached to it, and some peo­ple take plea­sure in memo­ri­al­is­ing them­selves and their lives. I think you could also ar­gue that there’s some self-ro­man­ti­cism go­ing on, that they are in a weird way per­haps invit­ing peo­ple in to share what they may ex­pe­ri­ence as an out­law ex­is­tence.

“I think there’s also a sense in which they are reach­ing out for hope, they feel that some­how by throw­ing open the win­dows and the doors and show­ing the world what’s go­ing on, that it could help them change the sit­u­a­tion.”

In 2000, Th­er­oux spent time with Bri­tish tele­vi­sion and ra­dio per­son­al­ity Jimmy Sav­ile for his When Louis Met … se­ries. Af­ter his death in 2011, Sav­ile was found to have been a sex­ual abuser of chil­dren for decades.

“When I made the orig­i­nal doc­u­men­tary, I had a sense that we hadn’t seen ev­ery­thing. I spoke about this at the time: I had a sense that I hadn’t fig­ured out what his se­cret was.” Th­er­oux asked Sav­ile about ru­mours that he was a pae­dophile and re­ceived an am­bigu­ous an­swer.

Last year, Th­er­oux made an­other pro­gram, Sav­ile (which screens on BBC Knowl­edge in De­cem­ber), as a kind of mea culpa, an ac­knowl­edg­ment of his own fail­ure.

“Look­ing back, what’s in­ter­est­ing is how the clues are there,” Th­er­oux says. “There’s some­thing in male­fac­tors, peo­ple who are in­volved in do­ing harm to oth­ers, that ac­tu­ally wants to come clean, that wants to make them­selves OK with what they are do­ing, and that hints at the truth.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing, it’s al­most as if, de­cep­tive as he was, Jimmy Sav­ile couldn’t help leav­ing a kind of trail of ev­i­dence, of clues that only be­came clear af­ter the fact.”

Heroin Town is show­ing at Hoyts Cinema Tweed City


Louis Th­er­oux’s Heroin Town is set in Hunt­ing­ton, West Vir­ginia, which has 13 times the US av­er­age of fa­tal over­doses.

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