Utah documentary tells intimate, gritty story of opiate crisis

In a dark bedroom, Maddy is tying off her arm, getting ready to shoot heroin with her girlfriend, Page. Through the camera’s eye, we watch these intimate, gritty scenes in Jenny Mackenzie’s new documentary “Dying in Vein: The Opiate Generation.”

During the year the Utah filmmaker was following Maddy and Page, the 20-something women were under the care of counselors in “harm reduction” drug treatment programs and had agreed to not increase the amount of drugs they were using.

Maddy had been cut off financially by her parents but wasn’t ready to enter a rehab program. “I always knew where the naloxone was,” the filmmaker said of the drug used to treat narcotic overdoses in emergencies. “They never had to use it on each other while I was filming.”

“They were being responsible heroin users, if that were possible,” added Mackenzie, underscoring the ethical obligation she felt to include the cinéma vérité drug scenes in the documentary as a way to underscore “the raw and real story of heroin addiction.”

Utah filmmaker Jenny Mackenzie. (Courtesy)

“I feel as though there’s too much that happens behind closed doors,” the filmmaker said. “We believe it’s happening to ‘those’ people, but it’s really happening to all of us. Until we really look and understand the suffering that is happening, we won’t be able to come together and address the change that needs to happen to compassionately address this problem.”

Mackenzie’s film, which is available for viewing on Hulu and other streaming sites, will be screened by the Utah Film Center at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Salt Lake City’s Downtown Library. In October, Utah Public Radio is sponsoring screenings in Logan, Ogden, Price, Vernal and Moab, part of the filmmaker’s push to show the film in 100 communities before Jan. 1.

“Dying in Vein” unfolds intensely personal stories of young Utahns caught in various stages of drug addiction and recovery, illuminating local issues as a microcosm of the national drug crisis. “It shows how deep down a rabbit hole you can go on this drug, losing your basic humanity, core and moral compass,” said Geralyn White Dreyfous, the film’s executive producer. “It’s scary how fast it can happen.”

More unusual is how the film outlines the “pain pill-to-heroin” pipeline and how that problem shows up in hospital emergency rooms. Patients seek pills to relieve their pain, while doctors are under pressure to receive good patient reviews. All of that can exacerbate pain pill addictions, physicians say. (As a voice of support for the film, the Utah Emergency Physicians association voted to donate some $30,000 in finishing funds after seeing an early cut of the film.)

The documentary "Dying in Vein" will be screen in Salt Lake City on Sept. 26, and then in five Utah cities in October. (Courtesy)

The documentary also focuses on Jennifer Plumb, an ER physician who launched Utah Naloxone, a nonprofit that has distributed more than 5,000 free rescue kits to addicts. In the documentary, Plumb tells the story of her inspiration: the memory of the heroin overdose of her brother, Andy, who died in a Salt Lake City basement when he was 22.

The story of creating “Dying in Vein” begins with the tragic overdose in February 2014 of Chase Saxton, whose death sent shock waves through the close-knit alumni of the Rowland Hall community.

Mackenzie’s daughter, who had known Chase, prompted her mother to contact his family. They invited her to shoot his funeral services, where she met one of his close friends, Matt Walje, a former addict now working as a drug counselor.

The subject had personal echoes for Mackenzie. Several years earlier, her daughter had fallen into prescription-drug misuse while treating high school soccer injuries. “We got lucky,” Mackenzie said. “I caught her in the nick of time. She wanted to get help, we could afford good treatment, and she made it to the other side.”

But that personal stake inspired the filmmaker, a former social worker, to continue to pursue the story. As she sought funding for the documentary, Mackenzie posted short trailers on the internet, which prompted an extraordinary email.

Maddy, then living in California, was still using drugs, but invited the filmmaker to tell her story. “I never want to see anyone else go through this horrible experience,” she wrote.

Maddy, now 25, has been clean for 2½ years. Page, now 28, relapsed, but filmmakers helped enroll her successfully in an another rehab program. Both now work as drug treatment counselors. “Luckily for us, Maddy came out on the other side,” Dreyfous said. “We didn’t know that at the time.”

The harsh realities of our country’s opiate addiction problem can make the film difficult to watch, Dreyfous said, adding: “It’s also really hard to like addicts when they are addicts.”

Dying in Vein” <br>Utah filmmaker Jenny Mackenzie‘s documentary will be screened by the Utah Film Center at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Salt Lake City Main Library, 200 E. 400 South. Free. For details, visit utahfilmcenter.org/event/dying-in-vein.<br>Other screenings • 6 p.m. Oct. 3 in Moab; 6 p.m. Oct. 4 in Price; 6 p.m. Oct. 5 in Vernal; Oct. 6 and 7, Logan; and Oct. 18 in Ogden.<br>Schedule • To schedule a screening, contact Jorden Hackney at 801-971-9172.