DOXA 2013: East Hastings Pharmacy provides a glimpse into a world few of us know

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      Vancouver's supervised-injection facility, Insite, has been the subject of enormous media coverage. This has provided the public with great understanding about what's going on in this East Hastings health facility.

      There has not been anywhere near the same attention paid to the B.C. methadone program, which dispenses the legal pain reliever in lieu of illegal drugs at numerous locations across the province.

      Paris-born director Antoine Bourges's documentary-style feature, East Hastings Pharmacy, admirably fills that knowledge gap with astonishing clarity.

      The 46-minute film starkly depicts what takes place in a methadone dispensary, where a pharmacist must observe clients consume the pain-killing liquid or else it's not dispensed.

      An attractive middle-class pharmacist, played by Shauna Hansen, stands behind glass. She steadfastly refuses addicts' requests for her to violate the law by letting them "carry", which is the term used for transporting medication outside of the pharmacy.

      Hansen's character is clearly sympathetic to the regulars, but like anyone in this type of job, she also experiences some irritation. Most of this is reflected in her eyes. It's a masterful performance and completely believable.

      Bourges's use of close-ups—and this film is full of them—reveals how emotionally taut the relationships can become between a Downtown Eastside pharmacist and the clients, even though they may spend less than a minute together in a day. And the glass barrier, which is clearly visible in many shots, reinforces the divide that will always exist between them.

      When one mom wants to carry the drugs to Mission to see her son over the weekend, the tension reaches a crescendo. The client is caught in a bureaucratic maze of the government's making.

      On other occasions, the encounters are far more businesslike. And one of the most memorable scenes involves two addicted men having a serious conversation about tennis inside the pharmacy next to an aboriginal woman, who's completely zoning out on drugs. It's surreal, but authentic.

      Downtown Eastside residents, including some methadone users, perform as the addicts, reinforcing the film's credibility. The few aboriginal characters aren't quite as fleshed out as some of the others, which is unfortunate.

      East Side Pharmacyoffers a glimpse into a world that few of us have seen—the inside of a methadone-maintenance clinic. It's hard to believe that all of these facilities across B.C. are nearly as dreary, but hey, this is the Downtown Eastside.

      Watch the trailer for East Hastings Pharmacy