DOXA Fest: Love in the Time of Fentanyl documents impressive heroism of Overdose Prevention Society

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      Featuring Sarah Blyth, Ronnie Grigg, Trey Helten, Norma Vaillancourt, Dana McInnis, Don Durban, and Ron MacKenzie. Directed by Colin Askey

      For many middle-class and upper middle-class nondrug users living in swanky neighbourhoods, the overdose crisis can get a little mind-numbing. That’s because it involves other people—often, though not always, the down and out, whom they don’t know.

      It’s why documentaries like Love in the Time of Fentanyl are so very important. They put a human face on this horrific community tragedy while showcasing the resilience and sheer ingenuity of the marginalized who are saving lives on a daily basis.

      Colin Askey’s intimate film, which premieres at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival on Tuesday (May 10), takes viewers inside Vancouver’s Overdose Prevention Society at 58 East Hastings Street. Its plucky staff and volunteers make the most of an exceedingly grim situation yet still carve out a little time for fun.

      There's OPS founder Sarah Blyth, who finds it incomprehensible that six years after she and Ann Livingston opened a pop-up supervised injection site that drug users still don’t have access to a clean supply.

      Then there's Norma Vaillancourt, the Indigenous OPS supervisor. In the film, she talks about how many friends she’s lost. The current OPS manager, Trey Helten, shares stories about a colourful memorial mural in the neighbourhood.

      Norma Vaillancourt not only saves lives, but she also brings great joy to her colleagues at the Overdose Prevention Society.

      This is cinéma vérité—capturing the essence of some very loving people, hence the title of the film.

      There’s no narration; only the voices of the participants are heard. It’s supplemented with compelling imagery of the gritty Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, including an opening sequence in which one drug-using resident is revived from the dead with naloxone and oxygen.

      “So often, drug users are outcast and not given credit for being able to, like, use their mind—to have solutions to major problems,” Ronnie Grigg, then the OPS general manager, says in the film.

      In fact, the society’s staff and volunteers are exceedingly well-trained in keeping their neighbours and friends alive amid the roar of constant sirens.

      But it also takes a toll, in some cases leading to burnout. Askey and cinematographer Eric D. Sanderson capture this most effectively through their haunting segments with Grigg, who discloses that he knew 130 people who died from poisoned drugs over the previous four years.

      Ronnie Grigg's long-time work in harm reduction has taken an emotional toll on him.

      Last year, there were a record 2,224 deaths from toxic, illicit drugs in B.C., up 26 percent over the previous record  set in 2020.

      What’s truly remarkable is how comfortable everyone seems in front of the cameras. One charming volunteer, Dana McInnis, offers up some awe-inspiring whistling just before injecting. In another scene, Helten discloses family traumas as he is filmed delivering a friend’s wheelchair, via a city bus, to a local hospital.

      These are real people coping with monumental challenges. They deserve to be heard and not judged. Love in the Time of Fentanyl gives them that.

      Now, if only policymakers would act on their recommendations. Only then will we be able to put an end to this madness.

      The DOXA Documentary Film Festival presents the world premiere of Love in the Time of Fentanyl at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday (May 10) at the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward's and at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday (May 11) at the Vancity Theatre. It will be available to stream live starting May 11 from the DOXA website.