“It really is about love”: Colin Askey on his award-winning film Love in the Time of Fentanyl

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      Since Love in the Time of Fentanyl debuted at DOXA last year and netted Colin Askey the Colin Low Award for Best Canadian Director, the film has garnered critical acclaim for showing the unregulated drug crisis with compassion and clarity.

      The film, shot in 2019 before COVID-19 and the rise of benzo-dope, focuses on workers at the Overdose Prevention Society (OPS) safe consumption site as they provide care for the people who need it. Sometimes that means testing drugs and reversing opioid overdoses with Narcan; and other times it’s creating a welcoming space, providing community and support, home-cooked meals and tiny gestures of love. 

      For Askey, the doc was a love letter to the Downtown Eastside and the community where he had spent many years working with the Portland Hotel Society. At first, he wasn’t sure what to make of his new neighbourhood and the long-time harm reduction policies in the area.

      “Originally, I remember feeling like this went against everything that I thought I knew about addiction or this issue. And I look back, and it was really, really life changing for me and changed not only how I viewed this issue, but just really how society works in general,” Askey tells the Straight from New York City, where he now lives. 

      Although physically far away, the toxic drug crisis is never far from his mind: his wife, who had also worked in the DTES as part of the Drug Users Resource Centre, has been involved with opening some of the first safe consumption sites in the Big Apple. Love in the Time of Fentanyl has also had ongoing success, with festival and community screenings across the US and Canada and a recent at-home release in the States through PBS

      Director Colin Askey says Love in the Time of Fentanyl wanted to "shine a light" on the incredible work of the DTES community.
      via PBS Independent Lens

      Originally from Calgary, Askey went to film school in Vancouver. His expertise meant he made a number of short videos about harm reduction for education or funding purposes. His short film, 2019’s Haven, followed two patients at Crosstown who received medical-grade heroin in one of the limited forms of safe supply currently available in the province. He said he felt compelled to make films about the unregulated drug crisis to counteract some of the dominant anti-drug-user narratives.

      “Most people drive through the Downtown Eastside, and they have a lot of opinions about what it looks like, at first glance. For those of us that, I think, have been lucky enough to have been a part of the community, really see the gifts that it has to offer, and the amazing humans that are a part of that community and proud to be a part of that community,” he said. 

      In 2016, right when he left Vancouver, the rate of deaths really spiked; almost every week, he heard of another friend who had died. 

      “I remember watching the media at the time, and there was this piece about how hard this was on the paramedics. And it was, obviously, really hard on the paramedics. And it was hard on a lot of people in the city. But the focus was like, ‘Oh, these poor paramedics have to go and deal with these drug users,’ and it was just really dehumanizing. And meanwhile, it was the drug users and the community itself that [were] the real first responders in this crisis, and really leading the way in the response when no one knew what the hell to do. That's what I wanted to really kind of shine a light on.”

      Indigenous elder Norma Vaillancourt is one of the workers at OPS profiled in the film.
      Love in the Time of Fentanyl still / PBS Independent Lens

      Part of the beauty of Love in the Time of Fentanyl is its intimacy. As a long-time worker in the neighbourhood, most people knew and trusted Askey. The fly-on-the-wall filming, without narration, follows workers and drug users without judgement or malice, offering a clear-eyed look at the frontlines of the toxicity crisis and how it affects people differently. There are no stereotypes, just people trying their hardest in an impossible situation.

      There was a lot of “collaboration,” Askey said, making sure everyone on camera was okay with it, and making sure the crew was not in the way of any lifesaving services or being “a douchebag.” 

      Several years since filming, some things have changed. The OPS has moved to a new site on East Hastings; drug toxicity deaths have soared to 2,272 last year; and limited decriminalization has rolled out while larger-scale safe supply programs lag behind. Some of the people in the film have died; others have stepped back from the taxing work of saving lives. But the love remains.    

      “COVID came, I remember, and I’m like, ‘Oh god, we gotta change this title, everyone and their dog is doing 'Love in the time of something.' But I could never come up with anything better… because it really is about love,” Askey says. “The community itself is filled with life. Outside there may be all this death, but inside, there’s a lot of life and magic and beauty and laughter.” 

      Love in the Time of Fentanyl will be screened at 5pm on February 23 at Vancity Theatre as part of KDocsFF. Colin Askey and film participants Sarah Blyth, Trey Helten, and Norma Vaillancourt will participate in a roundtable afterwards. Tickets are available online here.