Who is holding the camera?

An award-winning documentarian explores truth in front of and behind the lens


Academy Award-nominated Elaine McMillion Sheldon shared her latest documentary in Miller Forum, Moyer Hall on Monday, Feb. 13, as part of the Center For Ethics Troubling Truth program.

“Heroin(e),” McMillion’s most recent documentary, follows three women dealing with the heroin crisis in their West Virginia hometown. McMillion followed Jan Rader, a fire chief, on her overdose calls, Judge Patricia Keller to Drug Court, where she talks to those arrested for minor heroin-related crimes that are sent to rehabilitate and finally Necia Freeman, who drives around town delivering supplies to addicted prostitutes on the street and taking addicts to rehabilitation centers. The documentary is currently available on Netflix and runs 39 minutes.

“What [my crew and I] were trying to do is to show those human faces and stories and the resilience behind the grim statistics that headlines often focus on,” said McMillion, “and just show that complex reality on the ground.”

McMillion grew up in Logan, West Virginia, the daughter of a coal miner.

“[Logan] was a place where art was a class you took in school, and something for people that had more money and time on their hands than a coal miner’s daughter,” said McMillion. “But journalism was something tangible for me. When I saw my local journalists in action … I could actually comprehend what they were doing in a way that was benefitting society, and that was a direct way to contribute to society as a storyteller, and that’s my driving force today.”

As someone from the area McMillion is well aware of how outsiders perceive her town and spent most of her child and adult life reconciling those differences.

“Despite what the media tells you,” said McMillion, “Appalachia isn’t the American other, a place of exotic backwardness; but it is full of contradictions, like the rest of America. Appalachia can be a place of hopelessness or full of hope, depending which direction you point your camera.”

McMillion’s challenge she said — speaking back to the Center for Ethics theme — is finding truth, because there are so many versions.

She also shared snippets from her other works, including “Hollow,” a choose-your-own adventure-style documentary where McMillion trained locals to shoot their own footage, and her PBS Frontline documentary on coal miners.

“I think it’s really important to empower the people who live and breathe these stories to tell their own stories. Yes, I am a documentary filmmaker and I love documenting life, but I also love seeing what other people come out on the other side with,” said McMillion. “When it’s an insider holding the camera with the power, it’s now a tool to use against corruption, it’s a tool to use to help with the environment. I think it’s really important to note the power of who’s holding the camera.”


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