Filmmaker, fire chief on hand to speak at screening of documentary about opioid crisis

Huntington, West Virginia, Fire Chief Jan Rader calls herself “an accidental spokesperson.”

Rader, whose city and region are ground zero in the nation's opioid epidemic, is one of three women featured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Heroin(e),” which will screen at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 7, at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Rader and director Elaine McMillion Sheldon will be present for the screening.

The film is a moving depiction of the work of three women making a difference in the crisis on a day-to-day basis: Rader, Cabell County Drug Court Judge Patricia Keller and Necia Freeman of Brown Bag Ministry. Rader was deputy chief and a member of a task force initiated by Huntington Mayor Steve Williams when Sheldon and her team arrived in Huntington.

“I was just trying to introduce them to people,” Rader said in a phone interview. “Six months later we all got calls asking permission to use what they [shot]. I guess we all said, ‘If the other two are in, then I am, too.'”

“We chose to tell the story this way because it shows the impact working together at different levels of society can have, how people can help, and how people on the front lines need our support,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon, a native of West Virginia, said her work often tells stories of her home state in a universal way.

“People see Appalachia as so far removed from the rest of the American experience,” she said. “We're all just humans trying to get by.”

Getting by has proven difficult for many in the Huntington area. Rader said it has been years since her department has gone a day without responding to an overdose — a radical change from the nature of her work when she started her career.

“It's very frustrating at times, but I'm the kind of person who refuses to believe there's not a way around every barrier,” Rader said. “What I liked [about the film] was that it was not about me. It's about people in a community making a difference. There are a hundred of me all over, trying to provide hope.”

“The film, for me, is about resilience and compassion, and how an individual can have a huge impact on another person's life,” Sheldon said. “But there are policy implications that are important. None of us is exempt as part of the solution.”

As for her unexpected role as spokesperson, Rader said she “just hopes to start a conversation.”

Editor's note: Chief Jan Rader has had to cancel her planned appearance. Elaine McMillion Sheldon is still scheduled to attend the screening.