CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 19 . . . . May 11, 2007
I have been to Cape Breton Island several times, and the place, in my mind, is one of the more beautiful in Canada. However, according to Cottonland, a cancer seems to be growing under the surface. Filmmaker Nance Ackerman, through the eyes of ex-addict Eddie Buchanan looks at the lives of a number of addicts in Glace Bay. According to the film, they are only a few of those addicted in the area. Glace Bay is going through very difficult times. Cottonland attempts to be the canary in a different kind of coal mine.
For four centuries, Cape Breton was the main source for coal in Canada. The mayor of Glace Bay states that for 50 years it was the energy capital of the country. However, all is gone now. By 2000, 160 mines have closed which has left the area in dire economic straits. One of the victims of the new reality is Eddie Buchanan. Told from his point of view, the film gives a depressing tour of Glace Bay and some of its inhabitants. Eddie introduces us to Thomas Ogley, an old friend who is currently addicted to the pain killer Oxycontin. Ogley only agrees to be interviewed by Eddie because Eddie will not pass judgment on Thomas. Eddie was once an addict too.
Oxycontin, when taken according to prescription, is a slow release pain reliever. This pain relief ability made it popular among the miners who used it to treat their aches. However, once the protective layer is removed, the drug inside is like instant heroin. One Oxycontin is equal to "16 Percodans." Its addictive nature has earned it the title of "The Green Monster." Ogley has been addicted to Oxy for five years. He will take Oxy from two to 10 times a day, "depends on how much money I can get. I don't do it to get high anymore-just to feel normal." He wants people and the government to see how big a problem this is.
Eddie grew up in Glace Bay, now known as "Cottonland" for the rampant use of Oxycontin. As he passes his old schoolyard, he says that he never planned to be a junkie when he grew up. "You start with one, then two and then you are hooked." Eddie talks with Alex, his former basketball coach and a man once respected in the community. Alex had a wife, family, good job with seniority and was well-traveled. Now at 50, he refers to himself as "a piece of shit." Drugs became the focus of his life. He "couldn't function without them; couldn't function with them-at the end."
His wife has left, and he has not seen his children in six years. One brother he lost to suicide and the other to an Oxy overdose.
Eddie introduces his wife, Mary, who he "loved from the start. She never did pills." However, at Eddie's suggestion, she tried Oxy and was hooked for five years. During the time she took Oxy, she needed it just to survive. "[W]ithout Oxy you can't even get out of bed. After a night of being stoned on Oxy, you need your next Oxy just to function. You got three kids, you gotta get out of bed. You gotta do your day-to-day routine. You take one, you need the next one. That's how the monster gets started."
When Ogley tells his brother in Ontario that he is hooked on Oxycontin, the brother scoffs. "You can't get hooked on something the doctor gave you." Ogley is disgusted by his brother's ignorance. After breaking his neck at 23, Ogley took Oxy for the pain. For two years, he took four Oxys and eight Percodans daily.
Local doctor T. Sherman admits that perhaps doctors prescribed Oxycontin a little too easily. Initially, they did not know about the pill's addictive nature and certainly did not expect to have been conned to such a large scale. However, when one pill costs $3 and can be sold for $40, a growth industry took root. Those selling Oxy to others do not see themselves as drug dealers. Rather, they are simply trying to supplement their income. Some are able to make $1000 a month just for getting prescriptions. In less than three years, Oxycontin use in Cape Breton rose 270%
An Oxy addiction is not cheap to maintain. Ogley states that he does "10 to 20 a day. At $25 a pill, think of the crimes I have to do to pay for that." Before the pills, he was too embarrassed to even think of stealing a chocolate bar. Now, he will steal anything that can be sold for money. Alex also admits to stealing to pay for his addiction as well. He found a market in stolen steaks. He even designed a pair of pants which he used to stash the meat and elude the store clerks. He was able to make $500 selling stolen meat.
Eddie and Mary thought that they were good parents, but Mary admits they only saw "the junkie side of it." Children's Aid took their children. Eddie says, "The saddest thing in the world is wishing your kid Merry Christmas as you're calling from detox and the kid says, 'I don't want no toys. All I want is you home.'" Before he entered detox, Eddie says that people thought he was dying of AIDS.
Dr. Sherman is open about the town's problems. He is clear that the addicts do not belong in jail, but they need treatment. Those who enter into a methadone programme, like Eddie and Alex, are having some success. Ogley, who wants to be accepted into the programme, initially was refused as he was not a needle user. In desperation, he took an insulin needle from a girlfriend's mother and jabbed himself repeatedly with it. He then figured if he could do that, why not inject the Oxy? He is shown preparing and using Oxy in this way. At one point, he describes someone who had taken too many pills and vomited them up. He says that the pills were still good, and so the person swallowed them again with the vomit. When asked if he would ever do that, Ogley looks disgusted but admits that he would.
Cottonland has another major focus, and that is the economic health of towns like Glace Bay where the major industry has gone. The emptiness of the characters' lives is mirrored in the emptiness of the community. There seems to be no way out of this downward spiral. As bad as things are, the scene shifts down the road to the Native community of Membertou which has had its own share of troubles. However, lately it has gone through a renaissance of sorts and has become a vibrant community. The film implies that Glace Bay could take a lesson from Membertou. According to Cottonland, Glace Bay is like a junkie that, after all these years of being subsidized by government, must, like the addicts in the film, go cold turkey and get weaned off such a self destructive life style. No solutions are given, but the need for change is clear.
Cottonland, a very harsh and graphic film, is artfully told, and that is part of the problem. The long poignant pauses and the songs interspersed in the film would not manage to hold a high school student's attention. Aspects of the film could be used in a variety of classes-especially the anti-drug message. However, the portrayal of Glace Bay is so negative that one wonders how anyone could live there.
Recommended with reservations.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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