Director expands on themes of Oscar-nominated Cartel Land: 'I just felt there was an even bigger story to be told'
A group of Democratic lawmakers wore purple ribbons to the president's State of the Union address earlier this week, a gesture meant to highlight the nation's opioid epidemic. And the president himself addressed the crisis in his speech, if only briefly.
"We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge," Trump told the audience. "My administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need, for those who have been so terribly hurt."
Forty-nine seconds out of the State of the Union hardly expresses the severity of the crisis -- 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016 alone. For a far more detailed understanding of the extent of the opioid epidemic viewers can experience Matthew Heineman's harrowing new docs-series The Trade, which debuted Friday night on the Showtime cable channel.
Ultimately it's basic economics. It's supply and demand. As long as there will be demand for drugs in the U.S. there will be supply for drugs coming from Mexico.
The series, which airs for the next five weeks on Showtime, explores the crisis from ground level: addicts hungering for a fix, law enforcement struggling to police drug dealers and users, and drug cartels in Mexico fighting a brutal war for control of the trade.
"I always want to look at this opioid epidemic through human stories and different lenses -- from poppy growers in Guerrero, Mexico to addicts in Atlanta to detectives in Columbus [Ohio]," Heineman tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "For me to put a human face to it was my goal from the very beginning."
The series expands on Heineman's work in Cartel Land, his 2015 Oscar-nominated documentary that examined the drug war in Mexico and self-appointed vigilante groups patrolling the U.S. side of the border.
"This topic is obviously something that was very near and dear to my heart having spent a couple years working on Cartel Land and being immersed in the subject matter. But I just felt like there was an even much bigger story to be told," he explains. "I honestly never conceived of it as a series... It was basically a long film through which we in the editing room broke it into episodes."
Scenes from Matthew Heineman's docu-series The Trade. Photos courtesy SHOWTIME
Among his central characters is Don Miguel, a man who provides security for a cartel in Guerrero, Mexico. The poppy growers there factor in the supply side of the equation -- meeting the unquenchable demand that comes from the U.S. Don Miguel comes across, paradoxically, as a moral force who looks out for villagers as well as the armed men and cultivators under his protective umbrella.
"As I saw quite vividly in making Cartel Land and in this story line as well, the lines between the drug trade, the cartel, governments, civic leaders, are quite blurry and often are intersecting. What you find is very complex characters who have their hands in many pots, if you will pardon the pun. That was definitely the case with Don Miguel. He's a complex man," Heineman says. "I think he feels very much caught in this cycle. I don't think he's necessarily proud of what he does... That's one of the things I hope I can do with shows like this and films is to show the complexity of human nature and show the complex motivations that we all have. Because nothing is black and white. Nothing is crystal clear."
Harvesting poppy flowers for opium production in Guerrero, Mexico. Photos courtesy SHOWTIME
The Trade follows addicts in Atlanta at constant risk of overdose. Beleaguered parents struggle to help their children, knowing any day they spend with them could be their last together.
The series also tracks policing efforts in Columbus, Ohio. In 2015, more than 2,500 people in that state died of opioid overdoses, according to one report.
"It's one of the regions that's most ravaged by the opioid epidemic. It was very hard getting access to law enforcement, something that we spent months and months and months fighting for and trying for with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to try to get embedded with different law enforcement [groups]," Heineman notes. "The road ultimately led to Columbus... a place that's at the epicenter of this crisis."
The main subjects in The Trade appear without their faces obscured or identities concealed.
"People often ask why people take part in documentaries and that's a question that I ask myself sometimes too. I think whether it's Don Miguel or whether it's Skyler -- one of our addicts in Atlanta -- I think it's the same common denominator. You want people to understand what you're going through, the world that you're living in. You want to be listened to," Heineman reasons. "These are very sensitive conversations... I think especially with addicts part of that conversation was around the idea that by sharing their story they can help others."
Despite the toll of the opioid epidemic, the response of the Trump administration has been inadequate, in the opinion of many experts.
"The administration has done very little to combat the opioid epidemic to date,” Gary Mendell, founder of Shatterproof, an advocacy group dedicated to fighting the opioid epidemic, told Vox.com.
Last October, the administration declared the crisis to be a "public health emergency," but has not asked Congress to provide additional funding to combat the problem. And key positions at the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. There has been an acting "drug czar" since last March, but no confirmed leader of the office.
Building walls, erecting walls, continuing to think of this as something that needs to be fought by policing it, I don't think is necessarily sound policy.
The politics of the issue lie outside the frame of The Trade.
"I'm not a policy expert and I don't pretend to be," Heineman insists. "And this series is not prescriptive. There's no talking heads, there's no real stats or graphic or cards. I feel like it's my job to provide viewers with a really intimate personal avenue through which they can understand a deeply complex, massively-tentacled beast of this opioid epidemic."
When pressed, Heineman does offer his perspective on the proper way to combat the opioid crisis.
"We for a long time have treated the 'war on drugs' -- in this case the opioid epidemic -- as a war. Treating it as such hasn't necessarily yielded any results or at least any positive trends. Things only seem to be getting worse. So building walls, erecting walls, continuing to think of this as something that needs to be fought by policing it, I don't think is necessarily sound policy.
"We need to spend and really fight to think of this as a disease, as a health care crisis... We need more and more resources on that front and less resources on policing the issue."
Heineman adds, "Ultimately it's basic economics. It's supply and demand. As long as there will be demand for drugs in the U.S. there will be supply for drugs coming from Mexico. And that's just a fact and that fact has existed for a very long time. Whether we get rid of a drug lord, head of a cartel in Mexico or take a small town dealer off the streets that basic economic structure of supply and demand will continue and someone will fill that void and those drugs will continue to flow northward and with that will come violence. Over 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico since this war on drugs began. Over 25,000 people have disappeared. And obviously thousands and thousands of addicts have lost their lives."
Supply and demand. Opium is harvested in Mexico (left); an addict prepares to shoot heroin (right). Photos courtesy SHOWTIME
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.