Is there any hope? After watching Louis Theroux’s latest documentary, Dark States: Heroin Town, I feel the answer may be ‘no’. As a viewer that seems like a heavy load to carry.
But when I tell Theroux about the sadness that stabbed me in the chest after watching the program, it is hard not to sense his ambivalence. Despite the geeky spectacles and oddball intellectual charm, there’s a steely calmness to him, a sense of watching our own interview unfold that is hardly surprising in someone who is easily one of the most artful and pressing interviewers I’ve ever witnessed at work.
In his latest documentary, Theroux focuses on the town of Huntington, West Virginia, a town that was “once home to factories and steel mills and is now a hub for heroin use”. By close analysis and devastating character study, he moves through the town to weave a complex structural vision of the pathways between over-prescribed “pain pills” for workers and “the most deadly drug epidemic in US history”.
In a town of 48,000 people there are over 11,000 overdoses a year. Even given repeated and non-fatal error, this is quite some lifestyle statistic to swallow. These are not just your typical junkies; this is the aftermath of industrial and social collapse on a devastating scale, with Theroux a proverbial Virgil guiding us through the American inferno.
“You’re obviously a very sensitive bloke,” Theroux says of my reaction. “Perhaps that sadness is the right thing to feel. I mean what do you do with that? I don’t really know. There is a feeling of hopelessness that goes with it all, but I think there is more than that. Maybe this will sound weird, but there is a kind of dignity and grace with the lives of many of these people. Alongside the dependency and chaos, there is this intelligence and sensitivity. Part of what is driving me – and driving them – is the urge to connect. And that urge to connect is the first impulse to do the show.”
From Theroux’s perspective there’s a “redemptive quality” to this, however tenuous it might seem. A quality he feels lies at the core of what he tries to develop ethically. “The people who engage in the process of making a documentary are the ones who are reaching out. They endow their own lives with a dignity.”
A little more pragmatically, he observes that the interview process also allowed his subjects in Heroin Town “to also change their routine, and give their own lives some perspective. They usually have some special quality, some yearning, that makes their story more than sad, and something more enriching, more life affirming. There is a sort of… energy.”
He agrees his work has gotten darker, though he says it is no darker than it was five years ago. “Darker maybe than it was ten years ago let’s say.” Theroux thinks this heavier intensity may have “something to do with the aging process” for him. At some point in his career, he says, he also realised he didn’t just want to be “this funny guy who tells wacky stories about weird people.”
“I decided I didn’t need to be funny. It was more important to be interesting.”
He laughs quietly. “The human condition is so wonderful and terrifying. We have this capacity to sabotage our own lives. And yet also sometimes heal one another, even in the darkest places. Find one another, reach out. Even in the most hopeless situation you find hope. There are paradoxes running through all these situations. When you are in the darkest of places that little bit of light is dazzling.”
Dark States: Heroin Town is screening in participating Australian cinemas through Sharmill Films, from Friday 17 November. Details here.