Students Win Emmy for Documentary On Dayton Opioid Epidemic

Brendan Zdunek
Contributing Writer

It is a dream many people have: walking onto a brightly lit stage and getting handed the trophy of a prestigious award, whether it be an Emmy, an Oscar or a Grammy. This summer, a group of UD media production students got to experience a piece of that dream when their documentary, “Epicenter: Dayton’s Opioid Crisis,” won a Pillar Award (the student equivalent of an Emmy). The award came in the long-form nonfiction category from the Ohio Valley chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

“It was a very humbling experience, and I’m proud of all our hard work could be appreciated,” said Joseph Lawlor, one of the juniors (now a senior) involved in the project.

This journey toward an Emmy began in the 2015-16 academic year when “Annual Documentary Production” started as an independent study project overseen by Greg Kennedy, UD’s media specialist-in-residence. Then, in the 2017-18 academic year, the project was changed into a regularly scheduled course that was offered spring semester. This allowed the group to start pre-production in the fall semester and shoot and edit the film during the actual class.

The documentary focuses on the U.S. opioid epidemic. “Some of us have had connections with people who have been affected by the opioid crisis, and we figured it was a topic that more people should know about,” Lawlor said.

The video specifically deals with the city of Dayton, one of the areas that has been hardest hit by the epidemic. According to the documentary, last year in Montgomery County, at least 560 people had died due to overdoses.

With the epidemic being so severe in Dayton, the students framed the film through the perspective of multiple players in the epidemic: law enforcement officers, reporters, social workers, leaders in the community, and, most importantly, former addicts and their families. “The documentary shares multiple different viewpoints that people have on the opioid crisis and how it has absolutely changed their lives,” Lawlor said.

Another student who worked on the project was senior Taylor Alexander, who was a junior when the project was underway and is a member of the women’s rowing team at UD. She spoke at length with Tom Archdeacon of Dayton Daily News about the project.

“They let us into a vulnerable place in their lives and in their hearts,” Alexander said. “They allowed us to come in with camera equipment and ask nosy questions, so I wanted to be very sensitive and not exploit their suffering for the sake of a good story.”

The documentary officially premiered April 26 on campus at Sears Recital Hall, but the members of the Dayton-based recovery support group Families for Addicts, a group with whom the filmmakers had collaborated, got to view it before its official premiere. For three months, the film team attended weekly meetings with this support group to hear stories from former addicts.

Many were amazed at the 16-minute documentary and, at its completion, it received a standing ovation from the packed audience. One of the attendees of the premiere who stood and clapped was none other than UD President Eric Spina, who wrote his own blog post in reaction to the documentary.

 “This piece could be all about heartbreak in the heartland. Instead, it tells a painfully honest story through the eyes of recovering addicts in the Dayton region – everyday people caught up in a crisis that ‘knows no demographic,’” Spina wrote in his post.

Being amazed at the depth of the documentary and how well put together it was, he and others thought the same thing: this picture deserved an Emmy.

After its premiere, the group submitted the documentary to the Ohio Valley chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which includes the states of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia. Near the end of June, it was announced the UD team had attained the honor of the Pillar Award with the official ceremony being August 18 in Lawrenceburg, IN.

Although the group members are proud of their accomplishment, they believe in a greater purpose for their work. “It was even better we could share those people’s stories in a way that people can grasp the severity of this epidemic,” Lawlor said.

Taylor Alexander shared that sentiment as former addicts and their family members were grateful for the work she and others had done. “Their recognition was all I needed. That told us that we had done a good job.”

Through their work, these 14 UD students are spreading awareness about the scope and the depth of the opioid epidemic and how it affects a vast number of people in the U.S. The epidemic is long from over, but these students hope that more awareness on the issue and a better perspective on the people involved can make a change for the better.

The documentary can be watched here, where it has more than 5,000 views. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please contact the University of Dayton Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention at 937-229-2229.

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