A while back, I watched a great documentary film about heroin addicts called “Union Square.” It was a powerful film that interviewed about 7 or 8 homeless heroin addicts who live in Union Square in New York.
The film was a raw, gritty documentary that really gives you a sense of what it must be like to live on the streets and hustle for money every day. The people who were interviewed talked about all sorts of different issues, including family issues, trying to get clean, what it is like to hustle every day, how they found themselves becoming homeless, and so on.
They talk about heroin and how it drew them in, how it overtook their life.
At one point, one of the female characters is sitting out on the curb in Union Square in the 20 degree weather with a can, panhandling for money to shoot more dope with, and some lady tosses some money into the can and says “get a job” while walking away. The heroin addict simply says “thanks” and sort of laughs a little.
To me, this scene says a lot. The woman with a “normal life” who is tossing some coins into the can does not really get what is going on. She thinks that the dope addict must be mentally deranged to live on the streets and hustle for money instead of getting a job and earning her way to a warm apartment. She does not understand the role that heroin plays in all that. She does not grasp how the cycle of addiction can drive someone into this sort of situation where they are homeless, penniless, and just trying to scrape out an existence — yet still taking any money they can scrape up and spending it on dope.
This is what the film accomplishes. It illustrates to the “normal world” (meaning those who are not addicts) how addiction can take over a life and drive you to down to the level of a homeless drug addict. Through multiple interviews with the same group of people, the viewer gets a chance to get to know these addicts and see that they are typical people who just got caught up in the whirlwind of addiction.
It is a powerful documentary because the consequences are so pronounced. Getting hooked on heroin and having this situation drive you into homelessness is a profound lifestyle change, obviously. And it translates well onto film and can really have an impact on those who are watching. But what if we could create this kind of documentary for other drugs, such as painkillers or alcohol? I think there is an opportunity there too. People try really hard to hide addiction….a powerful documentary like this can expose a lot.
It is one thing to interview a bunch of homeless heroin addicts, and this can send a message to people who watch the film. But how can we illustrate an even more widespread problem, that of drug addiction and alcoholism among the general population? We know today that most drug addicts and alcoholics are not living in the streets. They are “functional” in that they are still trying to hold a life together.
Homeless heroin addicts make the problem of addiction blatantly visible. But addiction has become an “underground” problem too. We need more films like this!