An Essex High School senior will host a public showing on Thursday night of her award-winning documentary that explores the opioid crisis’ impact on Vermont.
Riley Allen will debut her 30-minute film, “Freefall: The opioid and heroin epidemic in Vermont,” in the Essex High School auditorium at 7 p.m. A shorter version of the film recently premiered on Vermont PBS and earned her first-place honors in the high school division of the Freedom and Unity Youth Film Contest’s Vermont History & Contemporary Issues category.
“I noticed a lot of kids in school using gateway drugs, and my dad, who’s an ICU pulmonologist, would often come home really upset because someone had overdosed,” Allen said of the film’s inspiration. “So I knew that I wanted to do something to help educate students so that kids wouldn’t be getting into using these harder substances.”
The 18-year-old’s film offers a sobering look at what Vermont’s healthcare system has had to confront amid the opioid crisis, using interviews with healthcare professionals like her father, Gilman Allen, who says there were more than 120 drug-related deaths in both 2016 and 2017.
“That’s someone dying every three days from a drug-related event,” he says in the film.
The film also provides information about the causes of addiction and what can be done to counteract the stigma surrounding them. Allen said she used to feel angry when seeing her peers turn to drug use. But through interviews she said she learned that it’s not their fault.
“This is a chronic health disease,” says Jackie Corbally, the opiate policy manager for the Burlington Police Department, in the film. “People need to erase the shame and stigma that’s attached to this disease so that people will come forward and get the treatment.”
And the documentary seeks to offer a personal touch through a conversation with a former drug user in addition to an interview with Kimberly Blake, a doctor with the Howard Center’s Safe Recovery Program who lost her son, Sean, to a drug overdose in 2017. Allen has recruited her father, Blake and Corbally for a Q&A panel discussion following the film.
The panel will be moderated by Essex Jct. Rep. Lori Houghton, who hosted her own opioid-related forum last year, which Allen attended. Houghton commended Allen’s willing to take on an issue “many people would shy away from.”
“Here is a high school student who is tackling a very personal yet important issue for our state and making an effort to get it out there so other people can see it,” Houghton said. “I am super excited to see it.”
For Allen, the film doubles as a senior capstone project. She said she chose to present her capstone in documentary form because she appreciates how filmmaking can put so many different media to use, and she added that her interest of filmmaking dates back to her middle school years.
She now hopes to make a career out of it, attending Quinnipiac University in the fall with plans to pursue a career in filmmaking, especially documentaries, though she admitted a few superhero movie gigs would be pretty cool, too.