When considering his life’s many hardships, one of the heroin users in Love in the Time of Fentanyl soberly remarks that “going down was easier than dealing with it.” Such a statement acts as a thematic throughline for many of the characters in director Colin Askey’s documentary and the opioid crisis as a whole. Although the film never quite gets to the root of the many issues it raises, it is still a solid offering for how it deals frankly with the Canadian opioid crisis.
The film revolves around the Overdose Protection Society, or OPS, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. The OPS acts as a figurehead in harm reduction — a movement that seeks to steady the many chaotic variables surrounding drug use. It is also a safe injection site for users. The documentary principally follows Ronnie Grigg, an OPS manager of sorts, and the day-to-day of working in such a volatile place.
Love in the Time of Fentanyl eschews the classic documentary style for cinéma vérité, utilizing the lens of realism to properly translate the feeling of working on the front lines of the opioid crisis. This plays to the film’s strength in that it gives a pragmatic aspect to harrowing events like overdoses and deaths, which are showcased without pretense or schmaltz. There is something inescapably immediate about watching someone prepare a syringe and inject it into their neck while talking nonchalantly about their personal history with drugs.
“…seeks to steady the many chaotic variables surrounding drug use. It is also a safe injection site…”
It also adds a sense of hyper-confinement — the people at the centre of the OPS, administrators and users alike, do not see much of the outside world. Further, little is shown of the nicer parts of Vancouver, making normal life seem distant. This allows the viewer to seamlessly pick up on the generalized sense of social strangulation that seems to hold those on the screen hostage.
However, Askey errs in that this style disallows an examination of the factors that led to the opioid crisis as it currently exists. Much of the runtime is an ongoing chronicle of Grigg’s experience working with so many vulnerable people. This defines the human toll of the crisis unambiguously, but it also amplifies the desire to understand how a better and more sustainable state can be reached. Bureaucracy and misinformed ideas are all considered, but too hastily, never allowing the viewer to feel fully informed. The closest the documentary gets to an answer is arguing for the need to clean up Vancouver’s fentanyl-laced drug supply. However, due to the tangible nature of the film, this comes across as a stop-gap solution.
Still, Love in the Time of Fentanyl is powerful enough to stir something beyond curiosity in its viewers. Its unflinching gaze allows for a ground-zero look at reality and shows the efficacy of safe injection sites as an interim to avoid deaths. But mainly, it is a welcome peek behind the curtain at a place many of us regard, perhaps ignorantly, as tainted. That alone makes it worth the visit to the Downtown Eastside.