The Austin Film Festival has brought thought provoking documentaries highlighting issues that mainstream media often does not bring to our attention, from “Finding Oscar” that explores the Guatemalan massacre of Dos Erres, to “The Big Flip” that shows how gender roles are impacting families.
The same goes for “Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer?” directed by Eve Marson. Marson explores the very blurred line of Dr. William Hurtwitz, a pain specialist sentenced to 25 years in prison for drug trafficking and the ethical dilemma faced with opioid prescriptions. We chatted with her about the film and the challenges in bringing the documentary to life.
Did this come from personal experience and how did you hear of Dr. William Hurwitz?
Eve: Not personal experience but I have close friends who are doctors. They were telling me how they would see this every day on the job and that it is the sort of a problem that young doctors haven’t heard of. There are people coming into their practice seeking opioid pills. They’re seeking the pills because they are already addicted to the pills and they were amazed by the scale of this problem.
I started thinking about it because it’s also something we see in the news a lot. We get that the pills are bad because people get addicted to them, but then I read an article on the profile of a doctor that was talking about a doctor who’d been arrested for over prescribing. The case wasn’t clear cut and I suddenly saw the story from the doctor’s perspective which was interesting to me because usually the media shows it from the addict’s perspective or attacking pharmaceutical companies so I wanted to tell the story from the doctor’s point of view.
Through a lawyer I was connected to Dr. Hurwitz which is a great example of not a very clear cut story of what he was up to. Why do his patients testimonies contradict each other so sharply? It really leaves you wondering what really happened and what were his motives. So the story fascinated me and he was eager to tell his story and feels he has nothing to hide and he feels this is a chance for him to vindicate himself and to show how he felt unjustly attacked by the government.
He was very open with us and he introduced us to a couple of patients that support him and his family and through the department of justice through the prosecution side we were able to get access to some of the patients that don’t support him and those who testified against him.
What would you think the role of the government is, is it up to the doctor to draw make their own conclusions or where do you think the accountability should be?
Eve: It’s a great question and I think that’s something that we are still figuring out. I do think that having some guidelines is good, I mean recently this year there were some new guidelines that came out which I think make sense. I think some regulation is good given where we are right now. On the other hand we are seeing how this regulation can be disruptive to a patient that’s used to getting the medication they need and suddenly is no longer available to them. Trying to draw a line between good patients and bad patients is very tricky. It’s not as clear cut as those are the addicts and those are the clean patients.
Why do you think it took so long to pass new guidelines for prescribing pills?
Eve: There are many things. Politics is tricky and the pharmaceutical industry is so powerful I don’t know all the ins and outs of it. But i think it’s safe to say it’s hard to regulate a giant like the pharmaceutical industry.
What were some of the challenges in making the film?
Eve: The challenge in this film and many other documentaries is that the story takes place in the past from the late 90s. Dr. Hurtwitz’s trial took place in 2004 so really it was a question of how to bring that action to life and how to make it provocative for the audience without having courtroom footage or anything like that was a struggle. We ended up using a lot of recreations which I think worked in the end. The idea was to put the audience in the perspective of the patient, an addict and the doctor. We tried to put you in those mindsets.
What did your friends who are doctors think about the film?
Eve: They are happy. I think they feel satisfied to see the dilemma put on screen like and show the difficult spot doctors are in. When Dr. Hurwitz was practicing, drugs were being pushed on them and today younger doctors haven’t’ heard of this massive addiction problem. How do we kind of claw out of that which would almost be the sequel to this film. That’s where this film leaves you, it’s like 20 years later and how can we find a solution that balances people’s pain without creating addiction and there aren’t really any clear answers. There is a good amount of work being done to think about alternatives and also importantly good work being done in addiction treatment and starting to think of addiction as a disease and really addressing it that way, however there hasn’t been a clear replacement to opioids yet.
What other projects are you working on?
Eve: I have a film that was produced through Bungalow Pictures, we’re developing a bunch of new projects right now. A feature documentary and an eight-part television series is in the works.
You can still catch “Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer?” on Wednesday, October 19 at 6:30p.m. – 8:14 p.m. at the Rollins Theatre presented by Capital Metro.