From Gov. Eric Holcomb to local folks in recovery, University of Evansville Assistant Professor of Communication Joe Atkinson interviewed 42 people in his latest documentary, “Epidemic: Addiction in Vanderburgh County,” which is being released over the next few weeks in several parts on WNIN.
“He said, ‘It touches the high school dropout and it touches the high school valedictorian,’ ” Atkinson said of Gov. Holcomb’s appearance in the film.
This is the fifth documentary film/series Atkinson has completed, including “Top 9,” (2014/2015) “Evansville at War,” (2016) “From The Ashes,” (2017) and “The Big Beer Doc” (2018). Viewers can catch his newest film, “Addiction: Epidemic in Vanderburgh County,” starting with the first two espidoes at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13, with the third and fourth episodes airing on Feb. 20 and the final episode on Feb. 27 respectively.
Although Atkinson focuses his film more on Vanderburgh County, he still has ties to Warrick County, having lived in Newburgh the past seven years, until he recently moved to Evansville with his wife, Signature School teacher, Erin, and their two children, Evan 10, and Ava, 8, this past June.
It’s a subject matter that still touches Warrick County heavily, as citizens have dealt with family members and friends too dying and losing their battles with opioids.
“Addiction is a big problem and it’s not really fully understood,” Atkinson said. “There is this stigma about what led to their incarceration...I started off by talking to the mother of a 22-year-old girl who died from a drug overdose and I showed it to my friend and he said, ‘She could be my neighbor.’ It’s that realization we want.”
Atkinson first segued into documentary filmmaking when WNIN saw a video he did for the UE Theatre department on their upcoming production of “Romeo and Juliet,” right as he was leaving his role as the media director for the marketing office to start working as the digital multimedia specialist in residence.
“They wanted me to do another ‘Behind The Scenes’ on ‘Sweeny Todd,’ ” Atkinson said. “And that led into me working on ‘Top 9,’ which was two seasons of five episode shows on different top nine things in the area, from BBQ restaurants to high school football coaches.”
Now, he’s a bit more jaded about his work being aired live on television, but Atkinson still gets his kicks outs of knowing something he put so much blood, sweat and tears into has so many eyeballs on it.
“It is sort of surreal,” he said. “In the beginning, it was cool to turn on the TV and see everything I had worked on. I still flip on WNIN and sometimes it’ll be something I did — because they replay stuff — and I’ll be like, ‘Hey, cool that’s my thing.’ ”
His time working the police beat as a reporter for the Evansville Courier & Press in the early 2000s, fresh out of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University inspired his latest documentary.
“I covered a few other beats, but police really connected with me the most,” Atkinson said. “I enjoyed working with them and seeing what they deal with day in and day out.”
In addition to police officers, Atkinson interviewed those who run and have gone through drug court for the documentary.
“It’s incredibly brave for these people to sit down and share these stories with you,” he said. “And, the best way to learn is to hear from those who have been through it on the other side and overcome addiction — it’s amazing to see.”
One of the biggest messages Atkinson is hoping to instill in the public after watching this film is drug-addiction has an impact on all walks of life.
“The disease takes over the brain and people do things they never would normally do,” he said. “People tend to associate the opioid epidemic with a certain socioeconomic group. But, this can truly happen to anyone.”
One of the most rewarding takeaways is the representation of professionals who help addicts on a daily basis, who were once addicts themselves.
“What’s incredible is the amount of people who go through recovery who’ve become a therapist,” Atkinson said. “They went through it and want to help other people. You don’t always see that in other fields.”
Being proactive and making a difference is also one of the main reasons he was so motivated to shoot this film.
“I have done a lot of historical stuff in the past, but I wanted to take a look at something that affects the community today,” Atkinson said. “It’s interesting to see people tell their story. For ‘Evansville At War,’ it’s cool to know how many ships were built, but the 90-year-old talking about the P-47 wings whipping past her makes it much more real. And for this one, how someone fought through addiction.”
But mostly, Atkinson hopes he can shed an accurate light on this dark issue and help instill a mindset of education and resolution.
“There has been a war on drugs in America for the past 50 years,” he said. “And we certainly haven’t won. So, what can we do to win a few battles?”