The Needle and the Damage Done

Meth Storm: Arkansas USA lays it down on both sides of the law

"We try to be as sympathetic as we can, because I think everybody in America can relate to family members being addicted to drugs," explains Craig Renaud, co-director (with brother Brent) of Meth Storm: Arkansas USA, an affecting documentary chronicling a troubled Arkansas family and the law enforcement officials trying to catch them.

"These stories are the more extreme versions, but we really wanted to not have the characters be one-dimensional."

Known for their HBO documentaries Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later and Dope Sick Love, the Renauds don't do single dimensions. These characters in Meth Storm are shown from every angle, as they help illuminate the dire state of rural America's complex economics and contextual race/class differences of the so-called drug war.

The stereotypical homegrown methamphetamine labs have been pushed aside by crackdowns and cheaper product coming from Mexico, specifically a potent chemical makeup called ice, which is running roughshod over poor, mostly white communities. Having unusually high access to both the lawmen and the criminals (read: users), enabled the Peabody Award-winning filmmaking duo to take a deeper dive into the more human elements of this horrible cycle.

On one end, there's Veronica, a user and seller of meth, and her dysfunctional family unit. In fact, minutes into the film, she's giving her son a tearful welcome home from jail, just before she plays the good doctor in helping him shoot up. Veronica claims that nine out of 10 people, on her country road alone, are users. For some in Veronica's path, the future is chosen for them. For her son, Teddy, the wrong path seems inescapable, paved Inception-style irrevocably folding into a dead end.

"We watched Teddy come in and out of jail, probably four or five times, and he would always really give it a good effort every single time," explains Renaud. "But when you come back and there's really no jobs to speak of, and everybody in your community – including your family members – are using, it's really hard to make a fresh start."

On the other end are the officers who've been working this drug beat for so long, they're now arresting the grandchildren of people they busted 30 years ago. Renaud ensures these difficulties are shown as a prevailing undercurrent – by both sides of the law – as the area's economics and accompanying lack of opportunities unrelated to the drug trade, remain hard barriers. One familiar corporate foe to small business seems to also help roll back jobs in its home state. "In these communities especially, it's like this perfect storm of Wal-Mart coming in, and then you had a bit of a gas boom for a while in Arkansas, but then that left over the last couple of years."

One interesting set of coded distinctions the film subtly illuminates is who is, and isn't, a drug user, more specifically according to drug of choice. For example, while on the phone and standing with her dying, wheelchaired husband, Veronica ironically describes him as looking "like a crack addict."

As the Renauds dig into the family's story, Meth Storm largely becomes a film about the cumulative stacking of various, untreated traumas that can eventually level entire communities like Veronica's – and not unlike those of communities of darker hued peoples, not usually given the humanity the Renaud brothers have deftly shown here.

Meth Storm: Arkansas USA


Saturday, March 11, 8:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 14, 4pm, Stateside
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Meth Storm: Arkansas USA, SXSW 2017, SXSW Film 2017, Craig Renaud, Brent Renaud

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