Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 26 September 2005
Features: The 43rd New York Film Festival
Methadonia stands out as one of the more curious selections of the New York Film Festival. Nestled amongst a sea of challenging films from across the globe, it feels strikingly conventional, its subject matter compelling but its filmmaking techniques much less so. Furthermore, it is not slated for theatrical distribution, but will premiere on HBO in October. I don’t mean to suggest it’s poorly made — its director, Michel Negroponte trains his DV camera with compassion and intensity on his subjects, a group of New York-based methadone addicts — just that it seems unlikely to be remembered as one of the festival’s most enduring offerings.
Negroponte, who also narrates the film, begins with an explanation of his motivation for making it: his wife’s sister died of a heroin overdose, and ever since he has been fascinated by the stranglehold addiction can have over a person’s life. One can’t help but suspect this nugget of information is relayed to the viewers to assure them of his intimate knowledge of the life of drug addicts, a world he at times seems ill-at-ease in.
Methadonia begins with an animated sequence conveying how methadone works to prevent heroin users from getting high after shooting up. While this may help them kick heroin, most methadone users become hopelessly addicted to it instead, and over recent decades have found new ways to get high by combining it with easily-accessible pills such as Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin. The cycle of addiction continues, and those who have fallen down the rabbit hole find it nearly impossible to dig their way out.
Although the documentary features a couple of success stories, Negroponte makes it clear that road to recovery is by no means an easy one. With a mournful (and occasionally overbearing) jazz score playing throughout, he follows the lives of a group of addicts desperately trying (and in most cases failing) to clean up. Along the way, the director puzzles over the nature of addiction, wondering aloud if heavy drug usage can destroy the brain’s willpower functions, making quitting an even bigger obstacle. However, in one of his more damning statements, he also considers that there’s a lot of money to be made off methadone, and therefore not in the interest of pharmaceutical companies and hospitals to develop a straightforward plan for those who wish to withdraw from the drug, which one of the users goes so far as to label “liquid handcuffs.”
While Methadonia may not stand out as one of the festival’s best offerings, it nevertheless manages to paint a harrowing portrait of a group of people whose lives are seemingly forever stuck in the limbo between addiction and recovery.