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Local filmmaker spotlights teenage opioid abuse in documentary 'Dying in Vein'

SALT LAKE CITY — A local documentary filmmaker is putting a human face — four of them, actually — on opioid abuse in Utah. Jenny Mackenzie’s “Dying in Vein: The Opiate Generation” tells the story of four teenagers and their addiction to heroin in a film Mackenzie calls “the most difficult film that I have ever made.”

A quick glance at Mackenzie’s website reveals a 13-year resume in filmmaking that includes projects on subjects as diverse as diabetes, gender stereotypes and a 91-year-old lobsterman in Maine. But “Dying in Vein” was an especially personal labor for the director, whose daughter Anna dealt with painkiller addiction in high school. Mackenzie, who holds a Ph.D. in social work from the University of Utah, was fortunate enough to get her daughter into treatment before her addiction led to harder drugs, but some of Anna’s peers weren’t quite so lucky. The heroin overdose of Chase Saxton — who attended Anna's high school and made the dean’s list at the University of Utah prior to his death — ultimately became the catalyst for Mackenzie’s film.

“When Anna sent me (Chase’s) obituary, I was so struck by how brave and courageous the family was,” Mackenzie said.

The obituary spoke openly about Chase’s addiction, and Mackenzie felt she had been given an opportunity for a meaningful project. After some thoughtful consideration, she contacted Chase’s family, and following an in-person meeting, filming on “Dying in Vein” began the next day.

“We had three cameras at the funeral,” Mackenzie said, “and that was the beginning of the film.”

Chase’s story — shared through interviews with his family, home videos and voiceovers read from Chase’s own journals — is just one thread in “Dying in Vein’s” opioid narrative. At the funeral, Mackenzie met Chase’s friend Matt, a recovering addict whose success represents a more hopeful angle for the film.

The “central arc of the narrative,” as Mackenzie puts it, happened later, when about a year into the project, the director made contact with a young woman named Maddy. Maddy and her partner Page were still in the throes of addiction, and by adding their story to the narrative, Mackenzie was able to give “Dying in Vein” a more suspenseful tone.

Mackenzie is candid when she describes the experience of working with active addicts, which she compares to watching someone slowly commit suicide.

“I can’t even tell you what it was like every time a text or a call would come in,” she said. “I worried immensely with them.”

By the time Mackenzie started filming the pair in Long Beach, California, they were already in contact with a therapeutic consultant named Sarah Finney and preparing for detox. But Mackenzie, who worked as a social worker for years before turning to filmmaking, also found herself keeping an eye on the girls’ progress.

“I cared very deeply about them,” she said. “There’s a lot that goes on when the camera isn’t rolling.”

Mackenzie’s transition from social worker to documentary filmmaker felt very natural for her, in part because she comes from a family of film and theater industry veterans — her father was a Broadway actor who later worked as a TV director, and her NYU professor mother was a playwright.

“My top priority is human life,” Mackenzie said when asked about the influence of her former career on “Dying in Vein.” “My intention is to document the truth and to document the pain and suffering of addiction, which in my humble opinion for too long has remained closeted.”

“Dying in Vein,” which is available on Hulu and has also been making its way through various film festivals and featured screenings, is Mackenzie’s way of bringing opioid addiction out of that closet.

“My number one goal is to create community conversations,” she said, explaining her desire to foster interaction between family members, patients, physicians, constituents, legislators and within communities in general. “I hope that this conversation will allow people to be less judgmental and really see it for the chronic recurring medical condition that it is.”