'We've had a lot of tears': Indigenous youth focus lens on opioid crisis

The people behind the film project Better Days: A Journey of Our Youth are all too familiar with the dangers of opioids. Most of them know someone who has died from an overdose.

New films inspired by experiences with drugs and death

Chris Beausoleil, left, the director of Better Days, along with Daniel Tomaszeski and Tyrell Bird, who both acted in the film. (Julia Lipscombe/CBC)

The people behind the film project Better Days: A Journey of Our Youth are all too familiar with the dangers of opioids.

Almost everyone who worked on the project knows someone who has died from an overdose; many are Indigenous youth who work with Boyle Street Community Service and the iHuman Youth Society in downtown Edmonton.

The project features two films that turn the camera on those touched by the opioid crisis. The aim is to teach others how to prevent overdoses.

"We sat down with our youth and we started discussing lived experiences — experiences either through friends, family members or the community at large downtown," Chris Beausoleil, the Indigenous youth worker at Boyle Street, told CBC's Radio Active on Thursday.

The project features two films; one is a documentary, featuring people speaking honestly about drug use. The second is a short dramatic instructional film, showing how to use a naloxone kit, a life-saving medication that can reverse the effects of an overdose.

When the youth first sat down to watch naloxone training videos, there was consensus they were "kind of boring."

"So how do we make a film that people are going to watch? And more importantly, our people," said Beausoleil.

"We made a film that touches the urban setting, but we're hoping it will draw in Indigenous people to sit and watch, and understand the connection, that our family members and community members are passing away. And some of these deaths are preventable, and we need to not be scared to talk to talk about these things."

The project was made possible through a grant from Alberta Health, and professional camera and editing work by SGWE Productions, a production company based on the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation. The project was led by Boyle Street Community Services.

'We've had a lot of tears'

Beausoleil directed the films and said watching them was more emotional than he expected.  

Just as the project was wrapping up, a young woman who was involved in Boyle Street programs died from an overdose.

Simone Hill, 20, brought "good vibes" to people around her, Beausoleil said. The films are dedicated to her memory.

The preview screening with Hill's family was difficult, he said.

"We've had a lot of tears."

But Beausoleil said the intention is to spotlight realities people may not be willing to confront.  

"It's meant to open the eyes of those people who have turned kind of a blind eye to this," he said.

Breaking stereotypes

The dramatic film features a party scene where someone overdoses and no one knows how to help. It then cuts to a scene with people learning to use a naloxone kit, and shows how the situation could have been prevented.

The actors initially started with a script, then decided to improvise incorporating their own experiences.

"We were like, we need this to be as authentic as possible, so let's not follow a script," Beausoleil said. "You guys live this life. We've all been touched by this one way or another. So let's just make this real."

Tyrell Bird acted in the film. He said he had friends who have died from overdoses, but didn't know about Narcan, a nasal form of naloxone, until he started working on the film.

Bird said he thinks a naloxone training video with a real story will help catch people's attention.

"We still battle with people overdosing on a daily basis at Boyle Street, and it was powerful to see myself on it," he said.

Brandon Alexis, an employee with SGWE Productions who shot and edited the film, said it changed his perspective. 

Before filming, he said, he judged people who used drugs because he saw the dangers first hand.

"It's very scary," he said. "You kind of say that it's the person's fault for putting themselves through that. And then when you think about it, it's not as simple as that."

He said the film has made him more compassionate toward people who struggle with addictions.

"I can be more understanding," he said, "and make it a little bit more pleasant to be around me, so these people don't have to be trapped in that loop of negativity and I don't have to feed the fire to that."