Asuka’s gentle yet reserved approach to her characters reminded me of Michael Dominic’s 2002 documentary. Sunshine Hotel, another observant portrait of people living on the fringes of society. It follows the occupants of a one-bed hotel in the Bowery, allowing them to tell their stories in their own words. IN Love in the days of fentanyl there is no voice-over, no talking heads. Instead, Asuka lets everyday life in space unfold, capturing the camaraderie amidst the chaos in OPS. They hold safety meetings, say prayers, joke and play guitars. Frescoes adorn the interior walls and passageways outside the building; a dog named Zelda buried her nose in her knees.
“I didn’t want it to be just about the tragedy and the deaths that were happening in the community,” Askey says. “Most people haven’t been to these places and I wanted to push people out of their comfort zone and their preconceived notions about who these people are and what these sites do.”
So we watch Ronnie brush his teeth and tie his shoelaces; we watch Sarah chatting on the phone. Although Asuki clearly has affection for his subjects, he represents them directly, without proselytizing or romanticizing their lives. The closest he comes to giving a film a thesis is when his camera lingers on these mundane moments. The message is hard to miss: these are normal people.
Ah, but normal people can do things that are hard to watch. Not all people working in the NSO also use its services, but some of them do, and Askei does not avoid this fact. Just as he holds long shots of his subjects going about their boring daily routines, he also shows what an active drug user looks like.
This is not a pleasant viewing. Even people who support Overdose prevention sites can overlook the scene where Dana straightens up after hours of work. He neatly arranges chairs on top of tables, making sure everything is in order. He whistles while he works. Then he looks in the mirror in front of one of the tables, takes out a syringe and injects himself into a vein in his neck. The camera freezes steadily on his reflection until he is done. Dana resumes cleaning, locks up and heads home.
“I wanted people to have the full picture as much as possible,” Askey told me when I asked about his decision to include shots of injections. After all, it would be dishonest not to feature drug use in a documentary about people trying to make drug use safer. Although I hated watching these scenes, they are a necessary part of why Love in the Age of Fentanyl such a vital film. It does not attempt to clean up the image of places to prevent overdoses. “I don’t think the film answers many questions. I’m more hopeful that it will help people ask the right questions,” says Aski.
One such question might be: Why aren’t these spaces more commonplace in the United States? New York opened the nation’s first space in 2021; so far, like the OPS, saved life. In an age where the overdose crisis continues to accelerate, it’s strange that this successful initiative has prompted so few copycats to open their doors. Other efforts to open similar venues elsewhere in the country have stalled because of how politicized everything related to fentanyl has become. In California, for example, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a 2022 bill allowing pilot programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland.
Opponents of overdose prevention spaces claim they will encourage drug use. The film captures the down-to-earth, pragmatic reality of these spaces, that they are neither glamorous hedonistic nor hellishly depraved, and certainly nothing to be afraid of. Although Love in the Age of Fentanyl not meant to be evangelistic, his warty image could be the key to changing attitudes.