Documentary filmmaker Sean Dunne '03 recently premiered his debut feature, Oxyana, at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.
Hailed as "gripping," "heartbreaking," and "unflinching," the film received a Special Jury Mention in the Best Documentary Feature category and Dunne finished first in the Best New Documentary Director contest.
Oxyana sheds light on the plight of the residents of Oceana, WV, most of whom are hopelessly addicted to the drug Oxycontin. Without narration or titles, he lets the subjects' own words tell the story of their town—dubbed Oxyana—and its downward spiral following the collapse of the coal mining industry coupled with rampant abuse of the prescription painkiller.
"His superbly put-together film…is artistically polished enough to get viewers' attention without being so pretty it aestheticizes the pain this community has endured," writes the Hollywood Reporter, while Filmmaker Magazinedescribes Dunne's "…strong visual sense and his ability to capture the world of his subjects."
Dunne has found his groove making films that give voice to offbeat and often-overlooked characters around us. As a filmmaker, he likes to push himself outside of his comfort zone and the results often push his viewers out as well.
Although it may seem like Dunne is drawn to fringe members of society, he disagrees. "It's not necessarily a conscious decision to seek out fringe characters. I think I'm attracted to a certain type of honesty and so far in my experience those people and stories exist in the so-called fringes of society. I don't feel like we're drawing from the same well though, there are so many great and diverse stories just hiding in plain sight."
"Sean was one of our very first Cinema Studies graduates and a great exemplar of the kinds of critical creativity that we encourage at Purchase. His gift for documentary vignettes stems from his keen eye for social critique mingled with profound empathy for those who find themselves on the margins of mainstream culture," says Michelle Stewart, Chair of the School of Film and Media Studies. "In the tradition of Errol Morris, Sean provides insightful portraits of those just off-center, giving voice to characters who otherwise wouldn't be celebrated."
While Dunne knew from the time he was a teenager that he wanted to make films for a living, "I had no idea what that meant at the time," he says. Ten years later, he made what he considers his first film, The Archive, a short documentary released in 2009 about a man who owns the world's largest vinyl record collection. "That film got into Sundance and was nominated for an Emmy. The passion was always there but that gave me the confidence I needed early on to pursue this full time," he explains.
Dunne credits the rigorous, interdisciplinary cinema studies program with preparing him for his career. "For me, watching, analyzing, thinking about, and writing about films did way more in shaping the type of filmmaker I've become than any amount of hands-on training could have done. I honestly came out of there feeling as if I had learned another language. I understood the medium in another way and I attribute that to the courses I took at Purchase and the diversity of the professors and the curriculum," he explains.
Making documentaries that showcase such brutal honesty can take its toll. In making Oxyana, Dunne describes the anguish he felt witnessing people, many of whom he grew to care about, destroy their lives. He acknowledges, however, that it's part of the process.
"But that's part of the beauty of documentary, being able to go into these other worlds and get swept up in them and to be able to share that with an audience. In the end it always feels worth it, despite what you put yourself through in order to capture it. At the end of the day, we got to go home and they continue to struggle and suffer. That's what stays with me. It seems unfair."
So what's next for Dunne? "We are currently making a documentary about the lives of women who make their living by doing sex shows on their webcams. It is called Cam Girlz. It's going to be a rad experience…to make and to watch. Stay tuned for more information on that."