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Capturing the drug crisis on film: Lehighton grad talks about Showtime documentary

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    Brent Kunkle, a Lehighton Area High School graduate and producer of the Showtime documentary ‘The Trade,’ speaks to students Friday during the school’s second Drug and Opioid Symposium. See for video interview. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS

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Published April 06. 2019 07:34AM


Brent Kunkle’s curiosity has always driven him to make films.

The Lehighton Area High School graduate produced the Showtime documentary “The Trade,” one of the most powerful pieces to date on the nation’s budding opioid crisis.

On Friday, Kunkle shared what he learned during filming and how he fulfilled his career dreams during the school’s second Drug and Opioid Symposium.

“A lot of people would say I had someone in my family affected by this and that would inspire me to tell this kind of story,” Kunkle said. “I didn’t have that. I always wanted to use my platform to help people, whether it be 10 people or 100 people, have a different perspective on tough issues. Two years ago when we started making ‘The Trade,’ the opioid crisis was number one. It felt like the right thing to do as a documentary.”

“The Trade” is a five-part docuseries that follows three different storylines related to the opioid epidemic. Kunkle said he was involved in a law enforcement storyline in Columbus, Ohio, where he and his crew followed the Sheriff’s Office and the Homeland Security Investigations team, covering a local and national perspective.

The documentary also looks into poppy farming and heroin manufacturing in Guerrero, Mexico, and the lives of a heroin user and his family in Atlanta, Georgia.

Carbon County is often referred to by local officials as the “epicenter” of the drug epidemic, at least in this region, but Kunkle quickly realized it is a much bigger issue.

“There are a lot of counties out there like Carbon,” Kunkle said. “Ohio was kind of like ground zero for overdose rates and that’s why we focused in there at the time, but really the entire Northeast was hit hard. Fast forward two years and there isn’t a corner of this country not impacted by this.”

As part of the symposium, current Lehighton students were shown a screening of the first episode of Season 1 of “The Trade.” Last year, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro visited the school and Kunkle stressed the importance Friday of keeping the lines of communication open with students about drug use.

“Education and prevention is going to be key,” he said. “Narcotics are so, so powerful. We saw that firsthand out filming. As soon as you go down that path it’s really hard to recover.”

Lehighton senior Hunter Highland said Kunkle’s visit to the school was inspirational in helping students stay determined to complete their goals in life.

“I think it hits home when you have someone who has viewpoints based on his own experience and what he has seen,” Highland said. “What I have taken away is the real life aspects of drug use and the consequences it has on individuals and families. I’m glad Mr. Kunkle is here today trying to help us be better people and a better school.”

The event was spearheaded for the second straight year by Assistant Principal Dave Hauser, who said the job of drug and opioid education is one of the most difficult, but that doesn’t mean schools should back off. He acknowledged students who say they are tired of anti-drug assemblies, including those who may have not come to school on Friday just to avoid the symposium.

“Sadly, that may be true, but no I will never stop trying,” he said. “And no other educator in this building will ever stop trying. Opioids can be a poison, and they are stronger than you. But, it does not have to be stronger than us. When we realize this is our problem, and we all need to be educated and caring, only then can we make a dent in the opioid crisis.”

Friday’s event also included a discussion with local Lehighton area first responders in which they described their experiences dealing with the drug epidemic in the area. Counselors from Carbon-Monroe-Pike Drug & Alcohol were on hand to support students after the presentation.

In addition to his message about the drug epidemic, Kunkle shared with students his long journey to the world of film making. While it had been a passion of his since his days at Lehighton high school, making it a reality never seemed attainable.

“Kids from Lehighton don’t get in the movie business, that was pretty much my thought at the time,” Kunkle said.

Kunkle went to Siena College on a baseball scholarship, but the school didn’t have any film courses, so his only taste of directing came by helping out the theater department.

After college, Kunkle came back home and bartended at the former JT’s Steak and Ale House.

“I didn’t want to turn 40 and say I never tried to get in the movie business, so I kept trying and contacted everyone I could,” Kunkle said. “Someone I knew from college had remembered this is what I wanted to do with my life and called me to tell me his friend got an internship in New York City and they were looking for people.”

Three days a week for six months, Kunkle took a bus round-trip from Lake Harmony to the city and worked an unpaid internship.

“They noticed how hard I was working and eventually gave me a few dollars to pay my bus fare,” Kunkle said. “I scraped together enough money to stay in New York and did anything I could. I read scripts for independent producers and eventually got a chance to be a production coordinator for a movie called ‘Liberty Kid’ that had a budget of $200,000.”

Kunkle eventually turned his eye to documentary film making and the freelancer did projects for Animal Planet and CNN before Showtime called him to be a part of “The Trade.”

“A lot of people expect instant gratification, but you have to work for it,” Kunkle said. “I wanted it. It wasn’t just going to happen for me. I had to go make it happen.”

Highland said it’s exciting to see someone from his own school who has had major success after leaving Lehighton.

“I think it gives us something to shoot for as far as our goals,” he said. “You can see how much determination he has and that’s really inspiring.”


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