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Lehighton native produces Showtime opioid documentary ‘The Trade’

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    A scene from the Showtime documentary series “The Trade” shows the Franklin County, Ohio, Sheriff’s Office as they conduct a bust on a heroin dealer’s home. Lehighton native Brent Kunkle produced this segment of the series. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

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    Brent Kunkle, left, with cinematographe Peter Hutchens, right, at the Sundance Film Festival for the premiere of “The Trade.” CONTRIBUTED BY KATELYN KUNKLE

Published February 02. 2018 02:23PM

Film producer and Lehighton native Brent Kunkle has taken up the ambitious task of showing the story behind the heroin scourge felt around the world with the new Showtime documentary “The Trade.”

Coming from Carbon County, which has seen its share of the opioid epidemic that affects users, their families and area law enforcement, Kunkle was motivated to get involved with the project and help tell the tale of the people at the heart of the problem.

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

Directed by Matthew Heineman and produced by Kunkle, Myles Estey and Damon Tabor, “The Trade” also looks into poppy farming and heroin manufacturing in Guerrero, Mexico, and the lives of a heroin user and his family in Atlanta, Georgia. The series just made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 27, and will make its television premiere tonight.

Heineman covered similar territory with a documentary of the drug trade on the Mexican border with his project “Cartel Land,” but he needed someone to look into the other pieces of the opioid puzzle for “The Trade.” That’s where Kunkle, who works as a freelance producer out of New York, came in.

“The one storyline they needed to bring a producer on for was the law enforcement perspective. I had done a few doc projects in the past with law enforcement, so I had a working knowledge of what it took to get access with law enforcement and film with them. So, in turn, I was brought on to the team,” Kunkle said.

Starting in October 2016, Kunkle and his crew shadowed the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office as they conducted investigations, starting from the ground up. Details from an overdose call are linked to heroin users, who provide a connection to a dealer, leading further up the ladder, all with the viewer in tow.

“We were sort of embedded with these task forces, living in Ohio. We didn’t direct or produce anything, really, it was a very ‘verite’ style,” Kunkle said.

Kunkle’s segment, along with the segments on the poppy production and the addicts’ experiences, provides a raw look at the opioid issue. The viewer is the proverbial fly on the wall, watching the people of Guerrero work the fields to support themselves and their families, the police who have to confront the constant dangers of the drug world, and the effects that spread beyond the user to everyone they know.

Even with constant exposure, bearing witness to the horrors of the heroin epidemic firsthand took a toll on Kunkle and his crew.

“It got mentally taxing, being around so many people dealing with heartbreak and suffering from addiction,” he said. “Day in and day out, when we were along for the investigations, it always seemed like there were young children involved. That part never allowed me to get used to it. The amount of kids subjected to the opioid crisis. … It’s one thing to be a person suffering from addiction, but the web that it casts around other people, that was impossible to get used to.”

But the honest and nonjudgmental approach of the documentary is just what the filmmakers needed, as it provides an unfiltered look into the different facets of the opioid world. The people involved are presented as real human beings, and not just one-dimensional movie characters.

“There are really incredibly nice, loving people who get in a tough situation,” Kunkle said. “The most important thing, a big part of what we hoped to accomplish, is to show the humanity behind these tough, complex issues. It’s not enough to just say, ‘Oh, these people are junkies.’ Pulling back the curtain so people can get a sense of the humanity behind these things, it’s very important to us.”

Looking into the lives of the people in each segment, it is easy to see how far-spread the heroin and opioid epidemic has become. It is an issue no longer relegated to the rundown parts of town. Rather, it shows up everywhere, including Kunkle’s hometown.

“I have a great love for Carbon County. I’ve never felt disconnected from it. Nearly all of my family still lives in the area. There are a lot of genuine and kind people there. I imagine a lot of those people have seen or experienced what you see in the film,” he said.

Kunkle hopes that they are able to offer the public some perspective on the incredibly dense and difficult subject of the opioid trade, and get people to look at these problems in a new way.

“If a person from Carbon County gets to see this and it helps them think a little differently about addiction, or it helps them deal with a loss from addiction, that’s what means the most to me,” he said.

“The Trade” premieres at 9 p.m. today on Showtime.

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