We’re faced with an epidemic to opiates and it has affected just about every living room in this community, very much like it has across our entire nation.” –– Charlene Hipsher, Roane County District Attorney General’s Office.

The statistics are numbingly familiar. In 2016, more than 64,000 Americans died from a drug overdose, making it the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Appalachian communities, including many in East Tennessee, are especially hard hit.

A participant speaks to the judge at the Roane County recovery court. Photo by Phil Batta and Jess Mador.

More Tennesseans died last year from an overdose than ever before in recorded state history: 1,631. Many of the deaths were linked to opioids such as fentanyl, heroin and painkillers.

At the epicenter of East Tennessee’s opioid crisis is Roane County, a mostly rural community about an hour outside Knoxville.

The epidemic has, “filled up our jails,” says District Attorney General Russell Johnson.

Jails are so overcrowded, many inmates sleep on floor mats. Many also suffer from untreated mental illness, trauma and health problems.

But, “more jail, more jail, more jail,” is not effective in helping addicts who commit nonviolent crimes, Roane County Judge Dennis Humphrey says.

A search for solutions prompted county officials to launch a specialized “recovery court” in 2016. The rigorous program aims to connect addicts with the intensive treatment they need to get clean and stay out of trouble.

Ernest Bright, one of the Roane County recovery court’s first graduates. Photo by Phil Batta and Jess Mador.

In this short TruckBeat documentary, we witness the court in action and meet one of its first graduates.

We learn how the program is changing the way many people in Roane County see the opioid epidemic –– and themselves.  And we explore the issues behind an East Tennessee lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, including OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma.

“The Appalachian region is known for hardworking people. Prescription drug manufacturers targeted this area because hardworking people have aches and pains,” says Hipsher.

Cinematographer Phil Batta:

We began following the story of East Tennessee’s opioid epidemic in Roane County in 2015.

As TruckBeat’s cinematographer, I recognized that filming around sensitive topics like addiction, health and poverty in Appalachia posed ethical questions, constraints and creative challenges.

We approached the story with empathy, considering how visual choices could influence viewers’ perception of the community.

The Roane County courthouse in Kingston, East Tennessee, is the site of the county’s recently launched drug treatment “recovery court.” The strict program is designed to connect addicts who commit nonviolent crimes with the treatment and services they need to get clean and stay out of trouble. Photo by Phil Batta and Jess Mador.

Diamonds And Demons follows a graduate of Roane County’s recovery court.

Ernest Bright, one of the Roane County recovery court’s first graduates on graduation day. Photo by Phil Batta and Jess Mador.

I needed to symbolize his sorrow, struggles and hope.



Bare courtroom benches and a circle of unoccupied chairs at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting signify wasted human potential and the loss of loved ones to addiction. The empty seats are also an invitation to participate in solving the epidemic.

Filming inside the Roane County jail, we had a bird’s eye view of prisoner pods from behind a one-way mirror. We could see the inmates, but they couldn’t see us.

This invisible vantage point risked dehumanizing the inmates. To counterbalance our privileged view, I relied on composition, showing inmates intertwined with jail officials inside cell blocks, and human moments, such as inmates giving each other haircuts.

Trust is critical when working in often-stereotyped communities like those in Appalachia. As documentarians, the importance of answering, “why are we here?” cannot be overstated.

We cultivated relationships with key community members, who allowed our camera into places where people’s lives hung in the balance. We built personal networks that positioned us as collaborators in telling Roane County’s story, to the benefit of all involved.

TruckBeat’s serial format helped us capture a more accurate story of the place and the issues. Publishing quickly to the web meant subjects could see how we represented them in almost real time.

That we were invited back again and again to continue filming is a testament to the mutual trust we established.

About the story:

Diamonds And Demons is the fifth video documentary in TruckBeat’s Roane County series, which also includes dozens of audio stories produced at Knoxville’s WUOT public radio, and live storytelling events.


Produced by: Jess Mador and Phil Batta for TruckBeat.
The video featured music by: Ars Sonor and Yuichiro Fujimoto

About TruckBeat: 

TruckBeat is an independently produced interactive health storytelling project featuring the voices and images of East Tennessee. TruckBeat was created by independent producer Jess Mador, in partnership with Matt Shafer Powell at WUOT, Knoxville’s NPR-member station. We take our bread truck turned mobile studio out on the road to report on community health topics in depth: addiction, obesity, mental health, access to health care – and why ZIP codes may matter more to health than genetics. TruckBeat originally launched in 2015 as part of AIR’s 15-city Localore: Finding America initiative.


Jess Mador (@jessicamador) is TruckBeat’s Lead Producer. She’s an award-winning multimedia journalist who has produced stories for news organizations around the country, including Minnesota Public Radio, NPR News and PBS stations. She has a Master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Mador is currently managing editor at NPR member-station WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, while also continuing to produce TruckBeat independently.

Phil Batta is an award-winning cinematographer and director who specializes in creating short-form documentaries and visually rich multi-platform media for social impact. His work appears on PBS, The New Yorker, UK Channel 4, ITN, The Guardian, ABC7, CNN and ITVS. He’s also shot and edited projects honored as official selections at international film festivals and exhibitions.

More about TruckBeat:

On Oct. 7 in Washington, D.C., TruckBeat (@WeAreTruckBeat) was recognized by the Online News Association (ONA) for excellence in digital reporting, winning first prize in the Topical Reporting, Small Newsroom category. TruckBeat was also a finalist for Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling, Small Newsroom category.


TruckBeat homepage: https://www.truckbeat.org/

Vimeo direct link: https://vimeo.com/236213973








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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.