Shantell Irwin, a single mum from a Dubbo sheep property wants to be clean of drugs. But getting treatment for her addiction is a near impossibility.
The same is true for many thousands of rural dwellers in the Australian state of New South Wales where the only treatment centre is in Sydney - and it only has room for very few at a time. Irwin has taken the courageous step, while she waits for treatment, to participate in a feature documentary film that exposes the problem and suggests a solution.
The film's origins go back to 2015 when the Uniting Church's NSW and Australian Capital Territory synod passed a resolution to campaign for the decriminalisation of drugs in small quantities and to increase access to treatment, making the Uniting Church the first church in the world to pass such a resolution. The church also held an event called 'The Long Walk to Treatment' which saw, in October, 2018, 100 people take 500,000 steps in a walk from Dubbo to Sydney where they delivered a letter to the New South Wales Parliament asking for help. That event also brought Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin companies, to Australia where he spoke in support of the campaign and, as is shown in the film's introduction, sat down one-on-one with Shantell and offered her encouragement for the walk.
The documentary Half a Million Steps allows the viewer to accompany the walkers on their journey and, according to its UK-based director Dominic Streeter of Hide & Seek Media, and Dr Marianne E Jauncey, who is the medical services director for the Uniting Church and is the film's narrator, aims to shine a light of hope on what is a global crisis.
A key aspect of the film's approach focuses on how other countries have found a solution to the problem of drugs by treating drug addiction as a health issue, not a criminal issue. It posits that the crisis has been made worse in countries which have resisted 60 years of evidence that criminalising drug use is in fact provoking a growing epidemic of drug use.
It is the "active compassion" of the Uniting Church that attracted Streeter and Jauncey to the campaign. And both admit their surprise, as people who both described themselves as "secular" and not as people of faith, that it’s a church body that is leading the way in drug policy reform. “They have that conviction [that] a harm reduction approach was the right thing to do and they did it when no one else was doing it,” says Streeter, speaking of the history of the Uniting Church in influencing drug policy.
It’s the stories of the walkers from Dubbo and regions along the route which give the film its power. With an artistic nod to the 16th century reformer Martin Luther, we see Rev Simon Hansford hand-write the letter to parliament and then insert it into a baton.
Then it’s Adam Wiseman, a flying instructor from Dubbo and a rehabilitated former drug user, who flies the baton to Dubbo to begin the walk. “The court system’s readily accessible when you do something wrong, but when you’re ready to do something right, where’s that avenue?” says Wiseman in the film. “The passion for flying that I’ve had helped save me.”
Shantell Irwin leads off the walk with baton in hand as she tells her own story of drug use, why she made that mistake, and her desire to get clean. We are then introduced to character after character along the road, who with dignity, yet through revealing camera work, get to tell their stories.
There’s a rugby league NRL recruit from Dubbo and an Indigenous farm worker - both now clean - who have joined in reaching out to rural users who have no hope of rehabilitation.
There’s a fireside scene along the road featuring a late teen woman and a young man with the pilot Wiseman, where they discuss how, for some, the easiest option without treatment, can be suicide by overdose.
Especially poignant is a scene in a gym featuring teenage Australian boxing champ, Johnny Hill, Jr, whose mother, Candy Trudget, has been an addict most of his life. Between images of Johnny training we see her sitting alongside him, contributing to the story. Trudget is still using and waiting for treatment with a long line ahead of her in Sydney. “She needs rehab, you know. End of story,” Hill says through tears. “It shatters you, this sort of thing, you know, but there’s not much you can do.” He goes on to say how easy it is in Dubbo for his mum to get drugs. “Every second house.” Trudget, meanwhile, says she wishes she might "give" to this son she’s so proud of, instead of always taking.
The candour of those seeking help is attractive despite the physical marks of their addiction. It’s especially sharp when we meet Josh and Taz from Sydney (Josh joined the walk in the Blue Mountains). But theirs is just one of the many stories along the 500,000 steps in a narrative that compels attention, some laughter, and some tears throughout the full 87 minutes.
The director, Dominic Streeter, saves the strongest expert testimonies for the last few kilometres of the walk in Sydney. There, Nicholas Cowdery, a former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, and Mick Palmer, a former commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, both publicly express their abhorrence for the continuation of the longstanding policy of criminalisation. Instead, they strongly advocate for making drug use and addiction a health issue where treatment is provided as for any other health issue that is an epidemic.
The film ends with a bookend. Just as the letter in its baton emerged from a stone arched doorway of a church at the beginning, it disappears through a similar arched doorway - this time at Parliament House in Sydney. While the four politicians who received it from the walkers did so with smiles and handshakes, the question of decriminalisation and treatment availability raised by the Long Walk to Treatment in late 2018, and now again in Half a Million Steps, still remains to be answered.
According to Streeter, the latest research says that five Australians die from drug overdoses every day, an increase from three people daily at the time of The Long Walk to Treatment.
For the film’s director, the opportunity to make the documentary came from earlier work he had done for Uniting on the suffering of refugees, including the 2000 children then in Australian camps both onshore and offshore. When a representative of Uniting called him in London with an idea for a documentary on drug policy reform in 2018, there was no question in his mind about his participation.
According to Uniting's Kelley White, it was Streeter who had the vision for what the documentary could do and carried the church’s leadership with him through the project. “I saw a situation that I felt needed highlighting and I felt like that for a long time with drug policy,” he says. “I’ve looked at the global evidence and I’ve seen there isn’t a direct correlation between evidence and policy. It’s a story that had to be told.”
Streeter's latest documentary, almost ready for release, deals with the opioid epidemic in North America through the story of what’s happening in Vancouver, Canada.