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One Bad Meth Trip

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Most people visit Kalispell, Montana, to witness the grandeur of Glacier Park. We went for the seedy flop house and meth lab tour. Our host, a retired Los Angeles police officer named Ron Clem, tapped the gun harnessed to his side and said, “Don’t worry. I can drive just as fast backwards as I can forwards.” And with that, we were off to see the underworld of “the last best place.”

We were a three-person film crew comprising current and former Alliance video producers. Heather Arment, co-director and animator, was the creative mind behind many early Alliance Video Magazine (AVM) stories and conceptual pieces like the “Are we alone?” series. More recently, Heather is the producer of a short, animated documentary called War Games, which won WGBH Boston’s Open Lab competition, secured the station a regional Emmy Award and was promoted with Ken Burns’s PBS series The War.

Josh Whiteman, videographer, and I also spent several years working side by side, filming across a global spectrum, from a brothel in Mali to a yurt in Mongolia. Now we could add a meth lab in Montana to the list and proceed to throw away our shoes. Saving Carren, the film we had set out to produce, tells the story of a retired cop who watches his daughter fall prey to the destructive power of methamphetamines, a young woman whose father risks everything to save her and the love that brings them both back from the brink of death. Beginning with Carren’s rape at the age of 14, we delved into the darkest corners of a seemingly safe small town to unlock the guarded doors of a meth addict’s private hell.

In the end, the film is a story of redemption and hope. Following Carren’s release from rehab, she and her father cowrote a memoir and founded an organization to educate others on the dangers of methamphetamines. They frequently speak to schools about “making choices today that you can live with tomorrow.” The goal of the film was to expand this work.

Producing the documentary Saving Carren was not just about telling a good story. It was about creating something useful and important. It was about taking a step back from the demonization of addiction and contributing a fresh perspective for thoughtful discussion. The film was funded by an atheist businessman with a strong family ethic and passion for helping kids. His zeal and generosity fueled the project, and he soon became my unexpected mentor.

Realizing that kids have become numb to the traditional “just say no” messages, we chose to let the story speak for itself. By interviewing Ron and Carren individually, we were able to extract their personal version of the powerful story that they share. In presenting two sides of one story, we hoped to grapple with the nuanced reality of addiction: it’s complicated.

Ron is a rough-and-tumble police officer, full of characteristic contempt for the drug subculture that he has spent his career trying to defeat. Ron had moved his family to the rural Montana town with more churches than bars to escape the crime and drug battles of Los Angeles that nearly took his life. Little did he know that in this mountain town, his daughter Carren would twice be raped while under the influence of a date-rape drug. Lured by the dark powers of methamphetamines to sooth the pain, she finally ended up on the streets, trading her body for the drug. While it is clear that Ron despises drug addicts as “scum bags” and “lowlifes,” he had to face the reality that his daughter became the very thing that he hated most.

Carren, on the other hand, is not what one might expect of an addict. Beautiful and well-educated in a private Christian school, she was an accomplished violin player and rode horses on weekends with her father. Carren was a good girl who turned to meth to fight the painful demons of her rape and crumbled under the cascading effects of one poor choice built upon another. Her perspective is that of a middle-class American teenager who slipped into a world she could not escape.

Two confessionals—the story of a father and a daughter, one a law enforcer and the other a drug addict—run simultaneously on individual and intersecting tracts. The audience is left to decide who is the antagonist and who the protagonist as father battles daughter and daughter battles addiction. But in the end, it is love that prevails.

For the animated segments between interview clips, Heather created a hand-crafted, illustrated world that is neither Ron’s nor Carren’s. Father and daughter are recreated as stark, paper-doll versions of themselves painted in grey, white and teal. The goal is to present a morally blank slate that slightly distances the main story from its characters, inviting audience members to infuse the film with their own judgments and experiences.

The year and a half it took to create Saving Carren was long and depressing, as I sat editing rape and drug overdose scenes for hours at a time. But it was all worthwhile when following the film’s release, we began receiving responses from viewers. “Wish I would have seen it before the first time I used,” one person wrote. Another said: “I like the story because it opens a lot of eyes and tells the truth . . . On second thought, I don’t like the story because it reminds me of me . . .”

In my position at the U.S. C&MA National Office, I was accustomed to telling stories of God at work in dark places through Alliance workers worldwide. However, this experience was profound as I watched God use a flinty ex-cop, a drug addict and an atheist to reach a candle of hope and redemption into a dark pocket of society. It reminded me that the glory is God’s alone. He will do what He delights and can use whomever He chooses for the task. It has been a good exercise of faith to step out in an unconventional and unexpected way with the skills He has given us. We hope that this film will continue to build platforms for discussion and healing in schools, communities and churches across the nation.

“‘I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the LORD” (Jer. 9:24).

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