By Virginia Dean, Standard Correspondent
(see the trailer…. click here.)
Director Bess O’Brien is fast making a name for herself with her nationally recognized and award-winning human interest documentaries including “Ask Us Who We Are,” “Journey into Courage,” “Where is Stephanie,” and “Here Today.”
A co-founder of Kingdom County Productions along with her husband, Jay Craven, O’Brien will now be bringing her latest picture, “The Hungry Heart,” to the Town Hall Theatre in Woodstock on Feb. 6 at 6:30 p.m. as part of a statewide tour.
“I’ve been to Woodstock many times,” said O’Brien. “I like the town and am happy to be there.”
Her new 90-minute film, which was recently recognized in Governor Peter Shumlin’s state of the state address earlier this month, provides an intimate look at the often hidden world of prescription drug addiction.
“It’s been an amazing honor to be associated with the Governor’s speech,” said O’Brien. “It shows that Vermont is leading the way in grappling with opiate addiction. The idea he connected to the film is to his credit.”
The opening of the Vermont Legislature on Jan. 7 brought Vermont into the national limelight with Governor Shumlin opening the door on the subject of the alarming increase in opiate addiction across the state.
During his speech, Gov. Shumlin identified specially invited guests including O’Brien and Dustin Machia, a recovering addict who appears in the movie and stole more than $20,000 worth of farm equipment from his parents to support his habit; and Dr. Fred Holmes, Machia’s physician. The three guests sat in the chamber’s balcony and drew standing ovations.
In his address, Gov. Shumlin said he is providing a grant for an entourage from “The Hungry Heart” to visit every high school in the state.
The group will include Skip Gates of Skowhegan, Maine, whose son Will, a science major at the University of Vermont and a ski racer, died of a heroin overdose five years ago. Gates is quoted in O’Brien’s film as saying about his son’s passing: “I never knew any human being could feel this much pain. It has redefined the rest of my life.”
“We must bolster our current approach to addiction with more common sense,” said Shumlin to Vermont legislators in his state of the state address. “We must address it as a public health care crisis, providing treatment and support rather than simply doling out punishment, claiming victory, and moving on to the next conviction.”
The lens through which viewers understand that world is through Vermont pediatrician Fred Holmes who works with patients like Machia in St. Albans struggling with this disease.
“I met Fred through a friend about three or four years ago,” said O’Brien. “He had heard about me doing films and I had heard of him and the young people he has dealt with concerning the issue of recovery.”
The two got together and the project began. The film was shot in 2012, edited in 2013 and released this month in 2014 exclusively across the state. O’Brien hopes to extend it into wider New England in the near future.
“I’m pleased,” said O’Brien. “We’ve shown it in 34 different towns so far. I accompany the film and do tours which leads other towns to call.”
Between its showings and the statewide and now national press it is receiving, O’Brien said the film has “gone to another level.”
“I’ll begin to see if we can get the documentary into film festivals and television,” she said. “It’s been great riding the wave of this. The Boston Globe did a big story the other weekend, and the film’s been picked up by The New York Times and ABC News. We’ve even been interviewed by journalists from Holland. It’s been really cool.”
O’Brien became interested in the subject because, as she said, “addicts are not criminals but people with a disease.”
“Addiction is a national issue,” said O’Brien. “It’s not just in Vermont.”
Kingdom County Productions is a nonprofit arts organization that produces film and theatre, and arts education programs. O’Brien coproduced the feature films “Where the Rivers Flow North” starring Rip Torn, Tantoo Cardinal and Michael J. Fox and “A Stranger in the Kingdom” with Ernie Hudson and Martin Sheen.
She is the producer/director of the acclaimed Voices Project, a three year statewide initiative working with teens across Vermont to create an original theatre production with music based on their stories.
O’Brien has also been the director of The Vermont Arts Institute, a three-week intensive camp for teens from across the country to learn about film and theatre.
She and her husband Jay Craven is also a recipient of the prestigious Producers Guild of America award in Los Angeles; the US Department of Justice Special Recognition for the documentary film “Journey into Courage;” and the Jack Barry Communication Award for excellence in prevention awareness.
O’Brien and her husband have lived in the Northeast Kingdom for the last 25 years.
‘The Hungry Heart’
Town Hall Theatre Woodstock Feb. 6, 6:30 p.m. Free.