Documentary filmmaker Bess O'Brien will probably never win any awards for leaving her audiences feeling warm and fuzzy. But her films — and the speaking engagements that always accompany their releases — spark public conversations about some of society's most awkward and difficult topics. Her documentaries have delved into such issues as domestic violence, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, heroin addiction and the difficulties of growing up in the foster-care system.
O'Brien's films also move people to action. This past year, Gov. Peter Shumlin saw her most recent film, The Hungry Heart, about prescription opiate addiction in Franklin County. As a result, he devoted his entire 34-minute State of the State address to what he called Vermont's "rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime."
O'Brien and several of the people featured in the film received standing ovations from state lawmakers at the January 8 address and were invited to speak about their experiences. The governor pledged an additional $1 million for drug-treatment services statewide and offered O'Brien's film company, Kingdom County Productions, a grant to screen and discuss the film with students at every high school in Vermont.
So what's up next for one of Vermont's most celebrated filmmakers?
"I get a lot of people who say, 'This is the next issue you should make a movie about,'" O'Brien says. "And there are so many good issues out there."
How to choose? Her answer came during a screening of The Hungry Heart last spring. There, O'Brien met the father of a 22-year-old woman who's been struggling with an eating disorder for the past 10 years. At the age of 12, he told O'Brien, his daughter just stopped eating one day.
Soon after that chance encounter, the filmmaker met Bree Greenberg-Benjamin, founder and director of the Vermont Center for Integrative Therapy. The holistic and multidisciplinary practice in South Burlington uses yoga, meditation, acupuncture and other forms of therapy to treat such conditions as bulimia, anorexia, binge eating and over-exercise.
On October 17, Greenberg-Benjamin arranged an informational meeting for O'Brien and some of her clients to discuss the new project. O'Brien expects to start filming at the clinic early next year, using an approach similar to the one she took with Fred Holmes, the now-retired St. Albans pediatrician whom she followed and filmed for months for The Hungry Heart.
The filmmaker says she was drawn to the eating-disorder issue because it has so much to do with societal expectations of perfection, especially for young women. The disorder affects as many as 24 million American women and men — and has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry. Such expectations don't just involve physical body image, O'Brien says. They can also create unhealthy obsessions with achievement and success, whether in sports, academics, careers or other personal pursuits.
"For me, I feel like I'm continuing a conversation about addiction, because this is an addiction and it's a really, really hard one to break," O'Brien says. "Like a lot of these issues, we just need to be talking about it more."
The Hungry Heart will be a tough act to follow. After "that whole governor thing," as O'Brien calls it, she and the cast garnered three months of near-constant international press coverage, with journalists traveling to Vermont from as far as Norway and Germany to interview them. The film toured throughout New England, and O'Brien received invitations from across the country to screen and discuss it. The documentary has also been shown at several national conferences on addiction treatment.
Much of the cast participated in what O'Brien has dubbed her "traveling road show" of speaking engagements until late spring, when many expressed a desire to return to their normal lives.
"By that time, everyone was pretty bleary eyed," she says. "It's sort of like being in a rock and roll band."
Still, interest in the film remains strong. O'Brien says she receives three to five new invitations a week to screen The Hungry Heart. Recently, she showed it on Martha's Vineyard — "Who would've thought, right?" she says. Following a packed-house performance on Nantucket, she was invited to return and screen the film in the island's public schools. After another such showing in Potsdam, N.Y., last month, the chief of police invited O'Brien to show it to cadets at a local police academy.
"I don't know how much longer it's going to go," she says. "I'm sort of just riding the wave until it stops."