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Published April 24, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

For Vermont’s First Couple of Cinema, Jay Craven and Bess O’Brien, life is always about juggling multiple endeavors. The Peacham pair cannot really rest after their recent Fledgling Film Festival and the Burlington launch of a feature he directed, The Year That Trembled. On top of several other joint efforts, each is currently involved in a compelling individual project.

Here Today, O’Brien’s documentary-in-progress about heroin addiction in the Northeast Kingdom, was shot last fall on a $17,000 budget funded by the St. Johnsbury Community Justice Center. She’s been editing her digital-video footage since January. “It’s pretty candid stuff,” observes the 42-year-old filmmaker, who spent several months following seven people with drug habits. “This really opened my eyes. I had no clue.”

There’s a pregnant young woman, only 21, whose baby will be taken away like the three other children she had to give up for adoption. A boy, also in his early twenties, is in jail. A 9-year-old girl discusses losing her father to an overdose a year ago, and the fear that her mom will die that way as well. O’Brien also has included commentary from a corrections official “on what’s working and what’s not in terms of incarceration” and a cop who speculates about “the mystique of dealers, with their fancy cars.”

A middle-aged man, clean for the last five years, talks about initially deciding to shoot up so he could approximate the heroin-chic look of fashion models. “He’s now a bearded, burly guy who sort of looks like Santa Claus,” O’Brien notes.

“It was interesting to hear people talk about the high, a nirvana sensation, and how completely tempting it is,” she adds. “Heroin just grabs you by the throat and then destroys your life.”

Here Today, which she anticipates editing down to 45 minutes, is slated to debut May 23 at the St. Johnsbury Middle School before touring the state. “It’s a dramatic way to raise consciousness and get the message out there,” says O’Brien, who made two previous sociological documentaries about oppressed and abused women, Journey Into Courage and Where is Stephanie?, in the 1990s.

She hopes audiences will show compassion. “Junkies aren’t necessarily bad people,” she says. “They’re almost possessed.”

going for goldman: Meanwhile, O’Brien’s husband is crafting a screenplay that steps back in time. Emma is based on a play by Boston University history professor emeritus Howard Zinn about anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman. “I’ve completed a second draft at 180 pages,” Craven explains. “It’s a big story. I hope to have it down to 130 pages by June 10 — which is my target date for starting to show it [around]. Howard and I plan to work together during May.”

Goldman, who died in 1940 at age 70, advocated free speech, free love, birth control, women’s equality, unions and an eight-hour work day — all shocking concepts in her era. When an austere Marxist comrade denounced her bohemian revelry, she told him: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to join your revolution.”

After speaking against the draft during World War I, Goldman was imprisoned and then deported to her native Russia in 1920 along with fellow activist Alexander Berkman, her longtime partner. He had spent more than 14 years in American jails for his radicalism. Disillusioned by the Soviet regime, they became expatriates in Europe.

When it comes to casting, the Emma team offers some serious Hollywood clout, according to Craven. Matt Damon, whom Zinn has known since the baby-faced Good Will Hunting star was “a neighborhood kid in Boston,” will help circulate the script to other performers.

Goldman was portrayed by Maureen Stapleton in Warren Beatty’s 1981 epic, Reds. But it’s not difficult to imagine, say, Susan Sarandon playing the legendary firebrand in her twilight years as she supported the anti-fascist brigades fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Come to think of it, old photographs of Goldman suggest a resemblance to the wonderful Frances McDormand, of Fargo fame.

Romance will be a key factor in faithfully recapturing “one of the most dangerous women in America,” as the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover called Goldman. She and Berkman were soulmates, in their own avant-garde fashion, for almost half a century. Craven, who will direct and co-produce the picture with Zinn, says he expects to explore “Emma’s search for intimacy in a love relationship to match her radiant social vision.”

The most vital right, wrote this almost mythic champion of every conceivable liberty, “is the right to love and be loved.”

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Susan Green


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