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Q&A: Filmmaker Bess O’Brien

Written by Sky Barsch on . Posted in Entrepreneurs, Q&A, The Arts

Bess O'Brien. Photo by Richard W. Brown.

Bess O’Brien. Photo by Richard W. Brown.

Documentary filmmaker Bess O’Brien gives voice to Vermonters not often heard, such as foster families in “Ask 
Us Who We Are,” or recovering drug addicts in “The Hungry Heart.” She lives in Peacham with filmmaker-husband 
Jay Craven. Here’s her take on teenagers, Vermont’s drug issues, and drawing the 
line between work and home.

VL: What did you think of Gov. Shumlin making opiate addiction the center of his State of the State address?
BO: I thought it was amazing. I got 
a call a couple of days before the new year saying that he had watched [“The Hungry Heart”] with his staff and that he was very moved by the movie, and that he had decided to focus his entire State of the State on prescription drug addiction. I thought it was a huge step forward in dealing with this issue. It was a brave and bold move.

VL: There was some pushback on his speech that it was going 
to hurt tourism. Do you think 
there’s any validity to that complaint?
BO: That’s like saying people are never going to go to 
New York City because the crime 
rate is so high. I would be astounded to think that it would affect 
tourism in any significant way. I think what it probably does is make people think, “Huh, perfect, idyllic Vermont is struggling with an issue … ” Well, there is no perfect, idyllic anything. People should be saying, “Wow, I’m really proud of Vermont for standing up and being the first state to admit that they have this issue and are trying to tackle it in a big way.” That is healthy. That’s positive.

I think the most important thing 
that the governor said was that we needed to move the conversation away from criminal activity to a health issue. People need to realize that people who are struggling with this are our families, our neighbors, our brothers, our uncles. It can happen to anybody.

VL: What’s it like working with your husband?
BO: (Laughs) Well, it can be great, and it can also be really difficult. And in fact, we don’t really work together anymore. We both are the owners and run Kingdom County Productions, but he does his feature films and I do my documentaries. Frankly, it works out better that way. We’re both strong-minded people, and when we were working on top of each other, it was thrilling, but it also got difficult because we butted heads on a number of things.

VL: What are you doing when the tape isn’t rolling?
BO: I love to go to the movies with [Jay]. We are total film buffs. One 
would think that you’d be sick of looking at films when you’re making them, but actually, I find them relaxing and fun. 
We also love to go to New York and relax. There’s something about getting away from Vermont and being in the city and not having to worry about anything and walk the streets and go to the movies and theater that I really love.

VL: How do you feel about your son [Jasper Craven] going into journalism?
BO: I get a real kick out of watching his burgeoning interest and career. He loves journalism, and I don’t know where journalism is going, but he is one of the young people who wants to make a difference, and he still believes in print. We showed Jasper “All the President’s Men” when he was 13, and he got very excited about that. He thought that was very cool. It’s nice because it’s not necessarily doing exactly what Jay and 
I are doing, but it’s of the same realm.

VL: What are some of the challenges and rewards of working with teens?
BO: “Shout It Out” was an amazing experience. The kids were absolutely, unbelievably amazing. In some ways, they don’t edit themselves as much as older people, which is refreshing and cool. I think that we tend to be really scared of teenagers, and we shouldn’t be, because actually, if you just get to know them, they’re pretty cool people.

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