• Vt. drug-abuse film goes national
    By Kevin O'Connor
    Staff Writer | January 30,2014
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    Kevin O'Connor / Staff Photo

    A poster for the Vermont drug-abuse documentary “The Hungry Heart” at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend advertises the film's upcoming screenings throughout the state.
    Vermont filmmaker Bess O'Brien figured she was finished with her drug-abuse documentary “The Hungry Heart” after its Green Mountain premiere last fall. Then Gov. Peter Shumlin touted the movie in this month's State of the State address, catapulting it into the national spotlight — and a likely Washington, D.C., screening.

    “The governor's speech put everything in fifth gear,” O'Brien says. “We've gotten press that is generating a lot more bookings, DVD sales and interest from people outside the state.”

    Consider a recent New York Times story. And a front-page Sunday Boston Globe splash. And a report from ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer on “a cry for help from Vermont, of all places.” And a National Public Radio “On Point” hour-long feature on the film. And, reaching across the globe, coverage from the Norwegian press.

    “Who knew Norway also has a huge opiate problem?” O'Brien says.

    The Northeast Kingdom filmmaker spent two years creating a documentary about retired St. Albans pediatrician Fred Holmes and a dozen of his 150 teenage and 20-something patients wrestling with addiction to prescription painkillers with such brand names as Vicodin and OxyContin.

    The movie's message: Such people aren't “bad” but instead are simply hungry to erase the pain of instability, insecurity, loss and loneliness at home, school or work.

    A Shumlin staff member told O'Brien he'd be mentioning “The Hungry Heart” in his speech three weeks ago. But she didn't expect to receive a standing ovation from the Vermont House and Senate (“that was overwhelming”) or so many resulting phone calls.

    “Things have been crazy ever since,” she said. “What has been the most interesting, talking to the national press, is this constant question of, 'Why Vermont?' I keep saying, 'Every place has this problem — what's unique about us is we've stood up and said we have it.'”

    In an address spelling out a larger plan to fight addiction, the governor announced his office would pay for the film to be shown in every middle and high school in the state. That's why O'Brien shared the documentary Wednesday with 400 students at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend. It's the first of many such appearances she and the movie's subjects anticipate scheduling this year.

    “We can't go to every single school,” she said, “but we can go to a lot of them.”

    O'Brien recently spoke to a crowd of 250 at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and will meet with pediatricians at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in neighboring New Hampshire. She's also talking with her home state's congressional delegation about a spring screening in the nation's capital.

    All this for a movie that, to create, O'Brien had to raise her own production money, film with a lone cameraman, mine 150 hours of interview footage with a sole editor and deflect inquiries about DVD sales and upcoming screenings to a website, thehungryheartmovie.org.

    “Because we're a small organization and don't have a huge staff, we need people to champion the film and get the word out,” she said. “We want it to be used as a way to raise consciousness. People can relate to human stories — they hit you in a way statistics don't.”

    kevin.oconnor @rutlandherald.com
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