The Artist and the Activist: Bess O’Brien of Kingdom County Productions
Written by John DeCarli | Posted by: NewEnglandFilm.com
“Who needs Hollywood?” This hypothetical question, which adorns the website of Vermont’s Kingdom County Productions also serves as the company’s motto. It’s a constant reminder that the closed-off studio system of Hollywood isn’t the only place to produce films. Kingdom County’s own backyard does just fine. After more than a dozen films, Kingdom County Productions remains dedicated to capturing the unique voice and spirit of their own part of the country. Ask Us Who We Are, their new documentary about the extraordinary people that comprise Vermont’s foster care system, is currently touring the Green Mountain State and will soon make its way into New England and beyond.
Bess O’Brien, the director of the film, started Kingdom County with her husband Jay Craven in 1991 with the goal of giving the inhabitants of Vermont’s beautiful Northeast Kingdom a voice and dramatizing their stories. “Jay’s vision was to create stories that come right from the Northeast Kingdom and that resound with the people who live here,” O’Brien explains. In the early days of Kingdom County, those stories came courtesy of local writer Howard Frank Mosher, whose novels inspired three of Jay Craven’s narrative feature films.
When O’Brien herself began directing documentaries in 1993, she too was motivated by the same philosophy, and strove to illuminate important issues prevalent in Vermont. “For me, part of the vision is that filmmaking should be more local,” O’Brien says. “So much of the media that people — especially young people — see doesn’t come from where they come from, it comes from L.A. and the inner city. All that is great, but when you’re living in a rural environment you need stories that are from here.”
Over the years, O’Brien’s documentaries have provided this local media to the youth of Vermont, but more importantly, they’ve provided an opportunity for young people to speak for themselves and share their own stories. “Film is a way of empowering youth,” O’Brien says. “It gives them their voice and makes people take them seriously.” The forum doesn’t stop after the film has ended, however. As with her other documentaries, O’Brien is hosting discussions featuring subjects of Ask Us Who We Are after each showing, which she sees as “a really powerful part of the screening process.” The goal is not just to generate conversation around the issue of foster care in Vermont, but to allow the children affected by the system to voice their own concerns. “I can just see their self-esteem grow. They get excited about touring with the film, and it’s just a great thing for them to be a part of these discussions.”
“The reason I like making these kinds of films is that I’m an artist as well as an activist,” O’Brien says. With Ask Us Who We Are, O’Brien hopes to raise consciousness of foster care and to bring audiences closer to the lives of those affected by it. As the country struggles to rebound from a deep recession, many social services, including foster care, are being cut drastically. O’Brien hopes her film will force audiences to think about the ramifications these cuts have on the young people whose lives depend on the service. “Do I think [the film] is going to change the whole system? No. But I do think that people will be more aware of the issues, and some will take action. No change can happen until consciousness is raised, and that’s what these films can do.”
O’Brien has seen for herself the concrete results that come from increasing public awareness and creating dialogue around an important issue. “Vermont is small, and if you tour a film in 16 towns you can literally create a conversation,” she says. “That’s a form of activism.” O’Brien singles out the impact of her 2002 effort, Here Today, a documentary about heroin use in poor, rural areas of Vermont and the struggles families face in overcoming addiction. The film was screened for Vermont legislators at the State House, and O’Brien believes that raising consciousness around the issue helped affect real change. “At the time there was a lot of controversy about opening Vermont’s first methadone clinic, and the film really helped push legislation through and open up other clinics around the state,” she says. “Film can help rip open stereotypes.”
Though the issues O’Brien tackles in all her films, and Ask Us Who We Are in particular, are politically charged, she is quick to point out that she’s after more than confronting a controversial, hot-button issue. “This film is more about the inner journeys people take and how they interact with each other. There are references to politics, but nothing direct,” O’Brien says. Only after hours of grueling work in the editing room, though, was she about to achieve the correct tone for the film: enough focus on social consciousness to engage the viewer, but not so much as to overwhelm them. “There were a lot of people who talked about the politics, what needs to change in the system,” she recounts. “I thought for a long time that I wanted that in the film; then within the last month I took it out. It was getting in the way of the flow of the movie. People start to feel that they’re being lectured at or that the film has an agenda. Rather than that, now, the film makes you walk out the door and figure it out for yourself.”
The direct political references in Ask Us Who We Are weren’t the only elements that landed on the cutting room floor. Filmmaking of any kind requires constant decision-making and shaping, but documentaries in particular, O’Brien believes, evolve continuously. “When I start shooting a film, people always ask me what it’s going to be about,” she says. “The answer is I don’t know. I haven’t shot the footage and listened to the stories. Stories form the film.” Not all the stories O’Brien heard, however, could make it to the final film. “This film could have gone in a lot of different directions. It could have been five movies. There are many characters that could have had their own movie because they were so extraordinary. [Filmmaking] is really listening to what people are saying, and creating a conversation that keeps people’s attention.”
The conversation surrounding Ask Us Who We Are has been making its way around Vermont ever since a sold-out showing in Burlington in early April. After the Vermont engagements, O’Brien hopes to slowly roll the film out into New England, the film festival circuit and beyond. Kingdom County Productions has self-distributed all its films, making them “somewhat of an iconoclast” in the industry.
“We’re very committed to self-distribution, which I think more filmmakers should do,” O’Brien says. “The idea of making a movie as an independent filmmaker and thinking you’re going to be picked up by Universal is fairly remote. We decided we wouldn’t wait for that to happen.”
Kingdom County has seen its films engage independent film houses across the country, secure foreign distribution, earn significant video sales, and even enjoy a second life in schools as educational materials. “We haven’t hit the jackpot for that perfect distribution deal,” O’Brien explains, “but by hook or by crook we’ve just done it ourselves. It’s not easy, it’s a lot of work, but it gets the film in front of audiences and that’s better than it being nowhere.” Even in distribution, it seems, Kingdom County remains committed to keeping filmmaking local. “We start in our own backyard, and then move up from there.”
For more information about Kingdom County Productions, and about attending screenings of Ask Us Who We Are, please visit www.kingdomcounty.org/.