Three Years Later, The Hungry Heart Is Still Drawing Audiences — and Awards | Live Culture

Three Years Later, The Hungry Heart Is Still Drawing Audiences — and Awards

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Courtesy of Kingdom County Productions - COURTESY OF KINGDOM COUNTY PRODUCTIONS
  • Courtesy of Kingdom County Productions
  • Courtesy of Kingdom County Productions
Nearly three years after the premiere of The Hungry Heart, a gripping documentary about St. Albans pediatrician Fred Holmes and his efforts to treat patients addicted to opioids, the film continues to attract new audiences and win national acclaim.

Most recently, Kingdom County Productions announced that The Hungry Heart has won the 2016 Media Award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the College on Problems of Drug Dependence. The film will be honored in June at NIDA's national conference in Palm Springs, Calif. It received a similar award in 2015 from the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Kingdom County's Bess O'Brien, who directed The Hungry Heart, says she still shows the film at least three or four times per month and receives weekly calls from communities and organizations around the country interested in holding screenings. Since its release in September 2013, the film has been shown in more than 100 cities and town in New England alone and at more than a dozen national conferences on addiction, recovery and mental health.

For the first couple of years after release, The Hungry Heart's director and cast toured New England together as a "traveling roadshow." The film gained national attention when Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted all 34 minutes of his January 8, 2014, State of the State Address to what he called Vermont's "full-blown heroin crisis."

During that speech, Shumlin cited the efforts of O'Brien, Holmes and Dustin Machia, a recovering addict from Franklin County who is featured prominently in the film. All three received a standing ovation from lawmakers and others in attendance.

O'Brien says there's one primary reason why The Hungry Heart is still in such demand, attracting interest from as far away as Alaska and Austria. “Unfortunately, this issue is everywhere. And it does not go away.”

O'Brien's documentary is by no means the first to address opiate addiction in a small rural community;  her 2002 film "Here Today," codirected by Mary Arbuckle, tackled the issue of the heroin epidemic in the Northeast Kingdom. 

Yet The Hungry Heart gained particular traction among medical professionals and communities struggling with the opiate crisis. O'Brien suggests that's because of its simple, human stories.

“What it does is bring people to a place of non-judgment," she says. "Audiences can relate to the people in the movie. They can empathize with them, and that’s a really good starting point for a conversation. They realize these are not bad people. They just need our help and our support.”

Until last year, O'Brien, Holmes and several other cast members still traveled together to film screenings to answer questions and take comments from audiences. Although the group no longer tours — "People needed to get back to their own lives,” O'Brien says — she's stayed in touch with many of them. Holmes, who's since retired, still attends local screenings, and Machia, who's now married with two children, runs his family's farm and is seven years clean.

But not all the cast members have had happy endings, O'Brien notes.

“There are some people we’ve lost track of, and some people who’ve fallen off the wagon," she says. "Some people are still struggling.”

O'Brien's current film project, titled All of Me, is a documentary about eating disorders, in the final stages of editing and due to be completed this summer. As she has for nearly all her recent films, O'Brien has already scheduled a 27-town tour of Vermont, to begin in September. 

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