ST. ALBANS — If there was ever a sign that the St. Albans community cared about drug addiction issues, it was the full house Saturday night at the BFA Performing Arts Center for the premier of “The Hungry Heart.”Bess O’Brien’s documentary, set in St. Albans and Franklin County, drove home the issue of opiate addiction and the many consequences for area’s young people who get wrapped up in the world of substance abuse. O’Brien couldn’t have been more pleased with the turnout at Saturday’s kickoff of the film’s statewide tour.“I thought it was great,” she said after the show. “I think it was very powerful to see the place packed to the gills.”
Organizers also hope a good crowd at community forums to be held across the county. The first of those is Tuesday, Oct. 1, at 5:30 p.m. in the Bliss Room of the St. Albans Historical Museum (see accompanying list).
Before the lights dimmed and the movie started Sunday evening, O’Brien spoke to the packed theater, thanking the project’s sponsors and the St. Albans community as a whole. She invited organization leaders from the Franklin-Grand Isle United Way and Turning Point of Franklin County, as well as Mayor Liz Gamache to speak.
Gamache, who appears in “The Hungry Heart,” addressed concerns about a film showing the darker side of St. Albans. She said drug addiction is an issue faced by communities all around the state.
“It’s not just a St. Albans problem,” Gamache said. “What makes it uncommon for us, is how we respond.”
That response was shown in O’Brien’s film through the doors of the Mousetrap Pediatrics office, where years ago, Dr. Fred Holmes began taking in young adults and teenaged addicts — many, he said, had been his patients since infancy.
Along with Holmes, the “youngsters,” as he often called them, became characters in a story about dealing with a problem that affects so many aspects of their lives.
Working from more than 150 hours of footage, O’Brien condensed her project to 93 minutes, splitting the film into chapters. Each section of “The Hungry Heart” began with seasonal footage of downtown St. Albans and rural Franklin County. In the Mousetrap office, receptionists and nurses where seen decorating the waiting room with appropriate holiday flare. Holmes was seen treating one of his usual patients, a toddler or infant, before O’Brien showed the audience the stars.
Most of the characters in “The Hungry Heart” spoke to both Holmes and the camera about how they started using prescription pills recreationally, from goofing off with friends from school, to mimicking parents’ habits. From their first experiences, each character had a different path to becoming a full-blown addict.
Also addressing those who became addicted later in life, O’Brien’s film didn’t shy away from the bleaker aspects of substance abuse, including death, incarceration and parents losing custody of their children.
The use of Suboxone, a drug to help addicts deal with opiate withdrawal symptoms, was a large focus of the film. O’Brien wasn’t shy about Suboxone’s controversial nature, particularly in an interview with St. Albans City Police Chief Gary Taylor, who questioned the effectiveness of treating one substance abuse with another drug. Holmes was seen struggling with some patients who would sometimes take more than the prescribed dose of Suboxone and thereby alter their prescription schedule.
O’Brien said earlier this month that a lot of the cut footage revolved around professionals working on substance abuse issues. Experts from the Howard Center made the final cut, and they addressed the massive demand for rehabilitation services. They said it is difficult to deal with a statewide problem when people seeking help are put on a waiting list with more than 400 others before them.
Before the credits rolled, the film showed what became of each character that appeared in “The Hungry Heart.” Many were stories of continued success in recovery, some found happiness through family, but some continued to face criminal problems or remained homeless.
Several of the film’s subjects joined O’Brien on the stage after the film, greeted by a standing ovation.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Dustin Machia, one of those whose stories was told in the film and who has been clean now for years. He said the movie could play a part in addressing issues he himself faced, adding, “If it can help one person, then it was a job well done.”
Machia’s costar and one of Holmes’ longtime patients, Katie Tanner, agreed with O’Brien’s assessment of the audience. Tanner said “The Hungry Heart” could help drive the issue home for the St. Albans community.
“I think the turnout was phenomenal,” she said. “Now we can start the conversation.”
The audience seemed more than impressed, and many people lined up to purchase copies of the DVD.
Judy Wechsler said that “The Hungry Heart” was a “truly remarkable and eye-opening movie.” Wechsler is the education resources coordinator for the Champlain Valley Area Health Education Center, and said her organization would be stepping up in prevention efforts.
During the reception after the film, Gamache said her assessment of St. Albans was reinforced. While she’s heard for years about the stigma of a St. Albans drug problem, she said the community is looking to get on the right track.
“It shows what our community’s all about,” Gamache said. “I think it’s so important that we keep having these conversations.”
As the auditorium cleared out, Holmes was greeted with hugs and handshakes. He likened his part of the film as the “fluff” piece, compared to his patients and the others who dealt with addiction firsthand. While the huge audience was impressive, it was the takeaway that Holmes found value in.
“I thought they heard some really valuable stories,” he said.