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Q&A: Filmmaker Bess O’Brien

Written by Sky Barsch on . Posted in Entrepreneurs, Q&A, The Arts No Comments

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.

Sweet Potato Curry With Coddled Eggs

Written by Melissa Pasanen on . Posted in Recipes, Taste of the Landscape

Sweet Potato Curry With Coddled Eggs
Your kitchen will smell divine when you make this deeply flavored sweet potato curry, which sings 
with spice and heat. At Kismet, it’s most often served as a brunch dish in little individual cast-iron skillets, but it makes a great vegetarian supper too. Or if you like, stir in chickpeas and serve over rice or couscous for a standout vegan meal 
any time of day.
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  1. 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  2. 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  3. 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
  4. 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  5. 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  6. 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
  7. 1 jalapeño
  8. 2 medium-sized mild chili peppers, such as Anaheim 
or poblano
  9. About 4 tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped 
(to yield about 4 cups chopped tomatoes and juices)
  10. 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  11. 2 shallots, roughly chopped
  12. 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  13. 2 tablespoons fresh grated ginger, 
firmly packed
  14. 1 to 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste
  15. ¼ cup olive oil
  16. 1 teaspoon coarse salt, plus more 
to taste
  17. 3 tablespoons neutral cooking oil
  18. 2 medium sweet potatoes 
(about 1½ pounds total), peeled 
and diced
  19. 8 eggs
  20. Sliced scallions, thick plain yogurt 
and crusty bread, to serve
  1. Preheat oven to broil with rack set in top slot. Set a small sauté pan over medium heat and add cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, cayenne and powdered ginger. Toast spices, stirring occasionally, until aromatic, about 3 to 4 minutes. Set spice mixture aside to cool. Lightly oil a small rimmed baking sheet and place jalapeño and mild chili peppers on it. Broil, watching closely, turning once, until peppers are soft and blistered dark brown or black in spots, about 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  2. In the bowl of a food processor or blender, combine tomatoes, tomato paste, shallots, garlic, ginger, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Add toasted spice mixture. Slice each pepper down the middle and remove stem and seeds (be careful when handling; wash hands very well before touching face). Coarsely chop and add to food processor. Purée mixture until smooth. Set aside.
  3. In a large heavy-bottomed skillet, heat cooking oil over medium-high heat and add diced sweet potatoes, preferably in one layer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes or until sweet potatoes are lightly browned. Add tomato mixture along with 1½ cups water to sweet potatoes and stir to combine. Reduce heat, cover and simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes, until sweet potatoes are tender. Taste and add salt and more lemon juice as desired. (Can be prepared up to this point and refrigerated after coming to room temperature, but make sure to bring curry up to simmer before adding eggs.)
  4. Increase heat to medium. When curry is actively simmering, use a large spoon to make four indentations evenly distributed in pan. Crack two eggs into each depression. Season eggs with salt and pepper. Cover pan again and cook just until whites are no longer translucent and yolks are cooked to your liking, about 5 minutes. 
Serve garnished with sliced scallions, dollops of thick plain yogurt and crusty bread. Serves 4 as a main course.
  1. Photo by Andrew Wellman.
Adapted from Chef-owner Crystal Maderia, Kismet, Montpelier
Adapted from Chef-owner Crystal Maderia, Kismet, Montpelier
Vermont Life Magazine

Remote Possibility | Art connections drive hope in gritty St. Johnsbury

Written by Kim Asch on . Posted in Way of (Vermont) Life

Photographed by Ken Burris

A study in contrasts: St. Johnsbury is not an affluent area, but a foundation for the arts was laid with Gilded Age wealth from the Fairbanks family, whose legacy includes the St. Johnsbury Athanaeum, currently under the direction of Bob Joly.

st j athanaeum

PHOTOS ABOVE: A study in contrasts. St. Johnsbury is not an affluent area, but a foundation for the arts was laid with Gilded Age wealth from the Fairbanks family, whose legacy includes the St. Johnsbury Athanaeum, currently under the direction of Bob Joly (second photo).

By most any measure, St. Johnsbury is an unlikely cultural hub. This town of just 6,200 residents in the remote Northeast Kingdom is about 75 miles from the state’s largest city, Burlington, and almost 50 miles from affluent Stowe. St. Johnsbury is not a wealthy place either — the town’s median household income is almost $20,000 less than the state average — and it is dogged by the same woes that trouble small towns across America: the fraying of downtown, the illegal drugs, the outflow of good manufacturing jobs.

And yet, with a slow-building influx of writers, musicians, painters, filmmakers and community-builders, followed by a spurt of activity in the last few years, the town has pivoted toward the arts as a vital piece of its future. The scenario has played out in varying degrees in other former mill-and-rail towns along the Connecticut River system — White River Junction, Bellows Falls, Brattleboro — and it is playing out here.

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In St. Johnsbury, the foundation was laid in the Gilded Age, when the industrialist Fairbanks family amassed a fortune and used its wealth to build cultural institutions. Both the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium and the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, on Main Street, are quintessential specimens of Victo-
rian architecture and house impressive collections from the era. The St. Johnsbury Academy, also founded by the Fairbanks family, is a well-regarded independent high school, serving both locals and boarding students on its attractive grounds on the hill.

Today, these institutions are intertwined with a relative newcomer, Catamount Arts, a community-and-arts energizer founded in the mid-’70s by filmmaker Jay Craven. In 2008, Catamount Arts completed an ambitious reinvention project — a $1.7 million makeover of the 1912 Masonic Lodge building on Eastern Avenue, which became its new home — and that same year, Jody Fried signed on to head the organization.

A native of the Northeast Kingdom, Fried had enjoyed a lucrative career in health care administration that took him all over the United States, but he returned to his hometown of East Burke and ran several businesses, including the country store, before realizing that his passion was in community leadership. His mother had been a guidance counselor at the St. Johnsbury public school, both of his parents were civic-minded, and he was determined to raise his four children with the same kind of experience he remembered from childhood — but with more access to arts and culture. “We’ve spent five years reinventing Catamount Arts, and we really have it on an incredible path,” Fried says. “I wouldn’t want my kids growing up anywhere else.”

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