Bess O’Brien is an independent filmmaker with a knack for opening windows and giving a voice to a range of individuals who would otherwise suffer in silence.
Her 2018 movie, “Coming Home,” is one of the core tools used by agencies connected with the State of Vermont to sufficiently educate the public on restorative justice to prevent crime and recidivism.
In an interview with the Eagle Times Wednesday, O’Brien reflected on the impact the film has had on both communities and individuals who have served time in jail, as well as “core members” of the Circle of Support and Accountability (COSA) program and herself as a filmmaker.
“It was really fun to make a movie about something that is working because, especially in corrections, there is so much bad news coming out,” O’Brien said. “In this country, the prison industrial complex is a big deal and we incarcerate way too many people in my opinion.”
O’Brien’s film follows five individuals and their volunteer mentors and correctional officers each through their experience in the post-incarceration stages beginning with furlough, parole and finally re-entry into the social, economic and employment stages.
In the fall of 2018, one tour of the movie generated a movement in communities and departments statewide.
“From that tour, all the restorative justice centers around the state got many more people, volunteers, to sign up to volunteer,” she said.
A movement erupted statewide after just one small tour in Vermont and the airing of the film on Vermont Public Television.
The COSA model, investigated thoroughly in the film, shows how effective communities embrace criminals without the crime and welcome them into a world where being productive and positive is a real option and not a mere shadow behind the fence of the law abiding communities who in fear often reject people because they were in prison.
The original idea found her rather than the other way around.
Derek Miodownik of the Vermont Department of Corrections in Waterbury, who also works with restorative justice centers on local levels, approached O’Brien about making a movie focused on people working within the COSA program in Vermont.
“I was approached by Derek. I didn’t know anything about the subject,” O’Brien said. “When he told me and I saw this I thought ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”
It was a fistful of stories that for O’Brien needed to be told.
“People came and saw the movie. They were moved by the stories of people going through COSA and they called up their local community justice centers and signed up to be volunteers,” recalled O’Brien about the impact the movie had from the initial tour.
The film begins with a fork in the road, a choice for each person who is connected to the issue of incarceration with the difference between the five being the approach of the positive or negative behavior of everyone, including their respective communities.
One choice, the film reveals, is usually the offers COSA provides as a way for everyone to benefit from what was once a criminal setback and now a changed life.
“This was a program that was taking a really humanistic view of people coming out of prison and giving them the resources at having a shot at creating a new and healthy life,” she said.
“Coming Home” tracks the progress of people who have been supported by and have friends over the lack of progress individuals face when struggling alone.
“More people know about COSA because it has toured in Vermont a number of other places where people have seen it,” she said.
It also tells a story of individuals with imperfections who struggle to find their way back home from a deviation they never thought would be so difficult to overcome and that they can’t do without friends and family.
“The idea is showing people a program that was really working and helping people reintegrate back into their communities after prison just sounded really interesting to me,” O’Brien said.
The film takes viewers on the winding road of incarceration and re-entry, illustrating how people with support fall less and when they do that it is not as hard to recover from whereas without support they are very much more at risk to violate the law. This is especially because they are expected to maintain a higher standard than average individuals to prove their willingness to move forward in a world that may not want to employ them, do business with them or associate with them at all.
“I said ‘Look, if we can find five people to follow over a period of time and be there in their COSA meetings and show how this program works, how this program affects people and the ups and downs of just coming out of prison and trying to get back into regular life, I would be really interested in making it,’” she said.
There are definitely some ups and downs in the movie, and in the pitfalls mistakes made by recidivism and relapse beget more mistakes.
But, recovery is quicker without the rejection of and from the communities, as the film highlights.
“[O’Brien and Miodownik] worked together and we found the five people and I followed them around for eight months,” O’Brien said.
In a collaborative effort, the Vermont Department of Corrections, Probation and Parole, various law enforcement agencies and the restorative justice centers in communities that house a state prison have continued working together taking the movie on a tour throughout Vermont as a way to open discussion, troubleshoot, encourage and support the healing necessary to move past the damage crime leaves in its wake.
“I just fell in love with the process. We shot 20 COSAs in total maybe more. I just loved going to the COSA meetings I loved the people who were involved,” she said.
Each viewing of the film is followed by open discussion and a call for volunteers for COSA.
They are looking for volunteers who are willing to spend one hour a week with individuals released from prison who are trying to put their lives back together and the movie “Coming Home” tracks the effectiveness and progress made through this model.
“It’s such a simple program. It doesn’t cost a lot of money. But it works and that was really fun to be a part of,” O’Brien said.
The goal is to educate the public on how fine the line is between the healing and relapsing back into criminal activities and how inexpensive and effective it is to create support groups of community volunteers who mentor core members who have proven over time that they are good candidates for rehabilitation through community support, according to O’Brien.
“Coming Home” is a multifaceted and raw documentary that tracks both the journey of post incarcerated individuals assimilating into the community and the progress they make within the COSA volunteer program.
Through O’Brien’s production company, Kingdom Valley Productions, she has made nine films most of which focus on individuals who who at risk or have fallen through the cracks of society due to public ignorance and the stigma communities fall under regarding eating disorders, people who struggle in or with foster care, substance addiction, survivors and victims of the opioid crisis and the newly released from jail.
O’Brien reflected on her 13-year span of filmmaking and how she found the material.
“I didn’t seek these issues out. They found me through individuals who have come to me told their stories,” said O’Brien, who after a while noted that she started to see unique patterns of interconnection between her movie topics.
“Many of the films I make intersect with the same issue over and over again,” she said.
Her nine award-winning documentaries take place in Vermont and explore the struggles and victories of her subjects.
O’Brien is currently taking a break from filmmaking to produce a musical that will tour Vermont in the next 24 months.