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Film explores the imprisoning world of eating disorders

VERMONT — In her 20-some years as a documentary filmmaker, the Northeast Kingdom’s Bess O’Brien has taken on such hard-hitting subjects as heroin use, prescription drug addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse and the 1994 rape and murder of 17-year-old Stephanie Sady of Rutland by her own uncle.
Now the award-winning O’Brien has trained her lens on the self-destructive and often secretive world of eating disorders.
“There’s something about telling stories and going places that are often invisible and making them visible again,” said O’Brien, reached at the Peacham headquarters of her and husband Jay Craven’s Kingdom County Productions.
O’Brien’s latest documentary, “All of Me,” chronicles the stories of an extraordinary sampling of women, and one young man, for whom food — one of life’s necessities and greatest comforts and pleasures, a centerpiece of family celebration and togetherness — becomes a source of control, punishment, fear, anxiety and in some cases a threat to life itself.
Anorexia, as O’Brien notes in the film, “has the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition.”
The film will be screened in Middlebury and Bristol this Thursday and Friday, Oct. 20 and 21, respectively.
“I was interested in exploring what is at the root of the problem of eating disorders,” O’Brien said. “I think a lot of people think, ‘Oh it’s just a body image thing; it’s just women trying to be thin.’ That is a part of the issue, but it is certainly not the root of the problem. As one of the women says in the movie, ‘It’s not about the food, it’s not about the weight, it’s about everything that lies beneath.’
“To me that is the crux of the whole movie: What is that? What is lying beneath? And so in the movie I try to go into some depth about what are the systemic reasons, whether it’s anxiety, mental health issues, depression, trauma, sensitivity, perfectionism — you name it.”
O’Brien got the idea for “All of Me” during while screening her film about opiate addiction, “The Hungry Heart,” at the Vergennes Opera House.
“After the film, a gentleman came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know what your next movie is going to be about, but my daughter has been suffering from an eating disorder since she was 10 years old and she’s now out of college and she’s still struggling with it. And it’s just — it’s a disease that we’re just not talking about,’” O’Brien recalled.
And so she began.
O’Brien first approached therapist Bree Greenberg-Benjamin of South Burlington’s Vermont Center for Integrative Therapy, known for her innovative approach to treating eating disorders. In the film Greenberg-Benjamin provides insight into the disease and the struggles of those in treatment.
O’Brien interviewed around 37 people to make the film and shot about 70 hours footage.
“I wanted young people. I wanted middle-aged women. I wanted parents. I wanted a boy,” she said.
“I tried to get as many different stories and sides of the story as possible because I think when you’re dealing with these issues — whether you’re dealing with drug addiction or eating disorders or foster care — people tend to go in with their preconceived notions of what the issue is about. And so I try to get as many sides of the story so that people come out thinking very differently about it.”
One of the most intractable aspects of eating disorders, said O’Brien, is the centrality of food to life itself.
“When you decide that you don’t want to be a heroin addict any more, the first thing you do is you put the substance away. You don’t do heroin any more,” she said.
“With an eating disorder, you cannot put food away. You have to eat food. You have to deal with food. Eating disorder recovery has some very particular challenges because you’re having to deal with something that triggers you seven times a day.
“Most people don’t usually have a bowl of heroin sitting on their kitchen table, but people have food everywhere and it is everywhere. So if you are dealing with trying to get through your eating disorder and trying to be healthy again with food, you have to eat food and you have to look at food and you have to deal with food in a healthy way when for many people it scares the hell out of them. That is huge, and that is one of the big challenges around eating disorders and recovery.”
TELLING A STORY ON FILM
O’Brien said that one of the challenges in documentary filmmaking, especially films as centered as most of hers are on interviews, is to craft a strong arc and to “devise and create a conversation between people most of whom aren’t even in the same room.”
One of the most arresting places in that arc is when the conversation shifts from the thrill of super-human control people get from not eating or binging and purging to the horrifying realization that they have become a prisoner of the disease.
Says one woman, “I used to describe it to people as: You’re driving down the road. It’s a beautiful summer day. And you’ve got your eating disorder sitting there beside you, and you guys are having this great drive. You go through a dark tunnel, and you come out the other side, and suddenly the eating disorder is driving and you are tied up in the trunk.”
Adds another woman, “It’s taken over my brain. It’s taken over my heart. It’s taken over every limb of me so that I’m no longer in control of my thoughts, my actions, any of my behaviors.”
As O’Brien shows in the film, this painful moment of realization then becomes the first halting and difficult step towards recovery.
Wendy Stender, an Addison County resident featured in the film, described her decades-long battle with eating disorders in an email to the Independent. Stender’s struggle began in high school and continued into her 20s. Not until her mid-30s could she finally approach food and exercise in ways that were “truly enjoyable.”
She said at one point she was down to 88 pounds on a 5-foot-7-inch frame.
Stender hopes the film can help to enlighten the healthcare and insurance agencies as to how their policies affect treatment, and more especially she hopes the film will offer hope and inspiration to individuals who suffer from eating disorders and their loved ones.
“Ever since I considered myself ‘recovered,’ I felt the intense desire to help others who feel helpless in the grasp of ED,” Stender said. “I remember many, many days when I thought I’d never be able to smile and laugh again. My body and mind were so malnourished, my hope was fading, and my family felt helpless as I isolated myself and rejected their love.
“I re-lived many difficult emotions and memories during the filming and screenings of this documentary.
“I can recall several ‘angels’ in my life who were pinnacle to my recovery. People who walked into my life during my darkest hours and helped me to understand how to feel love again for myself and others, that my life matters, and that there is a beautiful world of possibilities to discover.
“I hope that I can be an ‘angel’ for others who are living the in the ‘Hell’ that I once did.”
“All of Me” will screen Thursday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m., at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury and Friday, Oct. 21, 7 p.m., at Holley Hall in Bristol. Tickets at the door are $12 for adults, $7 for youth. The film runs for one hour and 15 minutes.
Email reporter Gaen Murphree at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.   NOW A PARENT, Elissa wonders in the film “All of Me” how no one noticed her bulimia or “wanted to know” how she was doing.
Photo courtesy of Bess O’Brien

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