Filmmaker tries to capture thoughts of Vermont teens

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(Host) Any parent who’s tried to communicate with a teenager can appreciate the daunting task facing Vermont filmmaker Bess O’Brien. O’Brien is trying to find out what Vermont’s teenagers are thinking.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, it’s part of a two-year effort called the Voices Project.

(O’Brien) “What do you want me to take a picture of? It can’t just be your face.”
(Student) “My hat.”
(O’Brien) “Your hat? All right.” (Sound of a camera snapping a picture.)
(O’Brien) “Take this, that’s your portrait. Okay, who’s next?”

(Zind) For Bess O’Brien a camera is a tool, like a pick or a spade. She’s using it for what she calls an anthropological dig. O’Brien is trying to uncover what Vermont teenagers think about themselves, the people around them, and their communities.

She uses exercises like this one – taking Polaroid photos of a part of themselves the teenagers feel is important to who they are – to get them to open up.

This workshop is one of 40 being held over the next several months with teenagers in schools and community centers around the state. Some are being led by teachers, others by artists. They’re using writing, music and videotape to get teens to express themselves.

(O’Brien) “And we take that material and we create an original theatre production with music that is based on teen voices that would then tour extensively through the state in the year 2005.”

(Zind) O’Brien says once all the material is collected, she’ll sift through it and, collaborating with artists and teens, she’ll create a play starring teenagers and complete with a live band. She says she’s producing a stage performance instead of film because she feels it’s a more exciting way to present this material.

The workshops may give O’Brien ideas for characters and provide a few lines of dialogue, but mainly they’re helping her understand what’s on the minds of Vermont’s teenagers.

(O’Brien) “One of the themes that I’m possibly beginning to see is that I think that kids don’t necessarily feel taken seriously or feel connected to their communities.”

(Zind) Like her film “Here Today,” which helped stimulate a statewide discussion bout heroin addiction, O’Brien hopes the Voices Project will get people to talk about the issues facing teenagers.

(O’Brien) “If you can connect to somebody else’s story, whether it’s a heroin addict or a teenager, and you can understand a little bit better about where they’re coming from, I think that makes all the difference.”

(Zind) It’s a long way from these the raw material of these workshops to a finished script. In the end, O’Brien says as many as a thousand teens from all over the state will have contributed to the Voices Projects.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

Information about the Voices Project is online.

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