Just Getting By

By Tracy Brannstrom

On April 13 and 14, Vermont filmmaker Bess O’Brien’s new documentary “Just Getting By” – a film that takes up the intersection of housing and food insecurity across the state – will be screened at Waterbury Center, starting at 7 p.m.

O’Brien started making the film in 2022 after hearing that 40% of Vermont residents face food insecurity, and that Vermont has the second highest rate of unhoused people in the United States, after California – numbers that shocked her.





Based in community kitchens, food shelves and other public spaces, the film sheds light on the day-to-day realities of low-income and working-class Vermonters, following a few individuals for eight months while introducing viewers to a host of others along the way. One storyline focuses on someone who gets kicked out of the state’s pandemic-era housing program – a federally-funded voucher program that housed thousands of people in hotels and motels, which has recently come to an end.

Overall, individuals’ stories are foregrounded against a backdrop of news reels that take up mounting financial insecurity across the state. “Many of us hear what’s going on through media,” O’Brien said, but we don’t actually know what people are struggling with every day of their lives.”

Those in the film speak to the cyclical nature of poverty, how lacking basic resources can exacerbate mental health issues, and the challenges of gaining access to governmental assistance programs. “The hoops we have to jump through to get those benefits is sickening,” one interviewee shared.


O’Brien said that filming is her favorite part of the overall process as a documentary filmmaker because she gets to spend time with people she would otherwise not connect with. “It’s sort of like being an anthropologist,” she said. “I really love meeting people who are different than I am, who have stories that I’m fascinated by, that I know nothing about.”

The editing process, on the other hand, posed the largest challenge for her, as the film takes up two extremely complex issues and seeks to illuminate how they intersect. She shot 95 hours of footage, which she said was “sort of like throwing a bunch of white puzzle pieces on the ground and saying ‘now what do I do?’”

“All you can do is start somewhere,” she said. O’Brien spent five months with a Video Editor – sometimes working hours to edit one scene, only to cut it on the following day. “It was grueling,” she said. “Basically, you’re in drudgery for months and months, and maybe after the 15th cut, something is finally working with the film – where there’s a flow.”


She hopes her film will challenge some of the harmful beliefs people hold about unhoused and low-income populations, and other “people on the edge” – notions that they’re incapable, lazy, unwilling to work, milking the system, or lacking higher aspirations. “All of these stereotypes are so unfair. They’re demeaning,” she said. “All of the people I encountered wanted to work and get out of poverty. They didn’t want to stay in subsidized housing. They just wanted to have a good life.”




O’Brien said she was drawn to their resiliency and innovativeness. She recalled a scene with a young mother of five who maps out her family’s weekly meal plan – describing how she’ll cook their meals, what leftovers she’ll use, and which meals she plans to skip. “People who are living on a limited income, who have to figure out how to feed their families for a month, get really smart on how to do that,” O’Brien said.

“They are getting through it in ways that I would dare many privileged people to try to do, even for a week – it’s not easy,” she said. “We should not judge them. We should actually be astounded by how they work in this very unfair system. In a just world, they wouldn’t have to be under these enormous stressors.”

“If we took care of them more,” O’Brien added, “I think we would ultimately have more people supporting our communities. The fact that the richest country in the world can’t do this for its people is something that we should be looking at.”