The Love Bugs

The Love Bugs

Entomologist Lois O’Brien in her fieldwork hat.

Entomologist Lois O’Brien in her fieldwork hat.

Maria Clinton '13 co-directed the film The Love Bugs — a documentary that explores the love of nature and the nature of love.

I believe there is such power and agency in one’s ability to share their own story. This film is honestly for everyone and I hope that it does encourage some thoughtful consideration.

— Maria Clinton '13

Maria Clinton ’13 had driven more than 800 miles from Denver to Arizona with her friend and co-director to meet the subjects of their documentary, The Love Bugs. The desert sun beat down on their SUV. Clinton was sandwiched between four dogs and lots of equipment for most of the way.

The wood-paneled cabin where they stayed during filming was — ironically — infested with insects.

“I have to be honest; I really didn’t like bugs [before the film],” Clinton said with a laugh, talking with her hands over Zoom in her Westchester-area home. She debated stomping or swatting, but then would think of her documentary work.

“It really became a question of ethics each time a bug would invade our space.” 

Despite her initial squeamishness, Clinton, a filmmaker and photographer whose clients have included NBC, About.com, Hudson News, and non-profit organizations, followed her curiosity and passion for a good story to bring The Love Bugs to fruition.

The short film, for which Clinton was also one of the cinematographers, follows married entomologists Charlie and Lois O’Brien, who have, over the course of 60 years, traveled to more than 67 countries and quietly amassed the world’s largest private collection of insects, an entomological treasure trove of 1.25 million specimens.

Pejay Lucky (right) catches up with Mahfouz Soumare ’22 on the steps of The Tully in the Barone Campus Center.

A specimen case from the O’Briens’ collection which now re- sides at Arizona State University

These two renowned scientists and pioneers in their field grappled with the advancement of Charlie’s Parkinson’s Disease in their twilight years. Though Charlie and Lois, respectively 85 and 91 at the time of filming, realized that their work of exploration and discovery was coming to a close, they still existed in a time when science needed them most because of the devastating effects of climate change on the world’s most delicate ecosystems. The film charts the couple’s culling of their collection as they prepare to donate it — valued at approximate- ly $10 million — to Arizona State University.

The documentary short, with a small production team of mostly women — something that was important to Clinton — has streamed on PBS and has garnered 14 film festival awards and even more official selections. The film will also be touring with the prestigious American Film Showcase this year. The Love Bugs is now also free and accessible to students and teachers with companion educational materials in both English and Spanish. 

“I was in complete awe of the magnitude of their collection and diversity of specimens”, Clinton said about the first time she visited the O’Briens.

“Their [individual] offices were across the hall from each other and they pulled out their most impressive cases of weevils and planthoppers.”

The carefully mounted insects sparkled like miniature “disco balls” in lacquered teals and vibrant greens, and had location tags from places like India, Brazil, and beyond. Unlike anything Clinton had ever seen, they got her over her original repulsion. But it was the relationship between Charlie and Lois that pulled the heartstrings, if you will, of Clinton and the film crew, and left them wanting to know more.

“We originally imagined a much shorter film, but just one trip to Green Valley [Arizona], and we knew there was a much bigger story that we had to share,” Clinton said. “The focus was definitely on the importance of science and scientists; however, the story evolved into something greater as we considered their love for one another.” 

In the opening scene, Charlie and Lois are surrounded by their collection — nestled together in front of ceiling-high pine specimen cabinets and drawers, glass presentation frames brimming with pinned insects, and piles of waxy envelopes. Lois asks about the condition of her hair, saying that she was just outdoors, that she always has fly-aways. Charlie, with laughing but doting eyes, brushes her hair aside. They readily admit that they don’t always agree, but just as quickly defer to one another’s knowledge or opinion.

Later in the film, we see the signs of a home well lived-in, of a partnership peacefully forged over time. But, we also peer inside at lives of caretaking and facing the prospect of terminal illness, at the clutter and rubble of old age. The O’Briens present it all with a humor that has sustained them, even as they squabble over the slide carousel or eventual funeral plans, and all without losing focus for the things that they love most: each other, but really the bugs. 

Pejay Lucky (right) catches up with Mahfouz Soumare ’22 on the steps of The Tully in the Barone Campus Center.

An aquamarine Weevil, Eupholus loriae Gestro, from the O’Briens’ collection.

Clinton wanted to keep the cameras rolling as much as possible, to capture the more “vérité observational footage” as well as the structured interviews - and as many images of the O’Briens million and a half specimens as possible.

“We wanted a blend for the film and it was important to us to feature animation as well, to really help the bugs come alive.”

That’s where an illustrator and the animation team at Mass FX Media came in, to create the “watercolor reminiscent” images of the insects and to depict some of the detailed memories, stories, and journal entries shared by the O’Briens in the documentary.

“So many people worked together to make this film possible,” said Clinton, who also has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has worked as an adjunct professor of film. Official work on the project began in May of 2017 and post-production wrapped in January of 2019. The film premiered at its first festival in May 2019. 

Originally from Westchester County, New York, Clinton was a communication major and a new media, television, and film minor at Fairfield. She was active on campus as a member of the Hamm Channel and the Honors Program, and was inducted into the National Communication Honor Society, Lambda Pi Eta.

But it was her relationship with the late Gisela Gil-Egui, PhD, associate professor of communication and Latin American and Caribbean Studies, that led her to social justice work with JUHAN (Jesuit Universities Humanitarian Action Network), and in turn sparked her interest in documentary filmmaking.

“I enjoyed taking Dr. Egui’s classes because she had such a wealth of knowledge,” Clinton said. “I vividly remember Dr. Egui inviting me into her space with her warm smile. She was always so supportive of my academic journey as well as my professional pursuits.” 

With encouragement from Dr. Egui as well as guidance from Julie Mughal and Danielle Corea through Fairfield’s Center for Social Impact, Clinton created the student activist group “Stand For.”

“We used documentary and visual journalism to spread awareness about crises such as the humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” Clinton said. “The genre [of documentary film] also provides the freedom to explore diverse and poignant topics that have the power to shift perspectives and change lives.”

Charlie O’Brien has passed away since the time of filming, so Clinton hopes especially now that The Love Bugs documentary will elevate the importance of scientists in our society, “open the door for dialogue” on the imminent threat of climate change, and bolster important connections between longevity, curiosity, and love.

“I believe there is such power and agency in one’s ability to share their own story,” Clinton said. “This film is honestly for everyone and I hope that it does encourage some thoughtful consideration.”

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