By Kerry Phelps Dale | Photo by Tony Gibson
An adult son returns home for Christmas after 77 days of treatment for his heroin addiction. A white man drives an African American concert pianist on his concert tour of the south in the early 1960s. A young, homeless boy in Lebanon fights for his right to life on the streets of war-torn Beirut.
These were themes from three of the outstanding films screened at the Middleburg Film Festival (MFF) last month. Ben is Back. Green Book. Capernaum.
All does not go well in these films that mirror life. At times they are heart-wrenching, infuriating, and heart-breaking. They are also uplifting, inspiring and refreshing. They are lenses into lives, intimate depictions and stories of real life.
Audiences are riveted, moved and a little closer to understanding the issues of today, yesterday and tomorrow and their effects on human beings across the world because of films like these. The stories of addiction, maltreatment of LBGT community, racial indignities, and abject poverty put a spotlight on our nation’s and the world’s urgent and misunderstood issues.
Films have the unique power to affect their audience, a theater full of people in community, to a new place of understanding and empathy. They can also spark a fire of cultural enlightenment resulting in change. Millions of people may watch one movie that transforms them.
Changing the World, One Film at a Time was the title of the one-hour Spotlight Conversation held on the last day in the Salamander Resort & Spa’s library with filmmakers noted for creating positive social change-an hour that for many in attendance was the highlight of the festival. The panel included MFF founder Sheila C. Johnson, Producer Scott Budnick and Director Nadine Labiki. MFF Executive Director Susan Koch served as the moderator.
Budnick, the producer of the The Hangover movies, found his calling through relationships with incarcerated juveniles to whom he taught creative writing. It was in his discovery of their crimes and subsequent unfair sentences that he decided to step away from making movies altogether and instead work for justice in juvenile criminal sentencing.
The veteran film producer told the story of 15-year-old David who was sentenced to 300 years to life in prison. Budnick asked what happened. “I stood next to my friend who shot the victim in the butt,” the young man said.
“He stood next to the guy with the gun…and got a life sentence,” repeated Budnick.
“I asked all the kids how they got there,” said Budnick. “It was the unbelievable struggle and trauma of poverty. It was parents who were either missing or working multiple jobs to keep food on the table. It was physical abuse. It was sexual abuse.”
“It was so obvious,” stressed Budnick. “Hurt people hurt people.”
Budnick made a promise to continue working with the kids and determined he would “be there for them until they come home, whether it was three or 300 years.”
Sparked in part by a comment, in the same Salamander Library at the 2013 Middleburg Film Festival, by filmmaker Ted Leonsis, Budnick decided to return to the film industry. Leonsis said to Budnick, “By leaving the business, you’re leaving your biggest tool in your toolbox to get social change, which is storytelling.”
The other spark came at a party in Los Angeles. “I was talking to a couple who were deeply involved in the marriage equality movement.” Both, in separate conversations, told Budnick they believed it was the TV show Will and Grace that was the game changer. The wildly popular show was able to humanize the issue and changed the hearts and minds of people in the country.
Budnick asked himself, “Could storytelling in all areas of inequality move the needle so they aren’t even political issues anymore?” Can movies, by humanizing the issues, change the country’s views on criminal justice, immigrants and refugees, women and girls, education systems in poor communities, addiction and mental health, poverty and homelessness?
Budnick so believes in the power of storytelling that he started Good Films, a film and TV production company dedicated effecting positive social change.
Good Films is partnering with with Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc for it’s first project, a film based on Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. The biographical drama highlights civil rights defense attorney Stevenson and his representation of a wrongfully convicted man on death row.
Nadine Labaki’s stunning film Capernaum came to be as a result of the director’s experience in Lebanon of driving home late from a party. While sitting at a traffic light she came face to face with a child sitting with his mom on the sidewalk. “He was so uncomfortable he couldn’t sleep. He kept dozing off and waking up. He wasn’t asking for food. He wasn’t asking for anything, He just wanted to close his eyes and sleep.”
“I’ve been facing this everyday vision of all those children on the streets. And I feel responsible for this,” said Labaki. “How did we get to this point?”
“There are millions of children around the world facing extreme neglect, who are being mistreated, abused, raped, beaten up. They never hear a nice word,” Labaki said. “You hear about these problems in the news, but you see the problems as figures, statistics, numbers. It is more an abstract problem,” she said. “They think, it’s not my problem. It’s somebody else’s problem.”
“I think films can humanize a problem, can give it a face. You start seeing the struggle through people you identify with,” concluded Labaki. The opioid overdose crisis is played out in a middle-class home on Christmas Eve in the film Ben is Back. This serious national crisis is tackled in a 24-hour time frame with a close-up examination of the devastation of heroin addiction.
After the film’s showing, in front of a teary-eyed audience, director Peter Hedges said, “After the election, and after my kids got old enough, I said, ‘I have to quit everything and just spend the rest of my life trying to make urgent and necessary work.”
The festival’s Audience Award for Narrative Film went to Green Book which tells the story of Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class African American concert pianist hiring an Italian American to drive and protect him on his tour to the Deep South in 1961. The film is described as one that embraces our humanity and makes one feel hopeful about the world.
“It’s a drop of water in a bucket that had to be filled,” said Director Peter Farrelly on the effect of Shirley’s tour. “It didn’t move the needle, but every drop counted.”
Making the type of film that tells a story that needs to be told, is not simply a question of profitability, though they do make money, or just a question of shooting for the awards, though they do receive them.
“For me,” said Labaki, “I feel responsible. It’s not a choice, it’s a duty.”
This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Middleburg Life.