Anne Lai, Producer in Residence, Sundance Institute Feature Film Program
It’s a beautiful spring morning, and we’re on day five of our excursion to Nashville, Tennessee. With our local partners – the amazing team of the Belcourt Theatre’s Stephanie Silverman, Toby Leonard, and Allison Inman – we’ve already screeened a handful of Film Forward films including the special filmmaker presentations of Peter Bratt’s La Mission and Isabelle Stead’s Son of Babylon. While you couldn’t find two films more different in language, style, and geography, they nevertheless embody the best of cinematic storytelling – a specificity of character and story but with universal themes that resonate across boundaries of language and culture.
Peter Bratt speaks to audience members at the Belcourt Theatre after La Mission screening.
In Peter’s conversation with a group of teenagers at the Oasis Center (the majority of whom live in shelters), the curious questions following a screening of La Mission range from the history of low-rider culture in America to gender roles in contemporary society. And, while even the title of the film refers to a very specific neighborhood in San Francisco, the kids immediately connect to the all-too-common issue of being ostracized and bullied for being gay. As Peter puts it, “culture is prevention,” meaning how we view a gay man or lesbian is always defined within the context of our particular culture – be it Latino, Asian, African-American, or pick-your-region. So, we not only need to alter individual dialogue but also manifest a shift in viewpoint within a culture itself. What better way to do this than to engage us through a film that gives us perspective on another culture, but also relates to our own.
To my surprise, Nashville is also home to the largest Kurdish community outside of the Middle East. We had an opportunity to screen Son of Babylon for a range of audiences – from film students at Watkins College of Art & Design (the first Middle Eastern film for many) to those from the Kurdish community who have firsthand experience with the atrocities addressed in the film. Suddenly, you have a deeper dialogue not only about recent Iraqi history but about how the loss of a son or father to violence, no matter what culture, impacts an entire generation of families. It becomes a moment when everyone’s guards come down; they’ve just shared an emotional journey through the film, and that common bond allows a unique opportunity to ask questions of each other. Hearing from the film’s producer, Isabelle Stead, about why she and writer-director Mohamed Al-Daradji were compelled to create the Iraq’s Missing Campaign prompts a non-Kurdish audience member to ask, “What can I do to help?”
Peter Bratt (writer/director, La Mission), Anne Lai (Producer in Residence, Sundance Feature Film Program), Lisa Ogdie (Assistant to Director, Sundance Film Festival & Coordinator, Public Programming Initiatives), Isabelle Stead (Producer, Son of Babylon), Stephanie Silverman (Managing Director, Belcourt Theatre), Jacqueline Carlson (Coordinator, Film Forward), Brittany Ballard (Manager, Film Forward), and Toby Leonard (Programming Director, Belcourt Theatre).
It is these seemingly small moments that remind me of film’s unique ability to inspire curiosity, prompt dialogue, and instigate change. Following one evening’s presentation of La Mission, an audience member confided in me that she had been very reluctant to see the film. The topic of a young gay man’s coming out was just something she wasn’t comfortable with. And yet, with tears in her eyes, she talked about how much she loved the film because she cared about the characters. The one-two punch of seeing the film and hearing from Peter about why he wanted to tell this story shifted her opinion just enough.
Sometimes the greatest power film has is reminding us how much in common we all have. With that as a starting point, we can better celebrate our differences and inspire one another to share more stories.