Noam Gonick: Manitoba Arson

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, a filmmaker named Noam Gonick is pushing the borders of film. Stryker is one of his most well-known works. Stryker was an official selection at the Venice Film Festival in 2007, and was reviewed in everything from the local Winnipeg papers to the New York Times. Unfortunately, people in the states aren’t aware of the strange tone and rhythm of the Native language in Manitoba and so they attributed this slow speech in the film as bad acting. The truth is quite the opposite actually: the acting is good, maybe too good. And yet the film is difficult, odd, flamboyant: it crosses into physical, emotional, ideological and sexual places that most films, even indie or avant-garde films, rarely dare to go. It’s a bizarre mythological feast of discomfort, offset by the soothing, stunning cinematography of Ed Lachman.

Stryker is the story of Native gangs in Winnipeg, specifically the Indian Posse and the Asian Bomb Squad. At the center of the film is a quiet 14-year-old boy called Stryker. Stryker comes to Winnipeg from Brokenhead First Nation, a nearby Aboriginal reserve. In the opening sequence he sets fire to a church, and then flees, riding on the top of a train from Brokenhead to Winnipeg’s North End. When he arrives in Winnipeg, Stryker immediately finds himself in the midst of two warring gangs, unsettling them both, setting fire (literally and metaphorically) to whatever he sees. The film takes place in a part of Winnipeg that was once full of Jewish immigrants but is today mostly comprised of Natives and Asians. Many consider it to be the poorest and most violent part of town. Gonick found inspiration for the story of his film in many places, especially in the history of Winnipeg itself.

Pulse: In the 1990s, there was a problem with arsons in Winnipeg. Could you give me a really quick overview of what happened and how it was perceived?

NOAM GONICK: It was a time when Winnipeg was really whipped up into a panic about Native kids burning the whole city to the ground. There were a lot of abandoned houses that were torched, also garbage fires. A few really high profile arsons were pinned on Native youth and later ended up being the work of middle aged schizophrenics, or in the case of the Alexander Steam Baths and Barber Shop, disaffected gay flight attendants. But at that time, every out of control BBQ was deemed to be the work of the Indian Posse.

What is this story about the “7th Generation”?

It’s a Mohawk prophecy that states that after seven generations of contact with white people, the new generation of Native youth would save Mother Earth, righting wrongs & settle the score with their oppressors. There’s also birds falling from the skies and stone creatures that emerge from underground. With “Stryker” I romantically equated these Winnipeg firebugs (who were predominantly Cree & Ojibwe tribally, not Mohawk) with this seventh generation idea, and posited that the burning of the city was a moment of reckoning for the generations of genocide they’d been born into.

In the film, how does everyone immediately know that Stryker is from Brokenhead? Is it something about the way he looks? And how do they all know to call him Stryker already? It’s like they’ve been expecting him….

Daisy recognizes him because she’s also from there. When Mama Ceece sees him she mistakenly calls him a “swampy Cree boy”, which is wrong – Brokenhead is from the Ojibwe Nation. Kids like that, in their early teens, arrive off of reservations all the time to try life in the big city of Winnipeg. Some of them meet a very brutal end quite quickly, so I was interested in documenting that voyage. I wanted to imbue Stryker with a mythic aspect, like a lone gunslinger from a Western who comes into town to raise hell. Just by being in the shadows, he causes strange things to happen to those around him. The name Stryker is a generic title given to any kid who wants to join a gang, it’s the entry-level position. Our character plays both sides, seemingly working for both gangs in the North End turf war, but in the end he’s flying solo, like avenging angels tend to do.

Do you know this quote by Spinoza: “All things excellent are difficult as they are rare”? I think that is what your film is: excellent, rare, and thus, difficult.

I don’t know the quote, but I’ll take it as a compliment – at times I have also felt like an excommunicated Jew. It was a difficult film to make, and difficult for many to contend with as viewers. It wasn’t the most politically astute move on my part – Canadians are very sensitive about the way Native reality is depicted on screen, owing to the fact that this county’s existence depends on our brutal history of conquest, the results of which are so omnipotent in Winnipeg, which it’s large First Nations population. Many commentators didn’t appreciate a non-Native filmmaker foraying into this terrain but I liken the situation to living in apartheid or the occupied West Bank – if you are a witness to state repression, even if it’s not directed at you personally, how can you be blind to it?

Is the mythology of Manitoba a native mythology? Does Canada have a connection to mythology? Because I think there is something of the myth or fairy tale about your film…not the happy ending Hollywood version, but more like Greek or Brothers Grimm, where what is strange and boundary-stretching and jarring and uncomfortable turns out to be what is most transformative for you in the end.

Manitoba means the place of spirit in Cree. I own an artwork by Jake Kosciuk that inverts the map of our province which, with a little bit of doctoring, looks a lot like a twisted windigo mask. Manitoba was born out of an uprising of the mixed blood (Aboriginal and French) Métis people, led by Louis Riel, a bit of a madman anarchist who predicted that a new Vatican would rise out of the Saint Vital neighborhood on the south side of Winnipeg. Another one of his prophecies was that his people would rise again in a hundred years, led by artists. The graphic novelist Chester Brown posits that the Canadian government used this rebellion to fund the national railroad system, first as a means of troop transport, and then for settling the prairies. There is still war booty in southern Ontario, in the form of church bells, brought home by returning soldiers. As to the boundary stretching transformative, its inevitable when someone like me takes on a the street gang genre – it’s gonna come out a funky hybrid. My concern wasn’t to make traditional urban entertainment, even if I sometimes like to frame the movie that way. It’s like a red herring to lure the audience into a tale of that not only encompasses the usual tropes: drug wars, juvie hall, et al – but also walks down the trannie stroll, asks tough questions about Native reality, openly fetishes thugs and finds humour in areas where we’re conditioned to tsk and shake our heads at the sad reality. In the final scene when Stryker returns to face the city again after being dumped by the police in a snow bank on the outskirts of town, I really wanted him to rise to that god-like level in Greek myth, where you don’t know if he’s alive or dead, if he’s going to destroy the city.

Have you watched many Baz Luhrman films? There’s something about the pace and timing that reminds me of some of them….

I’ve seen Australia, Moulin Rouge! and my favourite: Romeo + Juliet. I really loved that scene when Des’ree sings “I’m Kissing You” through the fish tank (and come to think of it, we’ve both used fish tank cinematography). We work on different scales, but I did manage to elevate Aboriginal issues to a Wagnerian level. With Australia he broached the aboriginal adoption issue in his home country, and David Gulpilil who played King George was great to see on screen again, I’ve missed him since Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971).

I’m interested in the native idea that disrobing can be a way of “shucking off the body” or “uncovering the soul”. There are also native tribes who believe that disrobing in a dream is a sign of approaching death, not necessarily a physical death, maybe the death of some old way of seeing, old way of life… In many aboriginal societies (not necessarily Canadian), there is also a lot of talk of “intercourse” – of all things having the most physical interaction, of the sun itself having intercourse with the earth (as Australian aboriginals believed). Did you find anything about this in the research you were doing before the film?

I didn’t come across “shucking off of the body” in my research, but your description of the sun and earth in intercourse reminds me of some ancient Egyptian beliefs I’ve studied. There has been the allegation of Queer tricksterism going on with our inclusion of transgendered sex trade workers. But Native trannie, or “two spirited” people as they call themselves, are a genuine phenomena in the Winnipeg underworld that needed to be depicted. In the pre-contact era, cross-dressing men and women were revered by their tribes as medicine people, given positions of respect and power. All that was repressed by the church, where same-sex encounters resurfaced in abusive power relationships between priests and children. The hustler stroll in Winnipeg is comprised of mostly Native teens, many with gang affiliations. When you mix in the federal penitentiary where Native people are also overrepresented, where a senior Indian Posse overlord was nearly bludgeoned to death by a mob of his underlings for forcing younger inmates to fellate him, you see that these worlds really do interconnect, this isn’t just the fevered imaginings of a queer filmmaker with an obsession for hoodlums. Mama Ceece’s butch lesbian depiction has also been corroborated by auditioning actresses from the hood who informed us that in reality there were several Mama Ceeces who controlled different aspects of the underworld, car theft rings, etc. Scripting a dyke who’s in charge of the Indian Posse with a gaggle of Native trannies was challenging for audiences who wanted a movie with standard gender role representations found in mainstream gang genre films. I wouldn’t deliver that type of fare to the viewer because the truth is that street life has always meant the meeting of these worlds: sexual outlaws and criminal outlaws find commonality. Someone once said about the film, that it feels like everyone wants to fuck everyone else, which made me remember the words of Divine in her disco hit “Native Love (Step by Step)”: ‘This Native Love is Restless/And I’m Just Not Satisfied.”

Also, in much of traditional native culture, a vision quest is the decision to meet one’s self. Stryker is on a kind of vision quest turned inside out isn’t he? Because by looking at him, other people seem to meet themselves for the first time. Are you wanting the audience to have to wake up? Wordsworth said that “Habits rule the unreflecting herd.” Are you trying to wake people out of their habits?

The character of Stryker was written as a catalyst for the people he met in the hood, causing each of them to transform or curve further along their individual path. Ideally we wanted audiences to feel what its like to walk in to torn sneakers of a teenaged arsonist. The film is a stiff slap in the face for a certain audiences, there’s a certain brutality that isn’t coated in morality, but young Native people have seen the humour, the local references, characters they recognize but don’t find on screen.

Have you found this film doesn’t fit into the usual modes of discourse about native subjects? Has it been hard for you to take responsibility for this film? Has it been hard for others to see their own “human-ness” reflected by to them? 

The film is an audience splitter. It takes a special viewer to go the whole distance with us. But I have seen people really moved by the work, crying at the end, or really worked up and angry in the aftermath – both reactions that I was going for. When a film causes debate: some people not able to handle the LGBT curve balls I’ve tossed, some people taking a firm anti-gang stance against the film, I think that’s positive – these irritants should generate discussion. As I alluded above, Aboriginal representation is severely vetted in our national cinema. As a state-funded apparatus, its rare to find a film about the underbelly of First Nations experience that doesn’t advocate disaffected youth buying into the society at-large, casting aside juvenile anti-social associations and affiliations. I came out publicly in defense of the Indian Posse vis-à-vis my seventh generation reading of the situation. That was something a lot of people didn’t want to see, a backwards way of looking at things. The notion that a work of art can glamorize gang life and serve to pump up membership was something that came up from a vocal minority in that class, and it’s something we’ve heard before in the area of ‘taking responsibility’ for the film. If representing something forbidden equates to glamorizing it, than I suppose I’m guilty as charged. I am not at all averse to the allegation of glamour. We could all use a little more of that in our lives, not just the beaded gown, gold tipped cigarette variety. But the film isn’t perfect (I don’t strive for perfection), so I have stopped chalking up critical resistance to a refusal to face one’s human-ness reflected back at them. The film very much wants to push the viewer and if the viewer opts to push back, who am I to squawk?

Are you less interested in “giving people hope” than you are in being an instigator? In forcing people to get so uncomfortable that they must move, act?

There’s a polemical Argentine film from the 60’s called the ‘Hour of the Furnaces’ that was extremely critical of the social structure at the time and the last title card is an entreaty to the audience to turn around and discuss the issues amongst themselves. I like that idea and would aspire towards it. If the images and narratives stoke fires in some viewers I think that’s a form of hope, if it inspires their own creativity and empowers through representation.

In literature, the Outsider is often the one who is interested in extreme states, the one who either consciously or subconsciously searches for true balance by unleashing his own hunger in full force. There are extremes in your work in terms of drugs, sex, violence, even extremes when it comes to sanity. Do you think that it’s usually at the physical, mental and emotional extremes that people are able to experience some kind of alchemical change? Or is it the opposite: are people using these things to numb themselves from reality, because reality itself is too much for them?

I am attracted to extreme personalities, if I look at some of the lovers I’ve had or the muses I’ve taken on, and underdog or outsider has, in a political sense, has also been a character I’ve advocated for in the work. In terms of drugs, they’re useful in allowing one to voyage outside the normally prescribed behavior patterns. There are also a few very sexy schizophrenics whom I’ve known for a long time, predating their condition, and as difficult as they can be for friends, I’m at times susceptible to their altered reality and conspiracy theories. The alchemy is that reality is fairly elastic and in my reckoning drugs, sex, psychic states and violence are all useful tools in shaping or destroying (for the purposes of rebuilding) one’s own environment.

Your film is about fire, and fire is an extreme, something that can change the physical form of something, rearrange its parts completely….

And of course pyromaniacs get a sexual thrill from their craft. I recently heard that watching fire intently is very good for the eyes. In my previous feature, “Hey, Happy!” (2001) sexuality and libidinousness are the primary traits of the star, Sabu. And he uses his quest the for bedding of two thousand men as a means to not only search inward, but also to affect the world around him. It was a pro-libertine film at a time when young fags were being herded in the opposite direction: marriage, anti-sex panic monogamy, or abstinence.

With your work, you make people uncomfortable, push them beyond their comfort zone. In making this film, did you also have to push yourself in this way?

Working with a cast that were for the most part the real thing, i.e. young aboriginal hip-hoppers or Asian thugs, meant finding a language and meeting ground where we could collaborate in making a film together. Coming from a different place wasn’t much of a challenge for me – I’m a fairly sociable person and as a director you have to be able to relate to the people you’re depicting, even if they’re outside your milieu – that’s also part of the fun. In the aftermath of the film I have great contacts in the criminal underworld of Winnipeg who are very proud of the legendary status participating in the project generated. The set was rife with crew discontent, the hours were long and the indie film spirit was running thin in the wake of a few big budget Hollywood films preceding mine and setting the bar high in terms of comfort and payment. It was a difficult film physically, shooting in winter and taking on the weight of the topic. Becoming a conduit for the story took its toll on me, but no one else was going to tell the story and once I signed on I didn’t really stop until the red carpet at Venice.

Have your most basic, natural desires ever been a source or reason that you’ve felt like an outsider in Winnipeg? If so, do you think this gives you a way of understanding someone like Stryker? Are the experiences of someone of differing race or class or sexual desires really so different when it comes to the way it feels and the way one must find his or her own confidence and social poise?

I don’t really feel like an outsider in Winnipeg, as much as I’ve been called out on Stryker, I think the majority of people here support ruminations on difficult subjects. Perhaps queerness informs my empathy for the outsider, but I would also ascribe it to my father’s politics as one of Canada’s foremost Marxists, the kind of indoctrination I cottoned on to at an early age, coupled with my mother’s stories as a community mental health worker focusing on the underclass, really sensitized me to social injustice. Ed Lachman, the cinematographer on the film, used to say that all cinema is about relationships, be they gay or straight, about the connection between people. But getting back to homosexuality… the kind of homosexual practice I’ve maintained has allowed me a passport into so many worlds. Beyond the enjoyment of multiple partners, it’s the stories and rooms that you’re given access to which is great fodder for filmmaking.

For instance, in the moving scene where Stryker and Daisy first meet and seem to really connect, isn’t it this outsider understanding that is at the heart of that unlikely connection/friendship?

For me that moment is about finding commonality across difference. About a basic human instinct for warmth and caring, for doing the right thing, helping a roughed up trannie with a ripped fur coat out of the snow bank and taking away her matches so she doesn’t burn herself, lighting her smoke. When we were doing the sound mix on that sequence, we discovered a very beautiful ambient tone, like a distant whirring drone, in that moment when Stryker hands her keys back to her. I always felt like that was angels crying at the beauty of that moment.

It’s amazing to me that the native way of talking about transvestites is to call them “Two Spirited People”. I think this reflects some kind of understanding of the fact that by being “different” one has to wake up more fully than those around him or her, and thus, once he or she is comfortable with that “strangeness”, he or she has even more to give.

It is like being doubly blessed with twice the amount of spirit that everyone else gets.

At the end of the film, Omar asks Kyle’s character “Who the fuck are you?” But he’s really asking himself “Who am I?” This is also the ultimate question of the Outsider because the Outsider by definition is one who has come to question his own place in the larger picture, seeing that things don’t quite fit, questioning the whole system, bringing that question into all his interactions as Stryker so silently does. Do you think people are afraid of asking this kind of questioning? Is that part of the problem?

Well there aren’t too many reassuring images of whites in the movie where white audience members can gain entry and say: “that’s me up there”. That might be part of the problem, if there is a problem. The film requires a bit of work soul searching, and “who am I?” (or, “who are we?”) is perhaps not the best question for selling popcorn. But if I’ve done my job, the film is watchable enough that those tough questions seem in unconsciously and the outsider’s lament infects the viewer over the longterm. If the film suffers from distribution gatekeepers or homophobic word of mouth, I think both these things add to its mystique, and judging by the thousands of downloads and youtube hits, the burnt copies I’ve heard about across the Canadian arctic on Native reservations, I’m satisfied that it’s finding an audience and doing it’s work.

Why do you think people have such a hard time with the sexual and homoerotic parts of the film? Is there any relation to this inability for people to be comfortable with the most basic parts and drives of themselves and their inability to see the aboriginal people in a true way?

It’s not the most obvious choice of hybrid hyphenate in the gang war genre “street thug –slash – trannie flick. But my remit compels me to push the medium forward and put things together in new and unlikely ways. How else can we develop as a culture, as people? But as I’ve alluded above, the tainted reputation that the queer content gives the movie one of the most entertaining aspects. As much as people want to resist the homosocial in the work, we know its just a performance of rejection, and in their deepest darkest nights, either in the cell block or on the internet, they’re not as close minded as they’d lead us to believe.

Do you really believe the native people should “take back what is theirs”?

Yes, I support Native self-government and at a recent election for National Grand Chief one of the nominees, the chief of Kyle Henry (who played Stryker)’s Roseau reservation, Terry Nelson, proposed that the Northern territories negotiate joining the United States to put them in a better bargaining position with Ottawa.

Did you grow up feeling / do you feel now / any guilt in relation to the native communities in Canada?

No, only fascination.

In what ways do you feel thankful to the native community in Manitoba?

I am thankful for their connection to Mother Earth, to the natural environment, to magic. I am thankful because they are sometimes amazing lovers, generally well endowed. There are moments of deep yet instant connection. And that the two-spirited traditional has survived residential schools and the church, providing a key to unlocking the mysteries of human sexuality.

How did your own views/feelings about First Nation people change in the course of researching and making and then talking about this film?

One observation is that there is no ‘one’ Native voice or opinion. I’ve met Native artists who’ve hired me to produce their work in the wake of Stryker, and aboriginal critics who’ve championed the film, and there are just as many who won’t look me in the eye.

Do you think monetary retribution to First Nation people really helps?

Until the fall of Capitalism, money helps. Send some.


Josh Grossberg: On New Orleans

a 2007 interview with the director of A Bridge Life

Josh Grossberg’s documentary A Bridge Life: Finding Our Way Home From Katrina chronicles the actions of a man named Dan Sheffer as he travels to Houston in the wake of the 2005 hurricane in the United States. In the midst of the national disaster, Sheffer’s goal is to get as many evacuees as possible out of the Houston Astrodome, a place where more than 30,000 survivors were sent after being evacuated from New Orleans. Dan’s idea is to gather as many people as he can afford to bring back to Florida with him, take them away from the bedlam of the Astrodome, and give them the money and resources they need to restart. As the movie progresses and the men and women start their new lives, it soon becomes clear that not everyone Dan has taken back with him is the same person that he or she first seemed. Things get complicated as the evacuees face various obstacles in trying to start over and rebuild their lives. Dan is forced to face the realization that despite all his good intentions, perhaps not everyone can be saved, and perhaps the final outcome has never been in his control in any case. The film is moving and at times heartbreaking, but at the center of „A Bridge Life“ is the idea that what binds us together is ultimately our need for communion and community, and because of that shared need, when life appears to be at its worst, a simple act of compassion always has the power to make things right again.

Pulse: How did you end up at the Houston Astrodome during the hurricane? Did you go there with the intent to make this film?

Josh Grossberg: I watched the aftermath of Katrina on TV like everyone else in America and I felt a sense of helplessness. Several days had gone by since the storm hit New Orleans and the Gulf and little was being done to help those caught in its wake, save the extraordinary efforts of the US Coast Guard in rescuing hundreds trapped on rooftops from the flood. I had to do something and saw an email sent out by the Hillel Jewish group at NYU where I was attending grad school at the time. It was an announcement that was seeking volunteers to travel to the Houston Astrodome where thousands of Katrina survivors were being bussed to by authorities after their rescue. Organizers weren‘t sure exactly what the volunteers would be doing. All we knew was that Edgar M. Bronfman, former CEO of Seagrams Ltd and onetime chairman of MGM Studios, had agreed to sponsor the trip and pay for flights down there to lend a hand. I went to the Hillel meeting and put my name in as interested in joining them. Not three hours after attending, I get a call from one of the organizers asking me if I wanted to go to Houston to volunteer. I said yes and the next thing I knew, I was joining the other nine volunteers and two administrators on a flight down to Texas. Whether fulfilling such simple tasks as handing out water bottles or arranging clothing donations or just comforting the victims, jobs were plentiful once we got to the Astrodome. Many of the people there looked like they were suffering from post-traumatic stress. A majority of them had very little in the way of belongings, a great number only the clothes on their back. Some were wearing t-shirts donated to them, the only clothes they had after being plucked from the flood and taken to communal showers. One woman I distinctly remember had on a Shell t-shirt. She told me she escaped from the flood just barely but as she was swimming through the muck a plank of wood hit her square in the teeth, knocking out the center ones. She was a cab driver with a thick Cajun accent. And she was just dying to tell anyone who would listen her story of survival.

I’d brought along my digital video camera just in case and when many evacuees saw it, they would come up to me wanting to share what they had just went through. So in answer to your question, no, I didn’t come there with the intent to make this film. But I quickly realized that instead of handing out water bottles, perhaps it was my purpose while I was there to record as much of their stories as possible, not only for posterity‘s sake but also because it was very therapeutic for survivors to discuss their ordeal. It made them feel like someone was listening, and that meant almost as much as anything at the time. After all of this, after interviewing one traumatized person after another, I knew I had an obligation to do something to make sure these peoples‘ voices would be heard, even if it took me several years to do so. And that’s what became this film.

One man you met there, Dan Sheffer, the man you call the Good Samaritan, becomes the center of your film. Why do you think Dan was on such a mission to save these people?

While most people felt satisfied sending a donation to the Red Cross or other relief organizations, Dan wasn‘t sure such action would make a difference. He wanted to get more involved because he felt, as I did, helpless to the point of almost being paralyzed. He was also angry at the lack of response on the part of the government. He’d also admit that a tiny part of him wanted to make up for the allegations of racism in the aftermath of Katrina. Some might speculate he had a bit of a white man‘s burden complex but I would say it was more that he wanted to reach out and extend a helping hand to strangers because as a kid, growing up as an army brat in Guam, he had seen firsthand how hurricanes had devastated the lives of his Guamanian friends. Perhaps this was his way of stepping up and doing his part now as an adult. It was Dan‘s war, if you will — that is, his dad was a Navy doctor who served during the end of the Vietnam War, but since Dan never followed him into the armed forces, this was his opportunity to make a difference: He launched his own one-man operation, military in its efficiency, to bring aid and comfort to those Katrina evacuees in need. He went there with the plan to bring these people back to Florida with him and help them get back on their feet again. He was determined to do something real and immediate to help.

Dan’s motives really were pure, but it’s still hard for a lot of people to understand why he would go and help all these people he didn’t know. People don’t always understand that anyone could find themselves in a terrible situation rivaling or even exceeding Katrina, and in that situation, the only thing you can depend on is the kindness of strangers. In the end, if we don‘t have that, what do we have? Dan‘s idea was so spontaneous and hair-brained when looking at it from the outside, that it was easy to express cynicism, and many of his friends and co-workers certainly did. But that‘s what is special about Dan‘s story and the story of his evacuees. It‘s like a Rorschach test. It brings to light people‘s own views and, at times, even prejudices. I‘ve had people here and there express surprise at how the story turns out. And they quickly look within themselves and see their own cynicism. It’s interesting what our expectations can tell us about ourselves.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t lack my own prejudices. The events of this trip made me question an uneasiness I found in myself as I meandered among people of lower socio-economic status, particularly those of color. I felt a pang of guilt and embarrassment at how New Orleans‘ African-American population was being treated, particularly by a mainstream media and this country‘s white elite establishment that viewed many of their actions of survival as „looting.“ As I talked to evacuees on cots and saw what little many of them possessed—normally plastic bags filled with family pictures, trinkets, love letters and whatever precious memento they‘d rather die than part with—I became angry. As I listened to their stories and looked at how they viewed me without judgment, not judging me by my own white skin tone, but just seeing me as a fellow human being no different than themselves, I felt as if all the stereotypes generated by the media and our society at large were swept away in an instant. I felt connected to them as a human being. And that feeling emboldened me to forego my initial intimidation about approaching evacuees. At first, I kept my emotional distance out of respect and sensitivity to what I believed was the racism they suffered at the hands of their own government. But I soon realized that putting up such a barrier only played into such divisions. I was letting my own internalized prejudices limit what help I could give them. This was a liberating experience personally for it proved that despite our different skin tones and even educational background, we‘re all the same underneath. We‘re all cut from the same cloth.

It sounds like this was almost a spiritual journey you were all on there together.

In a lot of respects, one of the most memorable realizations I know we all had — I’m talking volunteers and evacuees alike — was that in the midst of this terrible catastrophe, we were all experiencing a powerful spiritual renewal. I can‘t tell you how many times not only did I hear myself but others say, ‚despite how tragic this all is, it‘s beautiful to see so many people coming together to help each other in such dire times.‘ That communal spirit, that vibe that we‘re all in this together, was very prevalent in those days of Katrina‘s aftermath. It gave us all hope that maybe we as human beings could learn something out of this. That we‘re better as a people when we look out for each other, then when we‘re on our own. What I‘m saying isn‘t an indictment of capitalist America entirely, but it is an indictment about how the system is rigged by those seeking to subjugate others for their benefit. Racism and classism are merely by-products of such machinations. So for me, the beautiful part of taking on this project as a filmmaker was that it forced me to reach across the racial and class divide to tell their stories, enabling me to shed whatever preconceived notions I had that society had ingrained in me ever since I was old enough to walk.

And I think that’s what Dan was doing too. He wasn‘t a prophet. He was just simply trying to fulfill Jesus‘ Great Commandment, „love your neighbor as yourself“. Isn‘t that what the Bible teaches us? And yet, modern society looks upon such acts as bizarre. Dan‘s not even a particularly religious man. Far from it in fact. But his ability to love the stranger—while anathema to people in his own social circle—enabled him to overcome the skepticism necessary to get evacuees to come to Florida and find temporary homes and jobs. He gave them a unique opportunity to start their life anew with a kind of support many had never seen before. The fascinating thing about the film is how very different were all of their reactions. Dan provided this ‚bridge life‘ for these people – a life that eventually included free condos, food, clothing, financial support and help getting jobs and transportation—all the ingredients needed to help them on their way. And yet that didn’t mean that it was a success story for everyone involved. As you see in the movie, the results were mixed, ranging from exultant to tragic at times. Some took advantage of the opportunity while others made some bad choices, which took them down a different, darker path.

Dan says in the beginning that he had five stories of success and one tragedy and that he finds those to be pretty good. Do you think the results of his efforts somehow mirror other things about our society?

I think Dan‘s group is a microcosm of society in that it really brings together a group of strangers of varying racial and economic backgrounds and shows that when stripped of all the trappings that our consumerist life has to offer, in the end what we have is each other. The tragedy that occurs in the movie is an unfortunate twist, but it doesn‘t overshadow all the good that happens, and it’s also this tragedy that leaves many having to reconsider their own initial expectations as they viewed the film. If anything it reminds us of the choices we make and the unpredictable hand that life can sometimes deal us. That in turn allows us to appreciate all the good that came out of Dan and his evacuees‘ journey and makes it all the more powerful. The pay-it-forward mindset that he represents, that legacy of giving, is the glue that makes our society a stronger and happier place. If this film accomplishes anything, I hope it allows people, particularly those living lives of privilege and convenience, the feeling of what it might be like to suddenly one day lose everything you own, and in some cases, even lose family members, and have nothing but the clothes ON your back and have to start over. A person can learn a lot about himself and how he reacts in a crisis living through such trauma.

Incidents such as Katrina remind us of our capacity to love, empathize and create positive change. It‘s up to us to recognize those opportunities and take advantage of them. And in a sense politically at least we have taken a step in that direction by electing Barack Obama. In a way, I think this film is the perfect story for this new era we‘re entering. I love the irony that people keep mentioning—the fact that America had to live through eight years of hell under President Bush for people to consciously decide to elect this man to the nation‘s highest office. Sometimes progress means going two steps back and three steps forward. Of course, the pragmatics of the Obama presidency and wielding power will undoubtedly dull our expectations at some point, but there‘s no denying our desire to usher in rapid change, to find something meaningful. And that‘s a beautiful thing. Hopefully this film holds up a mirror to show what people really want in the coming years, a renewal of community and the American spirit.