Who's Idea Was This? Second Thoughts from a New Filmmaker

by John Filson

Are you a new filmmaker, or aspiring to be? Do you feel a tug on your heart to make positive change in the world, and want to use the power of film? This note is for you.

It can take a long time to call yourself a “filmmaker” in front of other people. I’m still in the denial stage, and quite comfortable there. My interest in making documentaries stems from the way well-made films have always gripped me like a vice and lit a fire in my belly that made me feel unstoppable. That collection of emotional imprints over the years is surely a big reason I aspired to make social change my profession. 

Too bad I can’t keep that dynamic energy in my pocket for the longer-term journey, ready to pull out when the going gets tough. Because the going definitely gets tough.

I was a regular kid in California. The travel bug first bit me in Ecuador during a semester abroad in college. Then on to development and peacebuilding work in Central America, inner-city L.A., and finally the Middle East. That same emotional rocket fuel you feel when a great film captures you also impacted me through the relationships I made with the people I met—people who speak a different language and have different ways of doing things, but whose love and endurance transcend separateness.

Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to experience other cultures, or find the treasures waiting on the other side of difference. In fact, our collective unknowning seems to contribute to social systems that run on fear more than benefit-of-the-doubt, which keeps some of us trapped in situations of suffering that is hard to imagine. So I made it my life’s mission to create ways for people to discover the same joys I found when I have witnessed life through the eyes of others.

But what happens after you follow your dream—when you decide to let passion propel you into that particular mystery that keeps calling your name? Like any good plot, as the protagonist makes her journey, she confronts enormous obstacles that shake her to the core.

In my case, the crucible placed on my storyboard was less about external struggle and more about internal alchemy. I took a three-year volunteer position with a humanitarian organization in Iraq in 2007. I lived almost entirely with Iraqis, supporting the projects of local charities trying to treat the traumas of war. After 20 months I was totally emotionally spent, mostly from a deep loneliness. I had to come home early because I was no longer able to do my job. Since then it has been a slightly slower walk down my path, catching my breath, regaining my strength.

At this mid-way point in the story, the solution for a better world is less obvious than it used to be, and the path of the professional peacemaker is less straightforward. How do I possibly afford a career in social change? How can I be committed to my family and also my work? Does what I do even make a difference? How do I keep this going? If you are interested in filmmaking and social change, these may be familiar questions.

[caption id="attachment_4036" align="alignright" width="240"] The author with his "nieces" in Iraq.[/caption]

Fortunately for me, the plot also took an interesting turn. When I lived in Iraq, I was kind of adopted by a local family, who treated me like their own son. It began when they started inviting me over for dinner at their house, until one day they just stopped. Instead they said, “Where were you? You know what time dinner is! Do we have to ask you every time?!” And that was it. A few years later in 2012, part of the family was resettled in the U.S. as refugees—right here in Silver Spring, Maryland. Now they are a big part of my life.

The film I am working on through the Docs in Progress Fellowship is the story of my three young Iraqi nieces—Linda (18), Lilyan (13), and Lubna (7)—and the new life they are creating here. It is a labor of love, obviously, but the girls are also perfect intercultural ambassadors. By catching a glimpse of my nieces’ lives—their successes, fears, constant Instagram posts, and endless charm—audiences will discover the incredible love and acceptance “Iraqis” offer to those around them; the same love that sustained me during one of the lowest valleys of my journey.

[caption id="attachment_4037" align="alignleft" width="240"] The author on a recent shoot with his "nieces," now living in the Washington area.[/caption]

If the power of film can grip others the way it grips me, and if filmmakers and professional peacemakers continue opening windows to discover the joy and growth that comes from befriending people who are not like us, maybe eventually people from other cultures or neighborhoods can become a little less “they” and a little more “we.”There are no magic answers for confronting the obstacles we all face when we choose to make our dream a reality. And social change is full of euphoric highs and acute lows, as well as tough choices and trade-offs. But we gotta do it. The way to succeed in film and social change, I believe, is the same way we succeed in life. Let the moments of bursting passion propel you forward while they can. Be patient when the obstacles knock you down—and persistent. Don’t let fear make decisions. See what is, and stay grounded in it. See what could be, and create it. Do work and life always together with other people. Most of all, keep your heart full of love. That’s where change begins.

John Filson is a 2014 Docs In Progress Fellow.

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