By Justin Stokes
What makes motion pictures meaningful is their ability to teach us how “the other half lives.” Films are useless if they do not inspire the audience to become better people, think new thoughts, and empathize more fully with others. Western Kentucky University Professor Dr. Jerod Ra’Del Hollyfield understands the importance of film because he has built a career on using it to spotlight the issues society ignores. As a teacher, Dr. Hollyfield prepares his students for the world of professional production through on-set experience that helps to enrich their voices for visual storytelling. As a filmmaker himself, he has dedicated his work to giving a voice to those without one.
This mission has brought to life a series of projects that depict stories that may otherwise be neglected in the South. His film “Goodfriends” is a short about a grocery bagger with cerebral palsy learning to deal with love. It has played at over fourteen film festivals, and is now distributed online by Zamoxis.com. “The Assisted Stories Project” is a web series of visual essays about Southerners over the age of sixty. It will premier Memorial Day Weekend on the WKU English department website. His latest project, “A Dream Come True . . .” is a collaboration with Backlight Productions, a local disability arts organization.
I chatted with Dr. Hollyfield to discuss what he has in the works.
Justin Stokes: Let’s discuss what drew you to the idea of making motion pictures, as well as teaching. What professional or creative experiences formed you into the story-teller you are today?
Dr. Jerod Ra’Del Hollyfield: I saw Jurassic Park in theaters when I was 9. I wanted to be a paleontologist until I realized they had to dig around in the dirt their entire careers. I figured it was a better idea to do something where I could bring dinosaurs and anything else I wanted to life. I grew up in the 90s and it was a great era of quality Hollywood movies with unique narratives. Regal opened an art-house theatre in Knoxville my freshmen year of high school, and it was an easy jump to independent films. I spent my summer vacation watching every film I could get my hands on.
I wrote a movie called Walls about two guys from different class positions who get locked in a bookstore bathroom the summer when I was 16. The 90-minute final product ended up premiering at that Regal art cinema in Knoxville in 2001. We had to add an extra showing because the first one sold out. We had the opportunity to premiere there because I submitted the film to Valleyfest, Knoxville’s first iteration of an annual film festival. I was hooked after that.
I got into teaching because of my teachers. I had the opportunity to study under Paul Harrill at the University of Tennessee and learned so much from him, not only about filmmaking, but also about how to be an inspiring and deliberate teacher. Paul had just won Sundance a few years before and he makes the type of films I really wanted to make—personal narratives set in the South that could resonate with cinephiles as well as the more casual viewer. I was excited when “Goodfriends” screened at the Nashville Film Festival in 2014, but being in the same festival as Paul with his first feature, Something, Anything, made it even better.
JS: What parts of creation do you tend to favor over the others?
JRDH: The most valuable thing I’ve learned about film-making is to be comfortable giving control to people. I feel like my skill sets are best utilized as a writer and director. I’ve also come to really love producing since my last two projects have had very long production and exhibition phases. A project can really be improved at that point by outside influence. I’ve found it’s very unhealthy for the film if I dictate every facet. It doesn’t have room to grow—sort of like a child with an over-protective parent. My DP is as invested in the image as I am the narrative meaning, so I make sure he has say in the coloring process. I also like to work with an outside sound mixer if I can because those people just naturally think in a way I don’t.
JS: How would you describe your creative voice?
JRDH: For me, the most important thing a film can do is ask more questions than it answers. With these three current projects, I’ve been working in what I would call advocacy cinema for better or worse—films about individuals who are marginalized in ways that aren’t met with the same public outrage as other groups. Disability and age are really two of the last socially acceptable forms of discrimination left in American culture. Those in these demographics are admirable people with strengths and flaws who have unique stories. My job is to tell those stories and hope that people grapple with how they feel when they watch something I made.
JS: Let’s discuss the WKU film program versus other programs. What can you share about it compared to other entities like Belmont University?
JRDH: I firmly believe that the greater Nashville area is going to be a major film hub in the next decade, very similar to Austin. Tennessee has a tax incentive program that’s very conducive for developing a sustainable regional film scene. Kentucky is also taking some positive steps toward creating film incentives. The universities in this region are a vital asset to drawing, supporting, and keeping film-makers in the area. What I think is special about WKU’s program is its focus on training for working on a professional film set. Students take classes to fulfill specific types of roles—100-level students act as production assistants on projects, 200-level as key crew positions, all the way up to 400-level writers and directors. The students are constantly making work and collaborating. At the same time, we make sure they have a formidable education in film studies and theory. I’m very fortunate to teach there because I do both academic research in the English department and production work. We have had exemplary job placement rates with our programs.
JS: What would you say is the importance of the films you’re making? How have your film/video projects changed people’s minds and hearts in ways other efforts haven’t?
JRDH: The idea of the “social justice warrior” may be as damaging if not more so than some of the structural reasons that lead to the need for advocacy in the first place. It dilutes complex issues into viral-ready content and makes people feel like they are doing good through the path of least resistance. I don’t know that my films have changed minds and hearts. I hope what they really do is make people think about an issue and realize a fad awareness campaign or meme isn’t a conduit of understanding, it’s just a conduit of establishing the individual as a caring person to other contacts on social media.
At the same time, my projects need some kind of viral cache to succeed. When I have to engage that world, I hope it’s as a way to start a nuanced discussion, not just “share and move on.” That is our intention behind the #realgoodfriends social media campaign. We encourage people to write an “I wish” statement on posterboard to open up a dialogue among those with disabilities, the parents of those with disabilities, and the general public. You can join in by visiting our Facebook (goodfriendsfilm) and Twitter and Instagram pages (Goodfriends_15).
JS: What made you realize the need to focus on the physically and mentally disadvantaged through movies?”
JRDH: When my co-writer, Jonathan Sykes, and I developed “Goodfriends,” we did so to collaborate with artists who have disabilities. People with disabilities don’t need pity and help, they need to be treated as people. I don’t know what it’s like to have a disability, but those artists could bring their experiences to the table. That’s the most important thing and makes for more interesting films.
We’ve been very fortunate to work with groups like Williams Syndrome Family of Hope and the Williams Syndrome Changing Lives Foundation, who actually paid for Kara’s expenses to travel to the “Goodfriends” set in Louisiana. We’ve also had a lot of support from Best Buddies. I’m beginning to work with a new non-profit called Include Me, which advocates for equal educational and extracurricular opportunities for those with disabilities.
JS: What challenges await one making media for such advocacy causes?
JRDH: When we began submitting “Goodfriends,” we found that many festival programmers had a certain idea of what a disability movie should be. It took us nine months to get our first acceptance. I was told by several disability studies academics and nonprofit activists that films about disability issues have a hard time getting screened outside of festivals dedicated to disability. They couldn’t have been more right. Staff members at reputable festivals told us that our film was “not a good fit” for their audiences because “disabled people should be happier” in the movies or teach life lessons to those around them. When we received feedback after we were not selected, we also found staff nonchalantly used derogatory terms from “slow-witted” to “handicapped” or simply referred to all those with a range of disabilities as “autistic.”
JS: Switching topics to more recent efforts, you’ve been working on a project documenting subjects living in assisted living facilities. How did this idea come about?
JRDH: When I first moved to the area, I lived next to an assisted living facility. I had just finished shooting “Goodfriends,” and my mom said, “There’s your next project,” the first time we drove by. She was right. There was this guy in a wheelchair who lived there. Every day, he would sit on the curb listening to his Discman and waving at everyone who drove by. I knew he had a story and I wanted to hear it. In developing the idea, I decided to focus on three locations: an apartment community for retirees, the center near where I lived that housed those in need of more direct care, and a subsidized housing complex in downtown Bowling Green, KY. I applied for a grant through WKU’s Office of Research and they generously funded the project.
JS: For the first series, you took the reigns as director correct? And you intend to pass this along region to region?
JRDH: The idea is for the first 12 video essays to function as a season of a web series and build from there. Each subsequent season would focus on a new Southern city and 12 more stories. I directed and edited the Bowling Green season and I like the idea of passing it off to a new filmmaker from the new location each season. He or she would take the directorial reigns, but I’d still function as a producer. I’d like to hit all the states in the South and add more diversity to the project not only in terms of race and class but also in regional storytelling techniques and individual film-making style. We will feature my films and the subsequent seasons at our project website: http://www.wku.edu/english/assisted-stories
JS: You have something in the pipeline gearing towards a Memorial Day release/event for the The Assisted Stories Project?
JRDH: I did a preview of The Assisted Stories Project on April 27 for the university community. We plan to launch the series online over Memorial Day weekend. I’m spending the first part of the weekend traveling back to the various centers to premiere the films for the residents. Then, the website will go live. Every subject either served in the military or had a spouse who did, so Memorial Day seems like the perfect time to launch. It was also our first shooting day last year. I can’t think of a better way to spend the holiday.
JS: Overall, how do you feel we treat those in assisted living facilities?
JRDH: There are so many different living situations available to seniors that it’s hard to pinpoint which work and which don’t. In general though, we don’t value the elderly in America. We treat them as furniture, decoration we drag out at holidays, and objects of fleeting sympathy. There are some very real issues occurring for my mom and dad’s generation about how to care for their parents. It causes them a lot of stress and can get messy; lots of hurt feelings and guilt over the idea that we are “locking them away in a home.” We can’t forget that those who live in such centers are people with continuing lives.
JS: You’re also involved in the “A Dream Come True…” project? What can you share about the story, and its writer?
JRDH: I went to see Kara from “Goodfriends” in a production of Peter Pan put on by Backlight last summer and was blown away by its mission. I immediately contacted the company director, Melissa Smith, to tell her how much I appreciated her work. She revealed to me that one of her students had written a movie script and wanted to co-direct. Melissa really wanted to make this her 2016 production and asked me to come on board. It’s a story about two friends who dream of being cast in a play but are always denied access to parts. Their dreams come true when they gain admission to a famous Broadway camp.
What made me want to serve as producer for this project is that the cast is comprised entirely of 20 actors with disabilities from Backlight with the exception of a few minor roles. The film will be about 40 minutes and will have a 20-minute live finale with the actors. I hope this project shows how dynamic the greater Nashville area’s disability community is. We have a great network of disability nonprofits and arts organizations to help those in need, and we’re prepping for a late August/ early September premiere in the area.