My authenticity was challenged in prison

My authenticity was challenged in prison. I wasn’t incarcerated for committing a crime, but I was certainly a prisoner of ignorance. It took the wisdom of an “outlaw” to set me free.

It was 2008 and Amelia and I were in Guatemala to receive our second adopted son, Elliot. We traveled to Guatemala several times during the course of our adoptions and were blessed to have a friend named Joel, who serves there as a missionary. We wanted to document the culture for our children, so we asked him to show us the real Guatemala – the non-touristy places. On this particular trip, Joel pulled out all the stops. He invited me to meet some gang members in a maximum security prison. To be honest, hanging out with gang members in a prison wasn’t on my bucket list. But I reluctantly agreed to go.

We were required to leave our passports with a guard at the front desk. This was the first of many uncomfortable experiences that day. My passport was the only identification which undeniably proved I was a US citizen, and not a permanent resident of the facility. But this unnerving experience pales in comparison to what followed. A guard took us down the back side of the prison, through several locked double gates. We were stamped on our arms after passing through each secured area. As we passed through the final air lock and turned the corner, my heart was racing. In front of me through heavy steel bars, was a long, dark, gym-like hall, lit only by a few small windows high above which were also covered with steel bars. It was like a anarchist’s nightclub. The air was thick with dense smoke and loud Reggaeton music growled from every cell. The guard opened the heavy gate and after we entered, he locked the gate behind us and disappeared. Joel explained that if the guard entered with us, that he would likely be killed by the gang members. I thought, “That is comforting, I don’t want to see anyone killed.” Just as that thought raced through my mind, I turned and was surrounded by over a hundred men tattooed like war paint from head to toe. I quickly remembered why this wasn’t on my bucket list.

Thankfully most of the gang members were distracted by the entertainment we brought with us – a dentist – with tools, but no anesthetics. He set up shop at the back of the cell block and began to work on teeth as each patient tried their best to look tough during the procedure. I stayed close to Joel. After all, he was friends with these guys. Slowly, I let my guard down – which is ironic, because I am certain I looked like a deer in headlights. I began to look past the tattooed faces and realized that many of these warriors were just kids. One gang member shared his story with me … and then … he challenged my own story.

He knew I was visiting with a missionary and said,

“You Christians are in a gang just like us. You follow a leader. You have symbols, language, customs and code – just like us. The difference between your gang and my gang is that you have the luxury of being a hypocrite. If we aren’t authentic to our gang, we’re killed.”

Wow. I had no response to that – only questions.

Who am I? What leader do I follow? Am I a hypocrite?

I quickly realized that had we not adopted our sons, they could have ended up in a prison like these young men … and I followed that train of thought back to my own life. If I had grown up with these limitations, I too would likely be in this prison. I would have made the same decisions as these gang members in order to survive.

I had to respond. I couldn’t just adopt my two sons and move on with my life. I was responsible for the things I had seen. I wasn’t a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. I couldn’t do those things. But I was a creative. I had other creative friends who could join me to tell stories that would expose needs and inspire response to make a difference. That’s how our organization Athentikos (Greek for authentic) was born to expose and inspire through the art of story.

What does it mean to be authentic? Here are a couple definitions:

Not false or copied; genuine; real: an authentic antique
Having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence

Authenticity is a powerful and humbling attribute, because being authentic reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly. It reminds us that we aren’t perfect and we can’t do everything on our own. Practically speaking, being authentic means acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses and confidently abiding in that identity to integrate into community with others. Like the young man told me in prison, being authentic identifies you with your “gang”. It undeniably links you your leader and connects you to others identified with you, who fill different roles.

In my case, being authentic means humbly being identified with Christ as my leader. I also means using my uniqueness in purposeful existence; it means using my creativity to tell stories that help solve problems. But it also means acknowledging my limitations and depending on others because I cannot do this on my own. I am only a small part of a much larger story.  Being authentic necessitates interdependency lived out in faith, hope and love.

Who are you?

What leader do you follow?

How can your authentic identity integrate into a solution with others to make a difference?

Renewing The Heart of a Child

One of the greatest blessings of producing documentary film is the opportunity to learn from interviews. It begins as a conversation that in itself is enlightening, but ultimately the wisdom of an interview is revealed at a much more profound level during the editing process. A much clearer picture presents itself when interviews are listened to over and over again in the context of other interviews which make the collective story. Sometimes people say things that seem so simple, yet change my life. Last week I tripped over a statement from an interview that will not let me go.

Fergie is a professional clown in Guatemala City who worked with Italo to develop the idea of a clown school for street children. After Italo’s death last year, Fergie continued this vision with passion and perseverance. We interviewed Fergie in November 2011 as part of our first production trip to Guatemala. He explained how he personally began clowning, and how he hopes to use clowning to help heal street children. I remember being inspired by his noble initiative during the interview and thinking it was a “neat idea”, but I didn’t realize just how profound his vision really is.

… Fast forward …

I have spent the last three months reviewing and evaluating footage and interviews from our November trip. I have read and listened to these stories over and over again. I have read books about street youth and I have listened to lectures about the issue. By no means do I consider myself an expert on the subject, but I do have a greater understanding now than I did 3 months ago. One thing that is unfortunately common in many stories of street youth is abuse. Some family member abused them – often repeatedly. Ironically, these children fled the danger of home to live in the safety of the streets. The memory of this pain often drives them to self medicate and becomes a dangerous cycle of drug abuse.

In a sense, their childhood has been stolen from them. It is this idea which is contrasted by profound wisdom from a clown. Fergie says,

“In the Bible there is a verse that says you must be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. And children have a forgiving heart. I´ve seen them fighting with a friend, and half hour later they are playing together again. That (forgiveness) is something that we all should have.”

He goes on to say,

“And a clown has to be like a child as well. A clown is really a child – a silly child. In the same way a clown has to learn to forgive.”

Through the art of clowning, these children have the opportunity to learn forgiveness. This simple yet profound thought deepened my understanding of the Becoming Fools story. In the context of this issue, forgiveness is the first step towards rehabilitation. Anger and resentment drive these children into cycles of addiction. And … Anger and resentment keep these children in cycles of addiction. They will never leave the streets unless they can forgive the people who hurt them the most. Forgiveness is one of the most important parts of the healing process … letting go of the hurt that stings, letting go of the anger that overwhelms, and letting go of the obsession that controls … So that they may find the true peace that they have longed for.

Fergie is living out his faith by reaching out to children who have been abused by family and ignored by society. He isn’t simply teaching them to be silly. He isn’t just giving them vocational training. He is consistently investing in their lives and becoming a father figure they never had. He is teaching them to trust again and let go of their pain. He is igniting dreams and passion in their lives and as result renewing the hearts of children that were once stolen.

And THAT is authentically inspiring.

Organize & Evaluate

Film production is as much about organization as it is passion and creativity. Documentaries like Becoming Fools are unique in that the story is not scripted in detail at the beginning. We can set a scope for the story, but we must capture details as they happen and develop the story along the way. There is a constant battle between systematic preparation and the chaos that happens when capturing an uncontrolled story.

Ultimately, we desire to immerse an audience in a journey with these street youth learning to clown. Their story is inspiring. We’ve seen it first hand. But inspiring lives do not in themselves jump into motion pictures in a way that captivates an audience. Events that are spread over time in real life must be edited together into a seamless plot that communicates a coherent message and connects to the heart. It sounds simple in theory, but even simplicity takes time. How do we take hundreds of hours of footage, honorably edit it down to less than two, and inspire viewers to want to know even more? Answer – organization and evaluation. It doesn’t sound very glamorous, but this effort will provide the rails on which this story will travel.

We’ve spent a month and a half reviewing the almost Terabyte of footage captured on our first production trip to Guatemala. That is a lot of information. At first glance it is overwhelming. Thankfully, we have the benefit of technology to help us chip away at the task – review, catalog and evaluate. We’re employing a database system that we developed while working on ‘Reparando’, which helps us keep track of visuals, actions and “who said what”. This method enables us to identify themes that resonate within the footage so we can further outline the story, develop ideas for visuals and prepare an itinerary for our follow-up trips. We can port the whole system including storyboards to our iPhones to reference everything in the field and check it off as we go. It might sound geeky, but trust me … it is a huge advantage in story telling with a small crew … but I’m getting ahead of myself …

To quantify things, We’ve distilled the 25 interviews down to roughly three hours of themed information content. Our Guatemalan team is almost finished transcribing the footage so we can begin the official editing process.

We’re planning two more production trips to Guatemala to capture footage for the story. Stay tuned for more details …