by Christine Autrand Mitchell
So sometimes art mirrors life, and sometimes it’s the other way round, but the local feature film, Finding Hope Now, has done both, passing through some sort of prism. It was shot in Fresno in 2009 and I was privileged to work on this film as Producer as well as the chance to wear several other hats. This is the film’s amazing story thus far.
Art Imitates Life
Executive Producer, Skin Mead, entered Finding Hope Now in the Houston International Film Festival among 4300 entries, among 10 categories and 33 countries which were represented. He chose it carefully, building a strategy to enhance the appeal for distributors, “What’s neat is that this was a secular festival. It’s not a Christian festival. And our film is obviously a Christian message because it has Roger [Minassian] in it. It’s about a Pastor.”
This seems to be a trend for Christian films lately, to close the gap between Christian and non-Christian films and reach a wider audience, like the recent release of Soul Surfer. The films are also being released in wider distribution, whereas Facing the Giants was released in about 500 theaters, Soul Surfer saw four times that many screens. Mead elaborated, “We tried really, really hard to make this film not Christian in your face…. It can go mainstream.”
Mead’s enthusiasm for this film has not waned and it’s a vital reason the film made it into production with a big name like Michael Badalucco attached (Raging Bull, O Brother Where Art Thou, The Practice (TV)), as the role of Rev. Minassian. Mead’s ebullience was contagious as he told me of being seated in the front at the awards gala at the Houston festival.
The film won a Platinum Remi Award (the highest honor in a category) in action/adventure, something Badalucco is apparently astounded at because, when making this film it wasn’t viewed as action. Mead chose five categories to place the film in for jurying, and action happened to be one of them. According to Mead, the Houston film critics also awarded it one of the three best films in the festival and nominated Avan Jogia (Nickelodeon’s Victorious, Caprica, and Choices) as best supporting actor.
So what is happening with the film now? They are just finishing the last few tweaks, blatant on a large screen but not in the editing bay. Marketing packages are being prepared to be sent to their Distribution Representative who will then pitch the film to major studios.
When Finding Hope Now was screened in Houston, there was a Q&A that followed. “People are moved by this film… big tears,” Mead tells me. It is a realistic picture of gang kids to which an audience can relate. One moment these kids are playing ball and the next they’re headed out to a retaliation.
This film came about when Skin Mead was reading Rev. Roger Minassian’s book, Gangs to Jobs, on a flight to New York. Minassian says, “This is how God operates: he takes a man who knows nothing about making films to make a film about a man who knows nothing about gang members.” Inspired, Mead wrote a screenplay based on Minassian’s book.
Minassian told me how his life changed in 1992. “God revealed an idea to us that he had in his mind from all eternity for gang members, through caring relationships and giving them something positive to do with their lives, through the love of Christ, that gang members could become productive citizens.”
In March of 1992, G.L. Johnson called together Fresno area pastors and religious leaders due to the horrible violence in Fresno, with 87 homicides and a child shot in cross-fire. (This scene has been altered a bit, but does appear in the film.) Then the LA riots followed and Minassian asked himself, “What kind of despair makes people set fire even to their own neighborhoods?” Hopelessness was his answer. He says he wept, not a man who generally cries, also asking himself why his soul was put into a loving, caring home and why others are not. This came about after meeting his first three gang members. “These guys don’t stand a chance unless someone helps them.” He felt they had no role models, “They have no hope. And they’re doing what the streets tell them to do… Unless they have someone they respect showing them something different, they’re going to continue doing what they’re doing.”
So, February 1, 1993 Roger began Hope Now for Youth. He retired from pastoring after 20 plus years. It began with him, and four part timers, three of them students who acted as vocational placement counselors, running the ethnic gamut to serve multiple ethnicities. Now the organization, based out of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Fresno, has seven full time employees, not necessarily college graduates, as first envisioned, but grounded in similar backgrounds and experiences, and a $600,000 budget. So far they’ve placed over 1700 former gang members into first time jobs. This has a ripple effect, taking entire families out of gang life to function well in society with jobs and responsibilities, contributing positively to the local economy and their community.
In 2002, Minassian started to write his book, Gangs to Jobs; it was published in 2003 but the publisher went bankrupt one month later, leaving the Reverend with 1500 copies of the book in his garage. The book can now be purchased through Amazon. Then, of course, came the film, which Minassian calls a surreal experience, “[God] is using the book to get the message out there but not in the way I dreamed of.”
Minassian’s original plan included two outlets, the first being that the young men wanting to escape gang life give their hearts to God, knowing that not all would. Out of this has grown the Hope Now Bible Church, created by Roger Feenstra, the current Executive Director who took over from Minassian in 2004, when he retired. The second is starting to be fulfilled: that the idea of Hope Now, of taking gang kids out of their gang life, training them and finding them jobs so that they can become a productive part of our society go international. This is not a local issue, it’s an international one. But I’ll get back to that.
Life Imitates Art
Before the film festival, Mead and Minassian were contacted by Solomon A. Quick, a North Carolina Gang Reduction Specialist, after being led to the website. Mead and Minassian fly to Winston-Salem where they screen the film to the higher ups in the city and the police department, and lead a discussion about gangs during a conference. Quick says of the film, “Powerful… a Masterpiece.” They’ve garnered the support of police.
Mead explains that the goal of the film has been that it “plays in some city where somebody goes to see this film and it moves them, and that person is the Reverend Minassian of their city and can start a Hope Now in that city… No reason for it to be just in Fresno. It works.”
So how is this film affecting life? Well, it’s affected all of us who have worked on the film, regardless of religious orientation. Spending time with the munificent Minassian and his wife, with the exuberant Skin Mead, with former gang members working on the film, it really touches one. Mark Aro, Editor and Production Designer, said, “This film is from the eyes of a man who never saw gang kids as hopeless and for me this message goes beyond the borders of our town. It is relevant to every community in every city and in every country.” That’s why the cast and crew signed on.
There were many sacrifices given to make this film. This film brought out over 300 volunteers, a cast of over 700 including extras, a crew of over 100, donated food, materials and services, long hours spent away from families to accomplish something bigger than ourselves, and not necessarily tied into religious beliefs.
Mark Aro is a great example of how much can be sacrificed for the making of this film. He slept on floors, couches and chairs during pre-production and production, and the long process of post-production, about 2 1/2 years in all, and saw his family about 1 1/2 days a week, as they lived too far away for him to sleep there. He also juggled a full time job at a local television station. A very humble man and also a very talented man, the award will not go to his head, although he’s excited that it will get the film distributed, “The minute you start focusing on awards and praise is the very moment that you start to lose your purpose and self.”
This film has basically gone international and it’s not yet released. Chantha Kong, a former gang member who went through the Hope Now program and graduated, becoming a successful married man leading a normal life, was deported to Cambodia in November of 2010. He is a legal U.S. alien but committed a felony years ago and served his time, but it is current policy that if you were convicted of a felony, you will be deported. Even though he was born into the refugee camps in Thailand to Cambodian parents and has been in the U.S. since he was two, because he has a felony, he was deported with a few hundred dollars to his name. He is one among thousands across the country. He doesn’t know his ancestral language, he doesn’t have the proper paperwork to allow him to work there, and he physically is larger than the native population, so he really doesn’t fit in. He must wait 20 years before he can reenter the United States, a life sentence it is called by some.
Kong, joined by his Hispanic wife, Sharon, a U.S. Citizen, now live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A fundraising effort was created for the Kong couple, to get their paperwork in order and so on. Roger Feenstra has made two trips to visit them and met a missionary named Rob Cady, who has begun helping these men, who number about 200 in the Phnom Phen area alone. Cady and Feenstra were able to find him and his wife a place to live and, although his paperwork is still not cleared up, he volunteers at the Jesus School where he teaches English – he is artistic and draws out items to be studied while his wife creates the lesson plan. He teaches in the mornings and in the afternoons he and his wife attend language school. But many others haven’t yet found a niche.
Feenstra and Cady see the need here to help, just as Hope Now is helping young men in Fresno. They are planning a conference in November, to show the film and begin the process of assimilating these men into the local culture. They will bring one Hope Now street staff to teach classes and a pastor for spiritual instruction. They hope this will be a kick off for Hope Now Cambodia. There is nothing constructive for these young men to do since they do not speak the language, or don’t know it well enough, and most do not have the correct paperwork to seek work. Hope Now hopes that it can work with the government so that these men can become constructive members of society. One can live decently on about $300 per month in Cambodia.
So sometimes, art mirrors life, then life mirrors art.