by Frank Turrisi
I’m a big fan of films that do more than entertain. Just like in good writing, I love a film that can bring more awareness to human conditions that require deeper understanding. You know, awaken that greater sense of consciousness to a place where when I step out of the theater, I can feel more than just guilty for eating a large bucket of popcorn with extra butter, but where I can actually go back into the world with a richer connection to all life around me. So, when I heard about the Awareness Film Festival, one that bills themselves on all of the above and more (without judging you on your concessions of choice), I had to go Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live to catch the last four films in the closing-day line-up.
The sold-out crowd that filled all of the seats in Theater 13 were not the makings of the typical Hollywood scene. Of course, it wouldn’t be a film festival in this town if you didn’t find some of your “above-the-line” types, but overwhelmingly, this audience felt more...“real”. Not your ones to overdress, put on the biggest smile you’ve ever seen and ask you “what do you do” within the first ten seconds of meeting you, only to instantly vanish when they realize slipping you their headshot or script won’t get them anywhere. No, not at all - this crowd was definitely more present than that. More relaxed. No offense to you Hollywood-types, but I would even go as far to say…trustworthy. Equipped with more emotional intelligence and less flashy wardrobes, these are your “salt of the earth” people. The kind of demographic that enjoys spending $15 on a Sunday afternoon to watch 3 short films; one about becoming a midwife to help instill new purpose in her own life after developing a disease that takes away her greatest pleasure, another about Binge-eating Disorder, and the last about learning not to blame yourself for a loved-one’s suicide, with all three shorts serving as prelude to a feature documentary about…stuttering?
Let’s face it, you’re probably not going woo your average studio-exec by pitching any of these subjects. In this fest, there will be no over-reliance on sexy content that tries too hard to make some Paramount suit’s eyeballs look like dollar-signs spinning on an old-school Vegas slot machine. Ah, ah, aaaah…wake-up people! We’re here for awareness! You’re not going to sway this audience with the usual entertainment rhetoric. However, upon entrance, everyone is handed a ballot to vote in their favorite movie of the day, with the highest tally of points to determine the prestigious Audience Award. The ballot is a 1-4 rating system - lowest=worst, highest=best.
Each of these films demonstrated their merits in the form of delivering the oft dreaded by pop-culture “important message”. All of the films screened also managed to champion their causes quite clearly. However, the true skill as a filmmaker comes through when you can tackle these delicate subjects and get that heartfelt response without being too heavy-handed or preachy. Bear this in mind, as I had to dock points from 3 of the four films on this basis alone. Only one of the films on my ballot was able to garner the perfect score of 4. So, I went ahead and cast my vote with all due respect to the passionate, inspiring filmmakers and say a little, silent good luck prayer for them all. I watch the volunteers collect the ballots, and though I feel very strongly about my choice, I remain curious to see how my views will shape up to that of this “real” audience.
Well, wait no more. The results are in! We knew there would be no entertainment spin-doctors or slick-talking “creatives” to influence this audience. Conversely, and quite literally the opposite, the hearts and minds of this audience would instead go out to the real-life suffering, stammering subjects that make up the heartwarming feature documentary….wait for it! And…the Audience Award goes to (drumroll please)….When I Stutter.
In case you’re wondering, When I Stutter also won my vote. I want to preface this by saying I’m not usually swayed by the popular opinion, and in fairness to all of the filmmakers, brought my most critical eye in assessing my vote. That being said, debut filmmaker John Gomez won me over with all sixty-seven minutes of his expert handling of subject matter in stuttering that could really fall flat on its face with the wrong auteur. I hate to even think it, but I could easily see how a heavy-handed or preachy tone with this material might form more fodder for a topic that is already the butt of too many mean jokes. However, Gomez manages to succeed by offering dignified portrayals of all of the movie’s diverse participants. We’re talking an interesting, and yes, I’ll use the word entertaining cast of characters, from your candid, punk teenager to your fifty-something rebel biker/construction worker. Throw a Caltech professor, a young mother of four, professional dancer, and the boisterous front man of a hard-rock band in the mix and you begin to scratch the surface of how the film uniquely depicts there is no discrimination when it comes to the lives stuttering affects.
The film wins the audience over in a variety of ways. There are animated interludes with historical reference and scientific theories that analyze the phenomena of stuttering a la Disney educational flicks. There is the cinematic capture of several leading speech pathologists working in their field, and the stories of how their impassioned efforts are fueled by their own personal battles to overcome stuttering. There are several powerful scenes where you watch the most impeded subjects fighting for their life, and then hear these same people later open up to tell you the many not-so-obvious ways stuttering has devastated them. Throw in some good old-fashioned cinematography of L.A. locations, plenty of humor, and a twist at the end (SPOILER ALERT) where the eloquent narrator reveals he too had to overcome his stutter, and you will see how this film continues to rack up awards as it gains momentum on the festival circuit.
What makes all of these efforts special, however, is the ability of Gomez to stick to a tight narration that seamlessly turns stuttering into the perfect vehicle to portray that obstacle standing in the way of dreams in all of our lives. The film takes you across themes of romance, social isolation, career aspirations, and how life is worth fighting for, as you watch hopes of self-expression become fulfilled, and become inspired by the notion that we can overcome just about anything we put our minds to. When I Stutter makes its painful subject matter approachable with Gomez pure portrayal of people from all walks of life engaging in their fight for self-respect. In the end, When I Stutter, is a story about the perseverance of the human spirit, and Gomez tells this story with incredible conviction and heart.
When I Stutter definitely did more than entertain. It sheds light on a condition that affects more than 70 million people worldwide with a clarity and color we find in the most precious diamonds. Perhaps it is Gomez's professional work as a speech pathologist that allows him to tell this story with such impact, or perhaps he truly possesses a quality that warrants namesake of his company Keen Eye Productions. In any case, it is a damn good piece of filmmaking. If you know anyone that stutters, and we all do, this film is a must-see (especially for them). Maybe, when they do, they will sing the film’s praises. They should, because one of the many things I learned from the film is there is only one sure way known to overcome stuttering, and that is...no joke...singing!
(For more information, please visit http://www.whenistutter.org/)