As We Are: A Transformative Demonstration of Empathy
The screening of a short film by a small student production team last fall at a small, transformed theater in the small Maine town of Porter showed huge power to touch and transform its audience.
“I was moved by the portrayal of desperation, confusion, and compassion in the film that explores the complexities of substance misuse,” said Brendan Schauffler, after seeing As We Are at the 142-year-old Kezar Falls Theater. “I was connected with the characters through a simple but evocative narrative that had me in tears.”
The screening and interactive community conversation that followed offered an opportunity to bring together the community, the filmmakers and others intimately connected with the film, and providers of support for people struggling with substance use disorder.
The discussion was led by Silas Hagerty, who has restored and given the theater new life, as the home for Smooth Feather Youth, a non-profit that has been supporting creative kids and their adventurous spirits and projects since 2017.
Silas purchased the theater from his hometown in 2011. Since then, he and his team of friends have transformed it with each new performance and experience. The theater serves as a sacred space for their youth programs: Smooth Feather Film School and an adventure program called Smooth Feather Excursions.
As We Are was written and directed by 17-year-old Tyler Muise, a typically happy-go-lucky kid who said he wanted to create something that would have an impact on his community.
In under 15 minutes, it tells the story of high schooler Johnny, who is going through something difficult that is never explicitly explained – the film excels through subtlety. But those who struggle with substances recognize themselves in the character.
There’s a desperation about Johnny. He has turned to selling drugs and breaking into houses of friends and neighbors. When Johnny is caught and cornered, we feel his panic. When his clearly intoxicated father calls and a friend tries to extend their hand, we feel Johnny’s pain. In a powerful last scene, we feel his self-loathing. As We Are definitely gives the audience an opportunity to exercise empathy.
Many of the panelists and audience members who spoke during the post-film discussion have been impacted by substance misuse, either themselves or by friends, family and neighbors, and said they saw themselves and loved ones in the film and were brought to tears by the stark portrayal of addiction.
Members of the panel included Tyler and members from the film’s cast; along with Nicole, a woman in recovery.
Nicole endured a long road within her addiction and welcomed back all that she lost with gratitude. What she had to say during the discussion about recovery and enduring stigma was moving: “Judgment is what keeps addicts sick,” she said, noting that name-calling, stigmas and false black-and-white thinking made her feel lower and lower, kept her trapped and kept a community believing it was her choice, not an illness.
Nicole and other audience members said they related to the self-loathing evident in Johnny – a loathing compounded by outside assumptions, lack of support, and lack of compassion from many sides.
As We Are works to demonstrate a different approach to substance use disorder and tries to encourage meeting that self-loathing of the addict with communal love and support. One way the film does this is by introducing Johnny to us through his schoolmates.
Evan plays the single-minded judgmental voice who criticizes Johnny and his behavior, and Eli plays the open heart, the open mind – the empathic voice who tries to understand the “bad” behavior and wants to help.
During the panel discussion, Evan said his role initially made him uneasy. He didn’t feel comfortable shaming Johnny. But he came to recognize the importance of playing the antagonist who echoes so many of the old ideas of choice and character that used to go round and round in the dialogue of addiction. His character’s closed-mindedness let Eli present the opposite in clear contrast. Eli plays Cameron with softness and strength.
“I couldn’t help but notice this character my child plays and embodies the kind, forgiving, empathetic soul that Eli is in real life,” said Nicole, about the performance. “As We Are made me feel human.”
Two other impactful members of the discussion panel were Matt Duka and Glenn Gordon, who are both in active recovery. Matt is a recovery coach for the Larry Labonte Recovery Center in Rumford, and Glenn works as an Outreach Clinician at Oxford County Mental Health Services and is the Oxford County OPTIONS liaison.
Matt primarily works with youth as an alternative to institutional punishment, such as suspension or juvenile centers. He offers free Narcan lessons to anyone interested, either through a program or passing him and his booth on the street. He believes in ending the stigma of addiction through education.
Glenn follows up with folks who have overdosed and who have substance use issues. He knows, through his own experience as well as his work, what drugs like opiates do to the brain and day-to-day existence – how they rewire and ruin so many primary functions and numb the rest.
“The most important resource is community,” Glenn said, emphasizing that treating people with trust and respect, being brave and willing to really see and honor others and their struggles, is what helps people on the path of recovery, and in general. This was something many community members spoke up about, those in recovery as well as those with experience in trying to support those in active addiction.
The audience included people who have been in recovery for decades, proud family members, other filmmakers and artists, worried parents, and community members untouched by addiction but touched by the film and its story.
One young mother expressed gratitude for the nuance the film offered. Instead of black and white and good guy versus bad guy, As We Are provides depth and complexity, emphasizing the importance of staying curious and open about others’ actions and where they’re coming from.
An older mother in the audience spoke of her son, who is in active addiction and “refuses help.” He was living in her shed at the time while she raised his son. Before the viewing, this mother said she was repeating the old story – she would say about her son: “It’s a choice that he’s made, and these are the consequences that he faces.”
After watching As We Are, and the discussion that followed, her mind had changed: “I want to thank you for bringing light to me and reminding me that that’s still my baby,” she said. “That … he still needs us.”
It is the willingness to understand that the film and its creators emphasize. The extraordinary community discussion and outpouring of support that followed the screening at the beautiful Kezar Falls Theater has discussion buzzing about repeating the experience in other Maine communities.
After all, said Nicole, “Compassion can heal the whole world.”