November 20th, 2016
Erahm Christopher. Filmmaker, difference maker, mentor, and friend. I have been doing work on and off with Erahm for the last 8 years. The films he creates are inspiring, moving, powerful, and they're something viewers talk about days, weeks, even months after seeing them. I was more than happy to interview him, and am looking forward to seeing his latest film, LISTEN!
Where are you from?
I'm from Linden, California, which is a small farming community 150 miles east of San Francisco. The population of my hometown is less than 2500 people; it doesn't even have a stop light.
What made you want to get into filmmaking?
So many reasons. First, I was drawn to film because of its incredible power to require a viewer to simultaneously focus with their eyes, ears, heart and mind. I believe this is what “listening” truly is. A powerful film has the ability to shift a person’s perspective and even change their behavior. I feel a film experience is also a community experience. It brings people together and creates a connection between the audience and the characters and story. It also forms a hidden bond between the viewers themselves. No matter how different you might seem on the outside, a film has the ability to make us all feel on the inside. It is a beautiful experience and when the audience has an opportunity to discuss the film it amplifies the impact by bridging social divides that often prevent us from connecting otherwise. I also love the fact that film art is widely distributed, therefore the reach and power is only restricted by the exposure of the film itself.
What inspired you to create the film, LISTEN?
What inspired me was every single youth that I have been fortunate enough to listen to over the last 16 years while working in schools and communities. The Columbine tragedy first pushed me to give youth a voice. When the media covered the event, I realized no one was asking the youth, “why?” I decided to interview youth wherever I could find them and I discovered that no matter how different they felt they were from each other, they all kept stating "nobody really listens to us”. I created a student-shot documentary series that I evolved into a company that delivered live assembly experiences for schools. I ended up speaking to nearly 1 million people around the globe and continued to hear from youth “no one listens to me”. I began writing notes for LISTEN while I was on the road working with the youth. I would keep a journal with stories I heard and ideas for issues I felt the youth were most concerned about. Through the process I realized that when a youth would say “no one really listens to me” he or she was not saying that they were not hearing him or her, but rather “no one pays attention to how he or she felt”. At the core, when you truly listen, you start to connect and develop empathy. I think it's important to create empathy in order to develop understanding. I wanted to write a story about youth so more youth would feel less angry, less frustrated and less alone. I ended up with a journal full of notes that I adapted into a first draft of the script after staying in a hotel in Montreal for four days.
I am going to go on a little rant now…I learned something while working with youth for 16 years. I was approaching the challenge all wrong. Originally, I felt I had to talk about bullying, substance abuse, body image, family and parenting separately. I felt that I skipped the real issue that connected all of the issues to everyone: mental health. Mental health was not being addressed and I still feel today we sometimes address it in a way that further alienates those who struggle with it. We constantly use “stigma” and mental health in the same sentence and I believe it makes people more uncomfortable with the conversation. Our mental health is just as important as our physical health and we need to make it okay to discuss the difficult topics (suicide, eating disorders, self-harm, addiction etc.). All of these issues are connected to mental illness that evolve from poor mental health. If you talk about them separately someone will always say "that's not me" but if you target mental health as a whole it relates to everyone. The fact that we all are at risk for poor mental health makes how we feel a shared concern. My biggest inspiration for writing LISTEN was making sure youth felt a new understanding for each other and overall a feeling that they all feel the same way.
What is LISTEN about?
Many who see the film describe LISTEN as the film CRASH with a focus on youth. The story is about a group of conflicted youths and adults struggling for personal connections that are united by self destruction, tragedy and redemption. In the middle of this perfect storm one man stands up to the violence and despair. Humbled by his own shortcomings and desperate to keep these kids from falling apart, the high school counselor struggles with a lack of support from the administration and zero respect from the students who need him.
What are your goals with regard to this film?
The main goal is to have it seen by as many youths and adults as possible in order to help bridge the social divide between them. I hope the film can help the audience understand each other and also have the audience realize how important it is to connect with one another in a positive manner. The film highlights how often we miss moments to truly “listen” to others. Specifically, I mean “pay attention”. We are so consumed by our own lives that we often miss vital moments to connect to others who are broken, frustrated or alone. Missing a moment can cause a domino effect of chaos, tragedy and sorrow. I want the movie to haunt the viewers. I want it to motivate viewers to think more about their impact on others with the hope of preventing future tragedies from happening. It only takes a moment to realize we all feel this way.
How has the response been for the film?
I'm going to share a story. A high school in New Brunswick invited me to come share LISTEN during our "It Only Takes a Moment" community event. When I arrived at the school the Vice Principal asked me to come in his office to discuss an issue. We really want to illustrate the positive impact of the film so we collect pre- and post-screening data using surveys at all of our school screenings. After the students had completed the pre-screening survey several teachers noticed that students had marked “STRONGLY AGREE” with the statement “I HAVE SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED ATTEMPTING SUICIDE.”
Specifically, over 10 students wrote that, and several had written their name on the survey EVEN THOUGH they were instructed not to write down their name. Several teachers were shaken by the responses from the students and were now afraid to show the film given its powerful content. Some teachers even wanted to cancel the event. The VP, Principal and school counsellor were all in the office with me and were all expressing their concerns.
I told them that I understood their concerns and reminded them that the reason I made LISTEN and the reason we created the "It Only Takes a Moment" community screenings was to give youth a voice and have a courageous conversation about mental health. I stated that I was glad that the students indicated their honest thoughts because NOW the school was aware that the subject was on their minds and they needed to talk about it. I also highlighted the fact that the students who wrote their names were asking for specific help. The VP, Principal and counselor all agreed with my thoughts and said they wanted to move forward with the screening.
We went ahead with the screening and the response was incredibly powerful. The discussion following the film was phenomenal and overwhelmingly positive. The first question I asked was, “HOW MANY OF YOU ARE HAPPY YOU WERE ABLE TO SEE THIS FILM?”. 100% of the students lifted their hands. I then asked, “HOW MANY OF YOU BELIEVE MORE YOUTH SHOULD SEE THIS FILM?” Again, 100% of the students lifted their hands.
Before we finished the conversation, I told the students that I often face "push back" from adults who are afraid of showing LISTEN to students. I told them how some adults had even cancelled screenings in the past because they felt the film was too heavy. I then asked the students what they would say to adults who feel the film might be too inappropriate for youth. A girl in the front row raised her hand and then simply stated, “THE TRUTH HURTS. ADULTS NEED TO REALIZE THAT WHAT THE FILM ILLUSTRATES IS THE REALITY WE ARE LIVING AND IT IS TIME TO LISTEN TO HOW WE TRULY FEEL SO THEY WILL FINALLY UNDERSTAND AND PAY ATTENTION SO FUTURE TRAGEDIES DO NOT HAPPEN.”
I just received post-screening survey responses today and at first glance I can tell you that the film made the students not feel alone and realize the importance of how they need to pay more attention to how they are impacting others.
How difficult is it to make a movie?
When you don't have a lot of money it's one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced. When you have limited funds you have to rely on the support from others who believe in your artistic vision and everything the film stands for. I am incredibly fortunate to have a supportive wife, family, a steadfast producing partner, an all-star crew, and dedicated, talented cast. We shot the film in and around my hometown so the local businesses and members of the community were champions. I am incredibly grateful for everyone who helped bring LISTEN to life. Like raising a child…it takes a small village to make a film.
What's your greatest fear?
Fucking Vampires. I hate those things. My other fear would be, not making my daughters proud. I want to make it worth it to them. But yeah, vampires too.
Do you believe your work makes a difference in people's lives?
Yes, absolutely, I know it for a fact. It's what keeps me going. I'm not saying that to be pretentious or egotistical. I've got a note from a girl that was going to commit suicide and after seeing my film didn't. I used to believe that I made a difference, but now I know I do. I need to know I make a difference otherwise there'd be no reason to keep doing what I am doing. My positive impact on others is what matters most. I believe it should matter to everyone. The good instinct in each of us is the beautiful part that makes us human. Using my art to awaken the good instinct in others is what keeps me moving forward.
Do you think bullying will ever go away?
No. It's a negative part of human nature that will never go away. People can become more empathetic and the incidents can be reduced. Others can become more resilient and the hurt can be lessened. But overall the urge to make someone feel bad will never go away as long as people continue to feel bad about their own self.
What's the best piece of advice you have for people?
Don't hesitate, and always find the good.
Where can people see and get information about your film, LISTEN?
We currently have over 20 screenings across North America and we are adding more each week. If you visit the website you can see where the screenings will be, and can email. If you're interested in hosting the film for free as a community event. You must hold a 35-45 minute courageous conversation after the film. We're only doing that until the end of the school year, and then it will be a limited theatrical release. You can pre-oder the film on our website or follow @listenthemovie and @erahm_chris on Twitter. If you're intersted in my other work you can visit www.ec-films.com as well.