Seriously, how are we watching this?
It's a frustrating truth that sometimes the best stories are the hardest to access. But it's not often we're put in a place where we feel we're actually watching something that the filmmakers shouldn't have been allowed to film. In Group, the audience can't help but feel, for their own part, like they shouldn't be watching the footage placed before them. Access into a mandated group therapy session of convicted sexual abusers should be impossible right?
Well, somehow a group of students from Chapman University found themselves able to provide us with exactly that. As Vimeo describes, "with incredible access, perspective and a keen vérité style this documentary illuminates the pain and frustration of the most unlikely and some may say unworthy group of people. It allows a peek behind the door of physical abuse and attempts to show through therapy that there are no monsters, just flawed people, beliefs, and toxic culture that led down the wrong path."
Similar to the subject documented, the winning film is a collaborative effort co-directed by five filmmakers. All five were honored with the Vimeo Staff Pick Award this year at the New Orleans International Film Festival.
As a part of the prize package, Benjamin Allen, Claire Cai, Jack Mullinkosson, Haley Saunders, and Meghan Wells also received a premiere on Vimeo’s Staff Picks. No Film School spoke briefly with Jack Mullinkosson after his win at the New Orleans International Film Festival as part of our ongoing series exploring the benefits of having a simultaneous online and festival release.
No Film School: What was your inspiration for creating this film?
Jack Mullinkosson: We thought somebody who'd been abusive might see Group and realize they had the capacity to change. Dave (the therapist) says in the film; "We're not going to talk about Mom, we're not going to talk about ex-wife, because they're not here and I can't help them. I can only help you." Sometimes even if you're the one making a situation violent, you still see yourself as a victim of your circumstances.
NFS: Did you face any challenges when making this film?
Mullinkosson: One of the challenges was making a bunch of people sitting around a table exciting to watch. Haley Saunders, the co-cinematographer, brought unbelievable creativity and talent to the film, and she brought a dolly to the group’s meetings. Another challenge was access. Producers Ben Allen and Meghan Welles connected with the subjects and made them excited about what we were doing. That's something that really shows up in the footage.
One question we wondered about was the ethics of creating empathy for men who had been abusive. Some argue that those who commit acts of violence are beyond forgiveness. It’s hard to follow that logic though. What do you do with people who are beyond forgiveness? Demonize them? I’m not really in the business of demonization. I think you ought to try to understand people, especially those people who you want to change.
NFS: What is your best piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers?
Mullinkosson: I change my mind so much, I wouldn't recommend anybody take advice from me. I used to think the shampoo industry was a scam, because when I stopped using shampoo my dandruff went away. But now my dandruff is back, so I don't know what to think.
NFS: What’s the value of displaying your film at a festival versus releasing online?
Mullinkosson: The internet's not such a bad place for a movie. It means more people get to see it, but it also kind of turns the movie into a dream. On the internet, you teleport everywhere, all the time, and once you arrive you have no idea how you got there. In that way, it’s like a dream.
I saw a shrimp in Indonesia whose body looked like a soap bubble, like it was translucent, except you could see some of its organs inside it like you could see its brain through its body. A second later, I’m watching a Young Thug music video. I was dreaming, but I was awake. Group is now a part of that same dream, that someone else will have. Sometimes, I dream that I’m browsing the internet while I’m asleep. That’s a dream within a dream, a double dream. Double dreams are very powerful. You should be careful about what you put in other people’s double dreams.
NFS: What does the Staff Pick Award mean to you?
Mullinkosson: It means a lot to us that Vimeo believed in a film like this. It also means that more people will see Dave's work, and hopefully it will inspire them. Not every Batterer's Intervention Program has such a motivated and compassionate therapist leading the sessions, and it excites me to think about how much of a difference he can make.
NFS: What’s next? Any upcoming projects?
Mullinkosson: We made Group for a class at Chapman University, Ben Allen and I are juniors now at Chapman and are taking the class again. We're about to launch into production on another short doc together, under the mentorship of Sally Rubin and with funding from the Dhont Family Foundation. Haley Saunders is killing the freelance cinematography game in LA. Meghan Wells' film Drawn From Life just played South Asian Film Festival in Seattle. Claire Cai is directing documentaries in LA. Her film Spraying Under the Stars about graffiti artists just played at Chagrin Documentary Film Festival.