5 Life-Changers from SXSW and 1 From Sundance

By Macky Alston

Just back from Texas. The weather was as cold and weird there as it was in my snow-swept hometown of New York when I returned. Clearly, the world is coming to an end. Before it does, I have some gifts for you – some that may even help you prevent the looming apocalypse.

  1. The Work: Every once in a blue moon, you see a film that changes the way you understand life. The Work, a documentary that follows a four-day group therapy session at Folsom Prison attended by men on the inside and the outside of the prison walls, changed my understanding of what it means to be a man, what it means to be human, and revealed the full humanity of incarcerated people in all their giftedness in a way that I have never seen before on film (including my own that I made for PBS back in 2007). I don’t want to talk about it anymore. See the movie. Then please – we have to talk. To put it plainly, this is one of the best films I have ever seen and if we get it out into the world, I think it can save a lot of lives.
  2. Van Jones: In a room of at least 1000 people, mostly privates in this moment’s #LoveArmy, Van read to us, his base, the riot act. He said that, while Trump is worse than he could ever have predicted – much worse, he has come to discover as he has traveled the country for his new show #TheMessyTruth that the people who voted for Trump are, for the most part, humans who are hurting. We on the left, according to Van, ignore their hollering at the peril of our movements, but also at the peril of our integrity as people who say we care about humans who hurt. Here is a ten-minute bit of his talk, but watch for its release in April in its full glory. To my mind, no one mixes humor, kitchen-table talk, political analysis, cultural critique, and love of all God’s unruly children better than Van. Maybe I am wrong, but when he does his thing, I feel it. The room was silent except for abrupt eruptions of laughter as people stared the uncomfortable truth of themselves in the face until the sermon was over, at which point Van received the only standing ovation I saw at SXSW and it was loud and it was long.
  3. Design Thinking, courageous conversations and the $1,000,000 prize for good: Design thinking is all the rage. At Auburn, where I work, it has changed the way we gather leaders of faith and moral courage to imagine how we can actually heal and repair the world. Two winsome young employees of IDEO, a consulting company that helps organizations integrate design thinking into their work, gave a talk at SXSW on how to have conversations with diverse groups of people, including folks in serious disagreement, in the face of today’s wicked challenges. What was the answer? Proceed with respect. Be curious.Tell stories. I know, it’s not rocket science, but you have to admit it isn’t that easy either. We at Auburn are testing different methodologies right now to help people build relationship across all kinds of difference. If you know of a “courageous conversations” workshop or framework that you would bet your life on, write me. I’ll give you ten bucks and do my darnedest to bring it to scale. If your budget requires a little more than that for the ways you hope to change the world, the IDEO duo is offering a $1,000,000 prize for the brightest idea to make the world a better place. I say we all go for it. Knowing the folks I have met in the multifaith movements for justice, we have no shortage of life-saving programs and who couldn’t use a cool million to take it up a notch.
  4. The Red Bull Amaphiko Academy: And so, to invest the million dollars you just received from IDEO in scaling your big idea, you might consider the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy, an annual academy for social entrepreneurs from all over the world supported by Ashoka and Red Bull, yes – that high octane fuel that may kill you, but will get you through the night. For the first time, they are gathering changemakers in the U.S. this year – August 11-20th in Baltimore. Deadline to apply is April 30th. Can you imagine what it would be like to hang out with the biggest dreamers on earth drinking Red Bull for 9 days straight? Come on. We got to see that, right?
  5. Pulaski: Now you want to feel something? Need a little cry? Watch this for 6 minutes. This Andrew Bird video is one stop on the campaign Jason Rzepka and his organization Everytown created to reduce gun violence in America. I loved the panel on which the video’s director Natalie Morales, Amy Schumer’s co-writer Daniel Powell, and others discussed how big entertainment can partner with social change agents to address some of the most intractable problems of our time. It is time to capture the public imagination, wake us all up to the need to save lives and save our democracy, and its collaborations like these with the artists and activists of our time that give me hope.

There was more. The intimate documentary portrait of Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastic community. The laugh-out-loud panel on the Secret Life of Muslims. The innovative visual storytelling at Huffington Post that’s changing the way we read the news. The way livestreaming is changing the way we watch the news.

And then there’s one film I just can’t get out of my head from this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

  1. The Last Men in Aleppo documents a handful of everyday heroes who have chosen not to flee the city under siege, but instead to commit their lives to salvaging bodies, some with life still in them, some not, from the bombs dropped indiscriminately from above from God knows who and God knows where. Never again will I see faceless others when I read the news about Syria or some of these other countries whose refugees we are trying to ban from our shores. The average Joes of Last Men in Aleppo are just doing what they can to help. They are so relatable – like my Uncle Charlie, my brother-in-law John, praying to Allah as they navigate cars on fire in a sticky spot of traffic, just as I mutter prayers to deliver me from turbulence 30,000 feet up in the air or a taxi suddenly reckless.

God help us get out of the mess we are in.

Don’t you remember being told: God helps those who help themselves?

So help yourselves to these gifts. Let us use them to feel, to awaken, to create, to organize like we never have before, and to find our way together to the world for which we all long.

Macky Alston is a filmmaker and Senior Vice President at Auburn

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