Friends & Neighbors In The Heartland

“What’s it feel like to crack open your sternum,” Neighborhood Archivist, Friend and Q&A Moderator, Tim Lybarger asked. “And share the intimate details of your life on a movie screen?”

Just a few years years ago, I didn’t know that 70% of Americans experience trauma in their lifetime, or that it has a major impact on one’s physiology and psychology. When I was diagnosed with PTSD in August 2021, I certainly couldn’t imagine talking about it out loud.

But when, in January 2022, my friend and neighbor, Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride, reminded me that “When we’re vulnerable ourselves, we give others permission to be vulnerable too,” I flashed back to Fred Rogers 1967 Senate Testimony.

“If we can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable,” he said, “We will have done a great service for mental health.”

In April 2022, I began shooting Friends & Neighbors.

Like Mister Rogers & Me (and Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary, Roger & Me, which inspired my approach), Friends & Neighbors takes a first person POV.

I am the proxy for the audience, exploring and interrogating my own life to understand the forces that impact our mental and physical well being. And thought there are a dozen characters in the film – doctors, psychologists, policymakers – it’s my cadaver, as it were, on the operating table. And, to be fair, my family’s.

Chris and I locked picture two weeks prior to our Heartland Film Festival premiere. It is the film I set out to make. I’m proud of it.

Still, as I flew toward Indianapolis, I thought, “What am I doing!?!” And as the lights dimmed on the theatre, my heart raced in my chest. Until that moment, I’d only seen the film on a 40″ television. This was a 40-foot movie screen.

It’s not an easy film, or a fun one. But it addresses real things that so, so many of us experience: loss, grief, conflict, challenge. And those “Helpers” (as Fred called them) provide real, practical solutions to self-regulate ourselves, safely feel our feelings, and be more present in our own lives.

Spoiler: It ends well.

That said, I was pretty sure the theatre would clear the moment the credits rolled. To a person, though, everyone stayed to ask thoughtful questions and share personal stories.

“I’m so sorry,” one family friend said. “I had no idea.”

“I don’t think any of us have any idea what goes on behind our neighbors’ front door,” I replied.

“You’re all brave for doing this,” another said.

“Thank you,” I replied.

As the plane lifted off the tarmac, my body felt lighter. Difficult as it was, something was left up there on that screen. And in sharing, my chest felt fuller, bolstered by our shared experience.

And I felt grateful to the Heartland staff, my pal Tim, and all of the family, friends and neighbors who helped fund our film, and came out to see and celebrate this challenging and ultimately uplifting story about overcoming the adversity that we all face.

What’s next? Revisions. Additional festival submissions. Finding a distribution partner. And developing a release strategy so as many people can benefit as possible.

Because when you look for the helpers, you know that there’s hope.

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