Why I ditched New York City to make movies in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
By David B. Godin
“Why I’m Proud to be Mayor of America’s Refugee Capital” - read a headline on my social media feed during November of 2017. I was living in New York City working as a commercial film director at the time, and Facebook scrolling helped ease the tension of being jam-packed on a NYC Subway during the 6pm rush hour. What stood out about this particular post was an image of Amish children that accompanied the headline. “Refugee Capital with a picture of Amish children?” A bit perplexed, I inquisitively clicked on the link and realized it was written by the outgoing Mayor of Lancaster City, Pennsylvania — J. Richard Gray. Lancaster, Pennsylvania just happened to be my hometown.
As I read the article, l learned that Lancaster accepts more refugees per capita than anywhere else in the entire United States Of America. I also learned that Lancaster County has historically been a place where diverse communities and individuals have been able to flee to escape religious & political persecution, hatred, and bigotry. I knew a little bit about of the latter statement, but not the magnitude of the former. As I read the remainder of the article I felt an evolving surge of pride, enthusiasm, and genuine excitement. “This is incredible” I thought to myself, “I need to go home and see what’s going on for myself.”
So I did.
I was in my late-twenties at the time, and had the major itch to start developing my first feature film. Narrative feature or documentary, I wasn’t quite sure yet. Without any particular film concepts or ideas calling to me, I decided to contact Church World Services — the largest refugee resettlement agency in the county. They graciously created a list of current and former refugees who would be willing to speak with me. In a matter of a few days, I conducted about ten total interviews with current and former refugees in the Lancaster area. The individuals willing to meet with me happened to all be male, varied in age, and were from places like: Bhutan, Cuba, Iraq, Nepal, Somalia, and South Sudan to name a view. To be brutally honest, these interviews were a psychological gut punch for me – the unspeakable tragedies and heartbreaks these people had experienced were almost hard to believe. Yet, one word kept coming to my mind to explain each of these individuals I was interviewing – grace. Pure, sincere, utter human grace.
But it was not just the individual grace of these particular refugees’ personalities, it was the grace that they had received from the locals upon coming to Lancaster – I saw an abundance of love and gratitude in their eyes towards the individuals who were instrumental in treating them so well and making Lancaster feel like home.
I decided to stay in Lancaster at least another week, which gave me ample space to reflect upon what these local refugees had shared with me. This additional week or ten days also allowed me to explore a Lancaster County that was rapidly growing, and to spend quality time with my parents and ponder all the memories of growing up in the area. Something happened to me in those ten days, a psychological shift of some kind, where I not only re-remembered the beauty of growing up in Lancaster, but I was able to see this place through a fresh lens – and I could not get enough of it.
No matter where you stand politically, the last few years have been emotionally draining, to say the least. Hope is something I think all Americans can agree is something we want and believe in. What I saw during those ten days back home in Lancaster in 2017, and what I was so proud of and inspired by, is that Lancaster is not “anywhere USA” — Lancaster is not a passive place with dispassionate people – just the opposite. Lancaster is proud to be welcoming, multicultural, artistic, entrepreneurial, educated, philanthropic, and is willing to hear all sides for the betterment of the common good. Honestly, Lancaster is a microcosm of how America can work. Lancaster embodies Hope.
Another powerful illumination I had during that trip was the realization that a mark of a great city or place is the degree to which one can experience the depths of the world without ever leaving its physical boundaries.
That is precisely how I feel about my childhood and upbringing in Lancaster, PA. It was in Lancaster County that I befriended Zambian musicians at a church camp when I was ten years old. It was in Lancaster County that I experienced some of the worlds’ greatest stories at the Fulton Theatre. It was in Lancaster County that I experienced the privilege of attending Franklin & Marshall College — where I brushed shoulders with some of the brightest students, faculty, and administrators from the around the globe. It was in Lancaster County that I was profoundly fortunate to be brought up by two amazing, worldly human beings who supported my dream of being a filmmaker. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
For me, before I moved to New York City, there was a real sense of wanting to get out of Lancaster – a sentiment I shared with so many other fellow Americans who were young and eager to get out of their hometowns to explore the world. I think it is great to expand one’s horizons nationally or internationally and perhaps live somewhere else for a while. Is it necessary? That is hard to answer – But I can say this. As a young filmmaker, I felt the overwhelming attitude, and it is pervasive nationwide, that in order to “succeed” as a filmmaker that one must traditionally move to New York City or Los Angeles – because that is where the “industry” is. But it is not unlike the great romantic seduction of “the other” being the answer to your life’s woes. I want to make clear that there is much to admire about New York City and Los Angeles. For me, I cannot overstate the love and respect I have for New York City and the close friends I have made there.
However, after this all-encompassing trip to Lancaster in 2017, I realized that living in New York City, which I was at the time, or going to Los Angeles – was not going to make me a better filmmaker – a better artist – it would only take me closer to being the filmmaker that traded potential “growth” in the industry, for the introspective journey of finding my voice. In a way, I came to believe that it’s almost an obligatory rite of initiation to go home physically and psychologically to find one’s truth as an artist. As one of my favorite filmmakers Robert Bresson says, “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” Barry Jenkins went home to Miami to make Moonlight, Greta Gerwig went home to Sacramento to make Lady Bird, and Matt Porterfield continues to bring higher profile acting talent to his hometown of Baltimore to make his beautiful cinematic works. Not to mention Mary Haverstick, a superbly talented local Lancaster filmmaker who has made many of her films in the area.
On top of that, Lancaster already has a great arts community, a great filmmaking community, and its soon to be first major film festival (Red Rose Film Festival) - courtesy of a dear friend, Ryan Shank.
So to all you Lancaster-based filmmakers out there – and I’m saying this as much to me as I am to anyone reading — please do not ever feel like you need to go to the epicenters of the movie-making world for the sense of “making it.” Lancaster can be whatever you want it be – YOU be the epicenter of your film work – bring the people to you. There is such a richness of stories that can and will be told in this amazing place – embrace it, cherish it, and go kick some ass. I cannot wait to meet all of you and make films alongside you in this awesome place we call home.
As of November 2018, I am proud to say that I moved back to Lancaster with my wife & creative partner, Rasha J. Clark, and our two young sons. We are so proud and excited to announce that we are just weeks away from launching a comprehensive crowdfunding campaign for our first feature film, entitled Creek Don’t Rise, which will be made entirely in Lancaster County, PA. The film, a blend of fictional narrative and documentary filmmaking, features local Lancaster refugees and residents portraying versions of themselves.
So what’s the film about?
A former South Sudanese refugee living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, befriends a local woman with manic disorder. One entrenched in community, the other deeply isolated, they each cope with being restricted from seeing their nearby children.
So where are we in the process of making the film?
Glad you asked! Our current goal is to begin production of the film in early fall 2019. However, we have to fund the film first. As stated earlier, we are a little over a month away from launching a comprehensive crowdfunding campaign for the project, where we will be seeking donations from the public - like you! In return for your gracious donations, you’ll get all kinds of cool stuff such as: Associate/Executive Producer credits, potential roles in the film, behind the scenes look at the making of the film, and a whole lot of other cool stuff!
How can you stay updated on our progress and about or crowdfunding campaign?
If you are interested in staying up to date about Creek Don’t Rise, please like our Facebook page, follow us on Instagram @autopilotofffilms, and continue to read our blog about at the project here: www.autopilotoff.tv/creekdontrise
You can also contact us here: email@example.com
-David B. Godin
Film Director & Co-Founder of Autopilot:Off