When I meet director Jake Mahaffy, he is just over a day away from winning the Venice Horizons Best Film prize at the 72nd Venice Film Festival. Having worked in film for over a decade and having presented his work at Sundance, Venice, and SXSW in the past years, he returns to the festival with the first film he produced with a full crew.
Free in Deed tells the story of a single mother who, after battling with the health system to try and help her autistic child, resorts to religion and faith healings to free him of his afflictions, with tragic results.
It took you twelve years to start production on Free In Deed. How did you decide to tell the story and what motivated you to stick to it?
I had my first picture at Sundance Film Festival and Michelle Satter, who runs the feature film programme, asked if I had any other project in development. I said yes, and I didn’t. So I came across this news story and made a screenplay for it, and after a few drafts I got into the Directors Lab.
[The project] was always moving along, but just not quite done, and time just goes by. [I did it] just because it stuck with me so long. It was growing up with me as I was living and it just became part of my life. I never thought about why: I just thought it was a dramatic situation.
You come from a very religious family. Did you put anything you experienced in the film and had you ever witnessed any faith healing before?
Of course, that’s what I know. The whole thing with the toys being from the Devil and that sort of thing, that’s from experience. It’s not particular scenes or dialogue, it’s just an understanding of the mental structures that allow for this kind of belief, this magical thinking.
These faith healings are done quite a lot, where people just put their hands up and pray for any kind of deliverance from afflictions. It’s really common; it’s people that oftentimes don’t have any other resources and rely on that kind of magical approach to solve problems.
How did you research the scenes of the faith healings?
There’s no research, it’s just what I know. The people, because they are from the church, they would just say what they would say. I would say “heal this person”, and they would do it, or “pray to God”, and they would. The only person who had never been to church was the main actor, David Harewood, and he attended some [functions].
The film is shot in a real church in Memphis with the actual congregation taking part in the scenes. How do you think seeing this story being told affected them? Do you think it changed their view on religion?
No. People are aware that this kind of things happen. That’s a whole point: it’s a mental construct, it’s not optional. It’s what a person believes, and then whatever happens fits into that scheme.
I don’t care what people believe or think, what matters to me is how people behave and what they do to other people. There’s plenty of people who have political belief: it’s a way of perceiving the world, and whatever they see is going to fit into that scheme.
They tell themselves a story; in this case it’s a religious story, and it’s a way of contextualizing their experience in some sort of epic narrative. If anything, for the people who appear in the film, it was a validation of their beliefs because it’s an authentic representation of their worship, whatever it is they do, and that’s rare enough in film. I knew I was responsible for authentically representing that without any kind of agenda and that’s what they did.
Your film withholds any opinion about its subject and what they did. Do you think there is a line a filmmaker shouldn’t cross when telling a story?
There’s no reason to make a movie unless you respect your subject or character. It’s about uncovering humanity wherever it is, whatever the circumstances. I would fail completely as a filmmaker if I wasn’t allowing for some subtlety and complexity and sympathy, even if I don’t agree with the things they do or think. I think human beings have to be respected, but ideas don’t have to be respected.
You teach at the University of Auckland (NZ). What is the most important think you can teach your students?
A sense of shame. I can’t teach that actually, but it’s important that you are aware of your limitations and have a sense of responsibility towards what you make, and that is what is going to motivate the filmmaker. A lot of students figure that because they enjoy it it must be worthwhile, but that’s not the case.
I don’t see filmmaking as any kind of privileged activity, because anyone does it with their phones, it’s just a form of communication that’s accessible. The idea of being a filmmaker because you’re special is misguided. You have to have some sort of personal reason to do it. If you don’t have a sense of shame you don’t know what’s right or wrong.
Name: Marta Corato
Interview with Jake Mahaffy
Director of "Free in Deed"
Venice Film Festival 2015