At noon on Christmas Eve we embarked on a journey to raise $25,000 in 30 days for my new film Boys Become Men.
The film is a subject I’ve been passionate about for 15 years. It started with Hoop Dreams, and the questions that lived in my mind following that film – how are teen boys making it into adulthood these days? Who is there to actually support them along the way, 100% devoted to their well-being, as opposed to using them to serve their own interests?
That interest took a major leap forward in October 1995 when I experienced what I consider to be my own initiation into manhood – the New Warrior Training Adventure. That weekend workshop offered by the ManKind Project changed my life. For the first time as an adult man I had the vision, the tools, and the template for becoming the man I always wanted to be.
I began to study and ruminate on initiation and mentorship – how much I needed it growing up, how much all children need it. Those questions began to shape the screenplay I co-wrote with Steven Ivcich, the film I eventually made called The Unspoken. There was one “through-line,” one underlying question I had: “If it were possible to initiate a boy into manhood completely outside the realm of traditional culture, what would that look like?” Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible. But these are the kinds of questions artists like to ponder.
Then the Mathew Shepherd murder and the Columbine shootings occurred. The question wasn’t theoretical for me anymore; it had become dangerously literal. I felt I had to take a look at teen boys. I had to find what was going on with them. How bad is it for them to grow up in a culture devoid of initiation, barely cognizant of mentorship? How isolated and alone are they? How cut off from the fruits of initiation - that sense of connection to others, the awareness that life can be full of purpose and meaning?
What resulted was the TV mini-series Boys to Men? The answer, in short, is bad. Real bad. That series became one long statement about just how bad the situation for teen boys in this country actually is. But halfway through making it I realized I was attempting the impossible: I was trying to record an absence, a vacuum. How do I show something that is missing in someone’s life? It was then I knew I needed to tackle this subject one more time in a new film – this one about solutions.
So in 2002 I began working on the film that would become Boys Become Men. I read some more. Did more research. Met with wonderful youth advocates like Michael Meade and Louise Mahdi. I met Luis Rodriguez and Frank Blazquez, founder and director (respectively) of Youth Struggling for Survival – a Chicago based group assisting Latino and Asian teens on Vision Quests – working with Lakota elders on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to teach them the ancient ways.
I did some filming of Craig Glass in Colorado Springs doing marvelous work with teen boys and their fathers in a Christian weekend workshop called Passage to Manhood. He uses stories and parables from Jesus’ life to guide the youngsters through their transformation into mature men. I talked with Rabbi Goldie Milgram in Philadelphia who is reinvigorating Bar and Bat Mitzvah practice with true initiatory intent. There’s SWET, YMUW, there’s the secular Boys to Men weekend workshop, welcoming boys of all faiths and non-faiths, started in San Diego, now spreading around the world. There are Hawaiians keeping their native traditions alive, Buddhists, Muslims, and so many more.
We succeeded with our fundraising campaign. Now begins the next stage of work. It’s time to reconnect with these leaders, to see who’s still doing what. It’s also time to experience some of the inspiring new work being done by others.
The aim of the film is to highlight the best initiatory practices I can find, across all faiths and non-faiths. To film at least ten boys going through five different rites of passage. To film them no matter where they are in the country and no matter how long it takes to capture the transformative impact these rituals have on their lives. I estimate it will take about one year for each boy. A year of their lives in which month two or three they’ll experience their rite of passage. Then we’ll see the real work begin – translating that transformation into the everyday. That is where the rubber meets the road.
We’ll experience exactly when and how each boy’s primary conflict shifts. If drugs were his problem before his passage is he now resisting their lure? If he was irresponsible on the job or acting out with a girlfriend is he now being accountable and behaving with integrity? If he was misbehaving in school is he now getting along better with teachers and fellow students? Are his grades picking up? If he was shrinking from addressing a painful issue is he now stepping into his fear and asserting himself around adults? Perhaps most importantly, we will see if these boys can now tough out difficult situations without denying their feelings.
To film all this will take much more than $25,000. But we now have what we need to start. We will pick up the different cloths from these amazing rites of passage weavers and bind them into one story – the story of hope for future generations, for all the sons and daughters to come - that of realizing their greatest potential in this lifetime, of finding their deepest purpose and greatest fulfillment through service to each other and our mother Earth.