From the Eyes of the Abused
Given the high-profile sexual abuse scandal that's stained the Catholic Church, it's no surprise that it's the subject of numerous narrative features and documentaries. These films approach the subject in some now-familiar ways. There are those that focus on the brutality of the abuse, sometimes veering toward the lurid. The ghost of shame and secrecy drives others. And still others offer a revenge fantasy, wherein the abused boys (or girls), grown into adults, confront their abusers to seek (or mete out) justice. Ya'Ke Smith's Wolf starts with a similar premise but differs from its predecessors in several significant ways.
First, it features the Stevenses, a working-class, African-American family. A nondenominational Pentecostal church is at the center of the family's spiritual life. Their home is not a showplace, but it's comfortable. Wife and mother Nona (Mikala Gibson) is finishing college while her husband, Jaymund (Shelton Jolivette), works as a truck driver. Their teenage son Carl (Jordan Cooper) is shy and sullen like many teenage boys his age, but when it comes time to attend church with his mother, he does so without complaint. Familiar and comforting routines shape their days. When Carl's secret of abuse is revealed, the Stevenses are understandably destabilized. But instead of revisiting the well-worn territory of similarly themed films, Wolf turns its attention to the conflicting emotions that come when a young person discovers sexual intimacy and desire at too young an age. Candid without being sensational, Wolf manages to strike harsh notes with astonishing grace.
"I had to show the worst of the worst, and unfortunately, sometimes the abused grows so accustomed to his or her abuse that they desire the affections of their abuser. That's real," Smith said in a telephone interview from his office at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Smith is a San Antonio native who began making films while he was a student at Sam Houston High. He received his MFA in filmmaking at the University of Texas at Austin and is now an assistant professor of film in the Department of Art and Art History at UT-Arlington. He's written, directed, and produced five critically recognized shorts, earning a Director's Guild of America Student Film Award, a regional Student Academy Award, and an HBO Short Film Award. His shorts have screened at film festivals all over the world, including the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, where his multi-award-winning short "Katrina's Son" screened in 2011.
While Smith has approached difficult subject matter in prior films, Wolf is his first full-length feature. "I was struck by the subject," he said. "I've seen a lot of documentaries and narratives about sexual abuse, but not from this vantage point." Smith's research included visiting online chat rooms where anonymous adult male survivors of sexual abuse shared their stories.
"A lot of people are suffering. Many of them said they'd not told anyone what had happened to them outside the chat room. Many blamed themselves for their abuse because they did get aroused, and [they] experienced a huge void when their abuser left them," Smith said. "There are a lot of things that could have been filmed for shock value, but I was focused on the emotional impact on the boy, the family, and the pastor."
While the anonymity of the chat rooms made for deeply frank and emotional testimonials, Smith was further moved when he began a funding campaign for Wolf on Indiegogo. "I started to have people contact me on Facebook and tell me their story, thankful that the film was being made, grateful to have their story told."
If Wolf can get the subject of child sexual abuse at the hands of clergy talked about more openly, Smith is all for it. What he's not out to do is make a film that condemns the church.
"I'm a church boy. I grew up in the church. This is not a film about how the church is bad. It's saying that as long as these things are covered up, no one is going to be healed."
Wolf, Emerging Visions, Friday, March 16, 4:30pm, Stateside