They say storytellers should write what they know. I have done this throughout my life, no more so than in my latest film, “Pearl.” Fate and irony inspired me to write a story that is deeply personal in a way I never imagined.
Many years ago, I met Gunter Wallraff, an undercover journalist who was a master of disguise. He told me, “I play roles to discover who I am.”
In “Pearl,” I began writing a story rooted in the greatest tragedy of my life and discovered it was actually a beautiful love story.
One night, I left my office in an excited state. I was on my way to pick up my wife. We were having dinner at a friend’s house with a famous movie star who was one of my favorite actors, so my mood was buoyant. As I climbed into the driver’s seat of my car my phone rang. It was my wife; “Pull over,” she said. I replied, “What’s wrong?” She said again, “Pull over.” Her voice frightened me. I said, “I’m parked.” She said, “Your sister’s been shot.”
My brother-in-law was suffering from depression. Less than two weeks prior my sister found him passed out from an overdose of pills. She called the paramedics who came and saved his life. He went to a mental hospital where within 10 days his doctor pronounced him fit to go home. My sister insisted he was not ready, but the hospital released him the next day.
It was Sunday. Monday morning, he walked into a sporting goods store and purchased a shotgun. Tuesday morning, after their kids left for school, my brother-in-law shot and killed my sister and then turned the gun on himself.
Their youngest child returned home from school and found the bodies.
An unending gun violence epidemic
What followed was a nightmare that too many people in this country have faced; the loss of their loved one, the destruction of their family and the fear of what will happen to the children left behind.
How will the community handle this? How will your elderly parents handle this? But most importantly, how will you handle this?
This tragic event happened 32 years ago, but it could have happened yesterday. In the United States, we have an unending epidemic of gun violence, fostered by ineffective or non-existent laws, a pro-gun lobby that profits mightily from the sales of weapons and a destructive sense of frontier justice that permeates our society.
In making “Pearl,” I wasn’t interested in making a political piece about gun laws and the NRA. I wanted to explore how people heal from unimaginable tragedy and how, through the kindness of others, they can find love again and imagine a future.
I can’t begin to estimate how many gun-related killings have occurred since 1988. I do know that it has not abated, and I imagine it will keep happening despite the “thoughts and prayers” of an apologetic community. I felt my job as a filmmaker was to try and really reach people about the depth of the toll gun violence took on those left behind with the hope that people would look for answers beyond politics.
Only a matter of time: Gilroy shooting victim attended my school. Soon, we’ll all have a connection to violence.
So, this argument rages on, and neither side seems able to convince the other of the rightness of their respective cause. But maybe through art — through cinema, my chosen field — we can start to change the conversation.
Art can prepare people for change
“Pearl” isn’t about my sister, though I thought of her every day during the filming. “Pearl” is about the love between two disparate souls, a childless man and a “motherless child” who manage to make order from the chaos.
If it reminds people of the preciousness of life and the alternatives to anger and distrust … well, I think that’s a story worth telling.
Had my brother-in-law not had a gun, I believe my sister would be alive today. He was not a violent man. He was not a bad man. He simply was a sick and angry man with a gun.
Not inevitable: A heart-stopping school shooting ad: No child should have to text last words to mom.
Just the other day I read a great quote from the French Impressionist, Edgar Degas, who said, “Art is not what you see but what you make others see.”
Gun violence is systemic the way racism is systemic. No film will change this. But I do believe that art has the power to prepare people psychologically for change and that is what I wish for the viewers of my film. We must prioritize life.
Bobby Roth has more than 150 film and television directing, writing and/or producing credits to his name. His latest feature, “Pearl,” was released Aug. 11 on digital and on demand platforms.