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'Give a Damn?' filmmakers hope to illuminate and engage

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 22, 2010 - Dan Parris has made it his calling to try to get by in life on not much more than pennies. With two compatriots, the 26-year-old St. Louisan has hitchhiked halfway across America on $1.25 a day. He is nearing completion of a documentary film intended to motivate others, particularly his generation, to do something about extreme poverty.

In trying to spread his message, Dan Parris nearly died in a plane crash in Nairobi, Kenya, last summer.

Yet seemingly without a trace of false modesty, he says, “I don't think there is anything special about me. I actually think I have a smaller heart (than other people). I just needed more to break it.”

When Parris' heart does break is when he sees people elsewhere, particularly in Africa, lack clean water, endure disease, starve.

He and his partner/friends -- Rob Lehr and David and Tim Peterka (assisted in Africa by guide and translator Tony Mungai) -- are a frantic six weeks from finishing their film, tentatively titled “Give a Damn?” They then will submit it to the Sundance Film Festival board. Among 3,000 films submitted annually, 100 are accepted. “Chances are low, but it's doable,” Parris says.

The young Missouri filmmakers' goal is less to try to match Al Gore's Oscar success on climate change than to raise social consciousness, showing how it even can be fun. The plight of Africa, Parris says, probably will comprise about 15 minutes of the film. “It's not like 'Let's show poor people.' The theme will be 'what keeps young people in America from trying to make a difference'.”

Parris, who lives in Tower Grove, says he long ago stopped being preachy or judgmental about some in his generation's ambivalence about the less fortunate.

“So many documentaries say, 'Here's the issue.' And it's boring. It doesn't feel like you can connect with it. There was a time when I felt like 'Why aren't people doing more. Why are we spending $4 on a cappuccino?' But that didn't last very long. People do care, but don't feel empowered.”

He wants viewers to think of his crew this way: “These guys were goofy, random; they made activism fun. You don't have to be this tree-hugging hippie kind of thing. You don't even have to move to Africa.”

Parris and Lehr returned to St. Louis after a plane crash while the Peterka brothers stayed in Africa for 3 and a half months, returning with approximately 150 hours of footage.

“You break it down to an hour and a half to two hours. Then maybe down to an hour with adding voice-over, animation and more interviews.” Still to be done, he says, are working with film school colleague Ian Perry of L.A., composer of the original music; mixing the sound; color correction; titles and graphics.

The best and worst aspect of the project, Parris says, “is that we have so much good stuff -- us sleeping in abandoned buildings, us sleeping in cornfields, sleeping in parks. We've interviewed people from the United Nations on sex trafficking in Africa. We want to be like the Indians to the buffalo and use every bit of it.”

The project and half of the team nearly went down in flames. Literally. On Aug. 1, 2009, on his second trip to Kenya (the first a church trip in 2005), Parris was flying in a small plane with Lehr, pilot Frank Toews and flight mechanic Ryan Williams. The plane hit a wire, then a high rise. Toews and Williams were killed.

Saying he feels he is about 95 percent recovered, Parris still suffers from a compression fracture in his back. Unable to eat normally for several months, he lost 45 pounds.

It does not surprise Parris that the plane crash has gotten nearly as much attention as the film and its mission.

“I feel like it's human nature. If you look at Hollywood films, there are plane crashes in them. The plane crash will be about 10 minutes (in the film). We may try to hook them in the beginning.”

The filmmakers want to use the crash as a life lesson. “We'll build the idea that to make it worth it, to make a difference, you're going to run into problems. You might even experience pain. This is what it takes to make a difference, and it (might) take away your whole life. But the final argument is that we wouldn't live any other way.”

Parris is realistic about life after “Give a Damn?”

“If it's successful, it can give me a chance to make passionate films. I have ideas for other feature films. Next probably would be one on Christian martyrdom.” If not, he says, he'll make a living working on weddings and promotional and corporate videos. 

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Whether or not “Give a Damn?” takes off at Sundance or through another vehicle, the film will be used as an educational tool. Parris envisions an eight-disc set to be shown at schools and churches. He's in the early stages of starting his own non-profit.

Speak Up Productions, Parris says, has raised approximately $37,000 of the $40,000 now budgeted for completion. “The original budget was 130 grand, but it got smaller and smaller.”

Huge for the endeavor would be the film finishing in the top 10 in the Pepsi Refresh challenge, a fundraiser for worthy causes. A top 10 finish -- decided by the voting public -- would mean $50,000 for Speak Up. “If we can get in the top 10, we'll have raised more money than in three years,” Parris says. “Maybe we'd even get paid; maybe others would. This would revolutionize our project.” (“Give a Damn?” is in 33rd place as of Aug. 16)

Those who want to vote (or otherwise contribute) can do so online once a day .

Parris minces no words that there have been artistic differences and disagreements along the way.

“Just because David and I are Christians, we argue a lot, too.

Rob at times was difficult. I couldn't work with him if he didn't care so much about friendship -- what kept us together was that we were all friends. Our whole idea was not to do missionary work but really to reach the people who don't care, who don't give a damn.”

He wants others to know that they can tell important stories on a shoestring budget. “With a laptop and a camera, you can work wonders these days. The power of the story is way more important than the technology.” And despite the gravity of the topics and social ills that so move Dan Parris and his comrades, he stresses that contributing to one's fellow man can be joyful.

“We,” he says, “want to appeal to the jackass/YouTube generation.”

In the saga that is "Give a Damn?," Rob Lehr is, in more ways than one, the wild card. Older than his colleagues, he's arguably more settled, having a girlfriend, a house that he's remodeling and a fulltime job. Even more significantly, unlike his devout Christian colleagues, Lehr is an unapologetic atheist.

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It's that contrast in philosophies that drives the film's narrative.

"I am 100 percent atheist," says Lehr. "I used to be in the church. ... I had a falling out and left. When (lead filmmaker) Dan Parris asked me to work on the film and the idea started to get fleshed out, I told him, 'I want nothing to do about Christianity saving the world. You don't need to be giving people Jesus. I think it's the complete wrong way. I am not a fan of missionary work'."

There were other considerations, though, that compelled Lehr to buy in. Such as respect for Dan Parris' filmmaking talent and their friendship.

"I am really impressed with the footage we have," says Lehr, soon to turn 28 and living in Springfield, Mo., where he works as a sales rep for Scotts Miracle-Gro. He holds a business degree from Missouri State University.

Every two to three weeks Lehr travels to St. Louis to oversee the footage and help mold the story line. "I am basically a film producer, helping with finishing touches. Dan is doing the majority of the work."

Lehr is blunt about his initial reservations about the project and the stress that has gone into its near-completion.

"It did get personal," he says of disagreements during the journey. "There was conflict. We argued pretty much the whole way. David (Peterka) was always of the mentality, do the risky. I was of the mentality, it's fine doing risky things, but let's think of an exit reality."

Lehr imagined worst case scenarios - "being robbed or stabbed. ... But all the things I calculated and worried about did not happen." He could not have envisioned something worse: a deadly plane crash on Aug. 1, 2009.

"We made a couple of passes; the engines slowed a little, we started to descend. I didn't know what was going on. I still had my camera out and thought, this is some really good footage. (The plane) hit power lines, swung us into a building and flipped upside down. We don't know it, but I personally do believe the pilot (Frank Toews) saved our lives." Lehr says he remains haunted by the vision of flight mechanic Ryan Williams burning to death.

"I had stitches in my head, a bunch of burns, but nothing life threatening. The injuries I suffered were mental, of trying to save Ryan. The image of him pretty much burning alive stayed with me for a long time."

On the highway recently, Lehr says, "I saw a burning car on the back of a trailer, flames coming out everywhere. Just seeing those flames brought me right back to it. I am not done with it completely."

Recovering from those injuries further sealed Rob and Dan's friendship. "After the plane crash, everything changed a lot. I had some real rough months. We've been through so much together. For the first two years of the movie it was, will it get made? Will we get the money? Then the plane crash happened and it was, How will we finish this? Our recoveries were pretty much intertwined. I (felt) I would not be fully better until Dan's recovered. But Dan has recovered, and I was so worried about that for so long.

"It was terrible that it happened. Everything I do is dedicated to them (the pilot and mechanic). I would trade everything I have to have them back. And I had met them for three minutes."

Lehr is realistic in his expectations for "Give a Damn?"

"The absolute perfect situation is that it gets sold to HBO. My ultimate pipe dream is that it has a mainstream or sub-mainstream release. Ultimately, I'd like to see it on a big screen. But it's small scale. I just want people to see it. I will feel like we will have succeeded when we sit down in a movie theater with friends and family to see it."

Should the film be accepted by Sundance, Lehr already has decided on his travel plans to Utah. "I have no intention of ever flying again. I plan to take Amtrak to Sundance."

Rob Lehr, avowed atheist that he is, is not without his own contemplative side regarding a higher order.

"If those guys are religious about Jesus, I am religious about ducks. To sum up my life, my goal is to kill as many ducks as possible. I love eating ducks, mounting ducks. If you haven't been on that duck blind at 5:45 in the morning when those whistling things bomb in there ... well there is something spiritual about that."

Three things quickly united David Peterka and Dan Parris, says Peterka, assistant producer and cinematographer for "Give a Damn?"

First, ultimate Frisbee. Second, "sitting in cars talking about girls," remembers Parris. Later and more substantively, mutually seeing the documentary "Invisible Children."

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That film about the child soldiers of northern Uganda, says Peterka, 23, a soccer-playing junior at St. Louis Christian College, "was a milestone. We didn't know that much about major injustice in the world."

Peterka met Parris when the latter was a youth group intern at Chesterfield Presbyterian Church. They went their separate ways - Peterka to MidAmerican Nazarene in Kansas City and Parris to study film at Biola University in Los Angeles. The bond, though, had been formed.

When Parris returned to St. Louis from Biola, he had a vision: To make a documentary about two young men - one an altruistic Christian, the other an "agnostic atheist" (his friend Rob Lehr) that would illustrate what could or could not be done about extreme poverty from across the United States to Europe and finally to Africa.

Despite some not inconsiderable reservations from his parents, Peterka signed on for the Africa trip. To everyone's surprise, so did David's older brother Tim.

At first, David Peterka says, his role was to be behind the scenes, "kind of like a grip," but that evolved. Still, he's the third man, not the star. As he explains, the crew saw that "Dan and I were similar in our views (regarding religion and charity), so we decided that Dan and Rob would be the two main characters."

That dynamic works, Peterka says, because "Rob is on the opposite side of things; he rarely wanted to do anything. He was super-paranoid. He thought the whole time he was going to die. And if he did, it would be David's fault." Peterka says, with a smile in his voice, that he has no idea why he would be blamed.

Rob came close to being right. On Aug. 1, 2009, a small Cessna carrying Rob and Dan along with the pilot and flight mechanic crashed in Nairobi, Kenya. Parris and Lehr -- who were injured -- returned home, but the Peterka brothers soldiered on for three and a half more months shooting film and interviewing African citizens and officials.

The African experience, Peterka says, "flipped my world."

"Obviously you think, through TV, that you will see total helplessness and despair, mud structures, people having nothing. (I thought) I'm going to come back really depressed. But just being there with the people and the joy they have, the level of contentedness, the way they interact with family, the way they are community-connected baffled me.

"Growing up in America, you think we have all of the answers. Everybody wants to live like us in the world. It's an ethno-centric mindset. It flipped my world upside down because of how individualistic we are, how we isolate ourselves and how consumeristic we are."

The young filmmakers are adamant, though, that their movie will not be grim or hectoring. They had fun on their journey, and it comes through in the film: Such as the time they found themselves with an uncharacteristic contribution of approximately $4,200 in cash - all in $100 bills.

"I'm not sure I've ever seen that much money and in one place," says Peterka. "I thought, 'Let's lay in the ground with it, swim in it, bathe in it. I thought it would be fun to have clothes made of it."

The gag escalated into Peterka using tape to stitch himself - wearing no other clothes - entirely in bills and surprising Parris when he walked through a door. "You know how when guys get together and have an idea, it always progresses," Peterka says, still laughing at the memory.

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"Give a Damn?" is merely the beginning of Peterka's commitment to work for the oppressed around the world, beyond Africa. In January, he started a nonprofit organization called If the Saints that will work to build a safe haven for girls forced into prostitution in Malawi. He wants to start a seminary in which Africa and American missionaries trade places.

"I want a multiple country operation. I'd like to rescue girls from sexual exploitation in southeast Asia, India, Nepal."

The humanitarian spirit caught brother Tim who now works with "The shoeman," George Hutchings, a St. Louis County pastor and minister who runs Shoeman.org . The ministry rounds up old shoes, recycles them for resale and uses the money to dig fresh water wells in Haiti and elsewhere.

One thing Speak Up Productions will not do, Peterka says, is to "use guilt to help the poor. We show us having a blast ... people can be motivated by joy. (Helping the poor) won't be a burden to them, but something they can come alive doing."

He is adamant about preserving the memory of the two men who died for the cause. "They had eight kids between them. They were just stellar guys, running ministries and orphanages. We don't want their lives to be in vain. Instead of just succeeding for our own benefit, there is a benefit for others to see, justice in these men giving up their lives. We want to make them proud of us."

St. Louisan Dan Parris and his partners and friends -- Rob Lehr and David and Tim Peterka -- are a frantic six weeks away from finishing their film, tentatively titled "Give a Damn?" They then will submit it to the Sundance Film Festival board.

They know that Sundance is the big prize and that their chances to screen it there are slim. But they believe that their movie about extreme poverty can make a difference wherever it is shown, from mainline theaters to church basements.

The group got more publicity than they could have planned for -- and in a way they never would have wanted -- when two of them were in a plane crash in Kenya that took the lives of the pilot and flight mechanic.

We talked with three of the principal players (Tim Peterka stayed behind the camera and out of the spotlight), and over the next few days will spotlight each in turn. First we talked basics and background with Parris about the movie, which was his idea, and the partnership.

INFLUENCES AND THE ORIGINAL PREMISE: The definition, according to one world economic organization, of "extreme poverty" is having to live on $1.25 a day. It's estimated that 1.4 billion people around the world do so.

"Our first thought was to try to live on $1 a day for a few days," says Dan Parris. "But then we met with somebody and they said, 'You have to do it EVERY day." Also, Parris says, the group was influenced by the documentary "Super Size Me," in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock strives to survive solely on McDonald's food for 30 days.

THE ROAD TO AFRICA: Parris and colleagues David Peterka and Rob Lehr began hitchhiking from downtown St. Louis on July 6, 2009, arriving in New York eight days later. "We wouldn't have made it except for scoring a ride from Kentucky (to Washington, D.C.) from my great-uncle Jerry who was there at a fishing lure convention. Some stuff, you can't make up."

GUIDELINES: "We definitely did not give up what we already had," says Parris, "backpacks and nice shoes." He says he took approximately $600 in cash and ended up spending most of it on (visas) and trains in Europe.

THE SACRIFICES: To keep to their self-imposed guidelines "we sometimes had to turn down meals in Europe. People would say, 'Hey, food here.' But we said, 'No, we can't.' That was difficult. We didn't know if we were disrespecting people because we were staying in their houses."

SLEEPING ACCOMMODATIONS: "We slept in parks in Venice. In sheds. We slept on a cliff in a giant rainstorm in Dover. In Canterbury we slept at the house of a St. Louis community college professor who had taught the course 'The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.' He had to sneak us in."

"We couch-surfed for three days in Geneva. We slept in a shed in a little farm, but the woman kicked us out. The place was covered in snails and we were going to cook them. We did dumpster diving, gleaned food from the corners of farms and made soup."

LASTING IMAGES: "I just see David and Rob, mostly Rob, hot, PO'd and angry. I just imagine us all looking hot, tired and frustrated with another."

MISSED MOST DURING THE HIKE: "I remember missing my girlfriend, Kristen, a lot. I think I missed my other friends because I was around those guys so much. I remember thinking, I want to be around other people so I can complain about those guys." (He says the group Twittered three to five times daily, sometimes asking for help, and at one point had nearly 1,000 followers.)

HOW DAN PARRIS SURPRISED HIMSELF: "I was surprised I could do it. We make our bodies the master when we don't realize we are the masters of our bodies. I generally ate one meal a day, maybe a peanut butter ball (made with oats) or two. I even went without eating for a couple of days. It's incredible how you can have self-control and overcome your desires."

LIFE LESSONS LEARNED: "Practical things are not as hard as the relational things. It was harder to get along with each other than not to eat. It took more work to get through our problems together than not eating. It brought us closer and further away at the same time.

"We saw the graciousness in people, that if you put a need in front of people, and, generally, if you get a couple of minutes with them and tell your story, they want to help.

"Oh, and it sucks being hungry and not getting what you want."

PARTING THOUGHT: "The United Nations has set this goal that we could eliminate extreme poverty by 2025. I have had this feeling that hopefully ('Give a Damn?') will be a big factor. That's the motivation. Even when we didn't feel like it, we knew we were doing some important."

Paul Povse is a freelance journalist. 

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