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Now in our eighth calendar year!
PCR #396 (Vol. 8, No. 43) This edition is for the week of October 22--28, 2007.

The ScreamFest '07 Experience  by Chris Woods
Halloweenapalooza: The Halloween Horror Picture Show '07  by C. A. Passinault
"Dan In Real Life"  by Mike Smith
Halloween & Horrors Overload - 4 Big Events Over One Weekend  by Andy Lalino
Documenting Living Saints  by Paul Guzzo
Screamfest 2007  by ED Tucker
Last Week .... The Gang's All Here .... And? .... Where's The Treat? .... .... .... .... .... Whatever Happened To--? Chapter 31: Charles Durning - Next Week!  by Mike Smith
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Filmlook by Paul Guzzo

Documenting Living Saints

His resume indicates he makes films, but his films indicate that he does much more. Gerard Straub creates windows to worlds many people don't want to acknowledge exist.

George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese - these men are simply filmmakers, men who create fantasy worlds that take viewers away from the harsh realities of life. Straub does the exact opposite. He wants to pull his viewers away from their fantasy worlds and show them the true harsh realities of life. He wants to remove the brick walls so many people place in front of themselves in order to obstruct their view of the world and replace the walls with windows, windows showing images that are both disturbing and uplifting, images that are real.

Images of dirt, heat cracked streets lined with bleached brick homes stacked one on top of another, lacing the tiny foothill of third world countries. Images of children in need of kidney transplants who live in countries where kidney transplants are nothing more than a pipedream. Images of families in the United States, the richest country in the world, who live in broken down cars and in back alleys. Images of men and women who leave their families behind to come to the United States in search of the American Dream, only to be greeted by the American nightmare of poverty. Images of people whose hands, arms, legs and faces have been eaten away by the unspeakably loathsome disease of leprosy.

On paper, these images are mere letters, words and sentences strung together, rarely capable of stirring the type of emotions they deserve. But on film, these images can make you cry, look into your soul and force you to reconsider your own existence, and make you look at the plight of the poor you encounter on a daily basis in a whole new light.

This is the power Gerard Straub possesses.

"That is the power of film," Straub said. "Today we live in a world that has become visual. We have shorter attention spans than ever before. Film has the power to convey more that a thought; it conveys an image. When a camera captures a truly emotional moment, you can't help but to respond.

"In the renaissance times great artists would speak to the theologians and paint beautiful frescoes. The poor couldn't read, but they could learn of faith and God through these frescoes. Film is the modern day frescoes. You can read all you want about the harsh and bitter reality of extreme poverty, but until you see it you'll never understand how terrible it really is."

In January 2002, Straub founded the San Damiano Foundation, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to bringing the plight of the world's impoverished people and those who dedicate their lives to helping the poor to the world through film documentaries. Straub has made seven documentaries in all, five under his foundation, but it's a recent film he made on a Tampa native, Dr. Tony Lazzara, that has had the greatest impact on his own life. According to Straub, the film, The Patients of a Saint, documents Dr. Lazzara, who once worked in the high-tech world of a university hospital, but 22 years ago felt compelled to abandon everything and enter the harsh world of extreme poverty and weakness. Turning his back on his career and home in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Tony Lazzara landed in Lima, Peru in 1983 with few possessions and no knowledge of the language and founded a home, Villa la Paz, which provides medical assistance to the poorest and most desperate of children. Today 50 kids live in the home, and they suffer from an array of illnesses, everything ranging from tuberculosis, cerebral palsy, leukemia, chronic diarrhea and malnutrition to cleft palates and missing or deformed limbs. Dr. Tony absorbs all costs. All housing, food, education, medical treatment and medication are offered for free while a child is under his care.

Straub considers this film to be his greatest, as he captured images so disturbing and heartbreaking it's impossible to make it through even the first 30 minutes of the 115 minute film without choking up. "The film is simply amazing," said Straub.

Almost as amazing is how Straub and Dr. Lazzara seemed destined to one day meet.

Straub learned of Tampa's amazing doctor through a magazine article and immediately knew he had to document this saintly man. He tracked down his phone number in Peru and not only happened to call during the only time of the day in which Dr. Lazzara could answer the phone, but at a time when Dr. Lazzara was actually reading one of Straub's books, When Did I See You Hungry?, a photographic and textual meditation on the plight of the poor.

"I thought to myself, 'This is impossible,' especially because I barely sold any copies of that book," laughed Straub. "But he was serious. He even read me a section of the book about my experience with the poor in India and told me how a similar experience in India is what changed his life and opened his eyes to the plight of the poor."

The two men stayed in contact for the next year while Straub finished post production on another film. Straub continually promised Dr. Lazzara he would fly to Peru the first opportunity he had and begin the film, but in December 2004 his foundation was $20,000 in debt. Not only did it look as though the film on Dr. Lazzara would never be made, it looked as though the San Damiano Foundation wouldn't see 2005.

Some may say it was luck, others fate. Regardless, soon after pondering the future of his foundation, a senior producer at NBC Dateline saw Straub's film Endless Exodus, which documents the plight of the undocumented migrant in America, and was so moved by the film that he called a friend who was an editor at the New York Times. On Christmas Day 2004, the New York Times Arts Section ran a cover story on Straub. Within a week, Straub received $21,000 in donations from all over the country. He paid off all the foundation's debts, bought a plane ticket to Peru and with $300 in his pocket and only a few changes of clothes and his digital camera in tow, met Dr. Tony Lazzara and began his documentary.

Straub spent 15 days with Dr. Lazzara, documenting the hopeless plight of many of the children had when they arrived at Dr. Lazzara's home and the sense of hope they found soon after.

"I knew absolutely nothing about Dr. Tony when I arrived except the few things I read about him," said Straub. "But when I arrived at his home and saw 50 sick kids I was just overwhelmed by the suffering. There were a dozen kids crying at all time. I had no where to sleep, so I just slept on a couch and all night long would hear crying. It took a while to get past all that and begin to see the amazing beauty in Dr. Tony's house and all the love he has created.

"Dr. Tony is the most amazing man I have ever met. To know what kind of life he gave up in the United States to dedicate his life to the suffering children of Peru is humbling."

If anyone can relate to the life of Dr. Lazzara, it is Straub. Though he himself would say he should never be compared to Dr. Lazzara, considering Dr. Lazzara helps the poor while he simply films it, the two men do have similar backgrounds in the respect that Straub also gave up a lavish and extravagant lifestyle to dedicate his life to helping the poor.

Born in New York, the now 58 year old Straub was introduced to the world of entertainment at the young age of 17. His cousin lived next door to a CBS executive and worked summers for the Ed Sullivan show as a ticket representative. When the Beatles were slated for the show, Straub's cousin was overwhelmed with ticket requests and needed assistance. Straub was hired for a four week stint, which turned into a 20+ year career.

"It was the Ed Sullivan Show!" exclaimed Straub. "There were live animal acts and huge celebrities on the show every night. It was so exciting. It took me all of a day to figure out that this was where I wanted to be."

In the 1960s, television was a new medium. Universities had yet to incorporate communications majors, so the television trade was learned from the inside. Straub was entered in CBS' executive training program and before he was 21 was a CBS executive. In time, he found a niche in the daytime world of soap operas, serving as an ABC associate producer for General Hospital, an NBC executive producer of The Doctors, and, finally, as an ABC supervising producer for Capitol. He left CBS in 1978 to join the Christian Broadcasting Network, but returned to CBS just two and one-half years later. As the years went on, though, he became continually disenfranchised with his career, constantly thinking, "Who is watching this crap?"

"I had power and prestige and worked with celebrities on a daily basis. I gave Alec Baldwin his first acting job and worked with Demi Moore and Terri Hatcher when they first broke into the business. It's an exciting world. But after a while I got tired of producing the crap that they wanted," he said. "I was producing soap operas and we would do anything for ratings. If the ratings were low we would throw another hot babe in the hot tub. There is only so much of that a man can do. I felt I was an artist, but they weren't interested in art. We were just making filler to keep the commercials from bumping into each other. I wanted to do more. I wanted to do something serious."

He left the television industry to pursue other interests, most specifically a desire to learn more about his own spirituality and he began penning a novel, The Canvas of the Soul, which was about a man obsessed with connection between creation and spirituality. Characters in the book included St. Francis of Assisi, who represented spirituality, and Vincent van Gogh, who represented creativity. He worked on the book for a few years, but it was going nowhere. Distraught with writer's block, he decided he would have to return to network television or starve. Before he did, though, he would make one last desperate attempt to break his writer's block by traveling to Italy and France, where St. Francis and van Gogh once lived respectively, hoping the trip would inspire him. It was while looking for inspiration on St. Francis that his life would change forever.

While in Rome, Straub found himself sitting in an empty church, not to pray but simply to rest after a long day of walking, when he opened a prayer book to Psalm 63:

God, you are my God, I am seeking you,
my soul is thirsting for you,
my flesh is longing for you,
a land parched, weary and waterless;
I long to gaze on you in the Sanctuary,
and to see your power and glory.

Your love is better than life itself,
my lips will recite your praise;
all my life I will bless you,
in your name lift up my hands;
my soul will feast most richly,
on my lips a song of joy, in my mouth praise.

"I read those words and felt God's existence," he said. "That's all I can say."

Following a three-hour period of prayer and reconciliation with a Franciscan priest a few days later, Straub went to confession, received the Eucharist at Mass for the first time in a decade and decided to dedicate his time to learning all he could about St. Francis, his new spiritual guide. He abandoned his book to begin a new one, "The Sun and Moon Over Assisi: A Personal Encounter with Francis and Clare" He penned the book over the next five years during annual stays at the Collegio Sant' Isidoro while he taught seminars on writing and documentary film making at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

While writing the book, Straub said he still didn't fully understand the plight of the poor and St. Francis' dedication to them, though. Around 1996, a Franciscan friar suggested that spending time at a St. Francis soup kitchen in Philadelphia may help Straub to better understand St. Francis. It did. Soon after arriving at the soup kitchen Straub saw the plight of the poor man with a fresh set of eyes.

"When I was much younger and working as a network television executive, I viewed poverty no differently than anyone else," he remembered. "I labeled homeless people as drug addicts and lazy. The truth is, most of them have such miserable lives that the drugs are how they deaden the pain of that life. They still need understanding and compassion. Labeling them in a negative way is a mechanism people use to shift the blame, to eliminate their responsibility."

Straub called a few friends from Good Morning America and they got to work on a documentary on the soup kitchen, We Have a Table for Four Ready. It was completed in 1997 and shown on PBS stations throughout the United States. In time, many who watched the film began donating funds to the soup kitchen, allowing the friars to build a bigger kitchen and feed more people.

His book, The Sun and Moon Over Assisi, was published in 2000 and was named the best spirituality hardcover book of the year by The Catholic Press Association.

Empowered by his newfound success, he embarked on a trek across the world, visiting 29 impoverished cities in India, Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, Jamaica, the Philippines, Canada and the United States, writing a hardcover photo/essay book, When Did I See You Hungry" and filmed a documentary based on the book that was narrated by movie star Martin Sheen. The success of his new book and film spawned the creation of The San Damiano Foundation in January 2002, which has produced five films covering lepers, U.S. immigrants, the plight of the homeless on Skid Row in L.A. and more. When documenting his subjects, he doesn't stay in fancy hotels. He stays in their homes that have no electricity or running water, travels in the back of old pickup trucks and buses, and is regularly in the way of danger, often traveling in countries where rebel attacks are the norm. While in Nairobi, Africa, he even heard that Mother Teresa's sisters were robbed at gunpoint.

"It's daunting, but it's worth it," he said.

His films show at universities and high schools, churches and synagogues, wherever they can inspire people to better the world.

"Our motto is putting the power of film at the service of the poor," said Straub. "We have to beg for money, raise it ourselves, ask for donations - whatever it takes to keep the foundation going. Martin Sheen has donated his voice and Bono of U2 has donated us music. People see the good the foundation's films do and want to help. That's what we hope for when we make them. We want the films to inspire viewers to help the people we film."

Straub once showed his film on Dr. Tony Lazzara to a group of high school students in Rhode Island. Not only were they completely engrossed in the film, but when it ended they spontaneously passed a hat around the auditorium, collecting $300 to be sent to Dr. Tony Lazzara in Peru to help his home.

"There are men and women in this world who perform saintly deeds everyday," said Straub. "People need to know about their efforts so they can help in any way they can. When I learn about these men and women, I want to help their causes by spreading the word about what they are doing."

Gerard Straub, the documenter of saints.

For more information on Gerard Straub's films, visit http://www.sandamianofoundation.org

"Filmlook" is ©2007 by Paul Guzzo.   All graphics unless otherwise noted are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2007 by Nolan B. Canova.