Lakeland filmmaker brings ‘At the End of the Day’ to TIGLFF 29

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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The Tampa Bay International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (TIGLFF) is one of the largest and longest-running festivals of its kind. Founded in 1990, the 9-day celebration exists to showcase compelling film and video by, for or about the LGBTQ community that entertains, empowers and enlightens audiences. Its 29th year will do exactly that Oct. 5-13.

“It all goes back to community and being together in person,” Director of Programming KJ Mohr says of the festival, “sitting in a theater and experiencing film. You feel the laughter around you, you feel the tension. You’re with people who are like you and have experienced a lot of things you’ve experienced.”
TIGLFF’s screening committee began finalizing this year’s slate of LGBTQ programming in May. Of the hundreds of submissions received, its 20 members pared the festival’s offerings down to just over 30 selections—including Lakeland filmmaker Kevin O’Brien’s comedic drama “At the End of the Day.”“Having a film that was shot right in the area with a local director is really crucial,” Mohr says of the entry, playing Oct. 6 at the Tampa Theatre, filmed in Lakeland and Orlando with area cast and crew. “A film like Kevin’s, which focuses on our lives within a local community, is spectacular. It deals with religious persecution of the LGBTQ community, and that’s something that a lot of people can relate to, particularly in our audience.”

The film, which O’Brien wrote, directed and produced, follows the story of Dave Hopper, played by Stephen Shane Martin. After his wife leaves him and he loses his counseling practice, Dave focuses on a part-time professorship at his alma mater, a conservative Christian college in Lakeland.

It’s there that Dave reconnects with his former professor Gordon Woodman, played by Orlando’s Tom Nowicki, now the college’s scheming dean. Woodman’s plans to expand the campus “hit a snag when the property he wants to develop has been promised to a gay support group,” the film’s official synopsis reads, “which has plans to open an LGBTQ homeless teen shelter if they can raise the money in time.”

Woodman offers Dave his dream job, a position contingent upon Dave going undercover in the support group to stop them from raising the funds needed to buy the property. “For the first time,” the synopsis concludes, Dave “is met face-to-face with the community he has been counseling against his entire career. The awkward and emotional experiences that follow lead Dave on a journey of truth, revealing that life and love are not as black and white as he first thought.”

“Particularly in our political climate right now, it’s refreshing and hopeful to see change like this,” Mohr says. “Attitudes of the church can change, attitudes of Christians can change and things can go in the direction of being more accepting of LGBTQ individuals.”

“At the End of the Day” is O’Brien’s feature directorial debut. The self-taught writer and director, an ally to the LGBTQ community, says he grew up in an evangelical home and has always been drawn to stories that can make a difference.

“The implications of the evangelical church’s view and treatment of the LGBTQ community, specifically their youth, was deeply troubling,” says “At the End of the Day” writer/director Kevin O’Brien. “It was a conflict that would not leave my heart.” Photo by Dylan Todd

“I was told, and understood through my 20s, that our faith had the exclusive truth to the universe,” O’Brien says. “All others fell short of the mark, and because of that could not enjoy a fulfilling life on earth, and would spend eternity in torment.”

As he experienced the world, however, O’Brien says he met others who didn’t fit into his worldview. “I slowly sensed some things didn’t line up,” he says. “When my wife and I decided to grow our family through adoption, we were introduced to a whole world that we didn’t know existed, and were faced with a bunch of misconceptions and fallacies. We leaned into the curiosity, and asked, ‘What else might we be wrong about?’”

It led him to examine nearly every aspect of his life, particularly his views on race, faith and the LGBTQ community. “The implications of the evangelical church’s view and treatment of the LGBTQ community, specifically their youth, was deeply troubling,” he asserts. “It was a conflict that would not leave my heart.

“One of the first things I did was join our local PFLAG group,” O’Brien recalls, noting with a laugh that he didn’t do so undercover. PFLAG — or Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — is the nation’s first and largest organization dedicated to uniting families and allies with those in the LGBTQ community.

“At our first meeting they rightfully grilled me on who I was and what I was doing,” he says, “and that community has become our church. That’s our family community within Lakeland: the Polk County PFLAG.”

O’Brien’s time with the organization and ongoing research into the LGBTQ community led him to conclude that “historically, the majority of people in power have been white, straight, cisgender men.” While he counts himself among the demographic, he says that “we as a group have done a terrible job and have not realized that there are others with different backgrounds, orientations and genders.”

He says he realized it was “time to start asking questions and stop answering them,” growing certain that a story existed to help shift hearts in the church and help bring healing and acceptance to those hurt by religious rejection in the LGBTQ community. “At the End of the Day” was that story.

To tell it, O’Brien purposely framed it from the perspective of Dave, another aforementioned white, straight, cisgender male. He did so to show what kind of change was possible.

“For Dave, he lived his life according to what he had been taught. He followed the rules, repeated the answers he’d been given, and stayed on the straight and narrow path, but his life still fell apart,” O’Brien says. “It was in that crumbling life that he started to ask the tough questions. I hope when people see his story, they can relax a bit and understand that there’s no need to hit rock bottom before they ask those questions.”

He says he wanted audiences, though Dave’s experiences, “to meet characters who understand faith differently, who understand love differently, and who are able to value the stories of others without feeling threatened about their own existence.”

While a work of fiction, he says the film is based in truth. “Their experiences, rejections and triumphs are all inspired by my friends, their lives and stories I’ve heard over the years,” O’Brien says.

To bring “At the End of the Day” to the screen, he focused on authenticity in his casting of LGBTQ roles. “That meant finding a transgender actor to play Erika, our transgender female character,” O’Brien says. A mixture of gay and straight actors rounded out the cast. “I wanted to be sensitive to people’s identities and orientations,” he adds, “and I felt like asking people their orientations during that process was intrusive and offensive. I saw them as actors, and it turned out that more often than not those roles went to gay actors.”

One of those actors was Winter Park’s E. Mani Cadet. He plays Richard, a member of the LGBTQ support group who he describes as “a lip-popping, phrase-saying, head-twisting, come-on-back-to-Jesus-moment-having kind of person.” More so, “he’s the energy and the life that keeps everyone together in this support group.”

Cadet sees the film’s setting in Lakeland, and particularly its message of love, as critical. “Even in the 21st century we still have to create safe places for the LGBTQ community,” he says. He notes that the film is one way to give back.

“Being in a Lakeland community where that struggle is still real, it’s very important that people see these issues and open up their eyes,” he says. “If I can’t personally sit with someone who’s struggling with these issues, we can let others know they still exist.”

“It really felt like the perfect place to play this guy,” Nowicki adds of bringing the film’s antagonist to life. “Hatred now in 2018, with Trump in the White House, is articulate; it wears a tie and is nicely cleaned up. You can’t tell when it’s walking toward you on the street.

“I hope that people look at someone like Gordon and they have a moment of hope,” he says, “and maybe ask ‘is that me? Is what I think is such a reasonable argument really hate-filled?’”

In the film, an LGBTQ support group meets in Lakeland to discuss opening a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth similar to Orlando’s Zebra Coalition. Photo courtesy Kevin O’brien

Orlando’s Danielle Sagona, who plays the film’s LGBTQ support group leader Alyssa, says she hopes “At the End of the Day” raises awareness for all viewers. The film’s female lead cautions that while many communities throughout Tampa Bay and Orlando may be accepting, it’s important not to be complacent.

“We take for granted that we have loving communities,” Sagona says. “We have to open eyes and hearts … there’s still a lot of growth, love and acceptance that needs to happen in this life.”

It’s why featuring Orlando’s Zebra Coalition in the film was critical for O’Brien. The coalition — which provides services to LGBTQ youth ages 13-24 — assists those facing homelessness, bullying, isolation from their families and physical, sexual and drug abuse.

“LGBTQ homelessness was a thread that helped Dave realize that he’s hurting a lot more than he’s helping,” O’Brien says. “That definitely came out of a connection with Zebra and the work they were doing.”

“At the End of the Day” showcases actual testimonials from Zebra Coalition youth as the characters learn about the organization and its work. “That was the plan from the beginning,” he says. “I wrote a few pages to keep the space of that scene in the screenplay, and it was always my hope that we could get a few youth to share their real stories.

“I feel like it’s one of the strongest moments in the film,” he adds. “That was a very emotional day of filming.”

“The best part honestly was actually meeting the residents there,” Sagona adds. “They were so sweet and so welcoming; the work that they do, how many people that they house in the community, is unbelievable. I’m thrilled the film highlights the Zebra Coalition; it’s the underlying premise of the film.” She hopes other cities and communities will be inspired and build something similar for LGBTQ youth.

While the film’s message is critical, TIGLFF’s Mohr also notes that the film is entertaining. “It looks good, it’s well done and it’s fun to watch,” she says. “That’s the number one thing our audience wants: to be entertained and to learn together.”

Reception to the film has been positive thus far, O’Brien says. It’s been featured in Los Angeles and Pennsylvania film festivals, with a sneak peek held at Lakeland’s historic Polk Theatre in May.

“It was probably the most magical night of my life,” he recalls. “There were over 700 people. There was so much energy and love for the movie. There’s so much support for the film in Lakeland, and so many people helped make it happen. For that many people to come out for one night only, it was amazing and better than I ever could have imagined.”

Aside from TIGLFF 29, “At the End of the Day” will be featured as an official selection of the Golden Door International Film Festival in New Jersey and the Out on Film Atlanta LGBT Film Festival in Georgia. Following its Tampa Bay screening, it moves to the Orlando Film Festival as an official selection Oct. 22.

“If you’ve ever been told who you are isn’t good enough just as you are, or felt like an outsider; if you feel like the powers that be don’t listen to your stories, and you feel misunderstood, written off without a chance; if you’ve felt excluded from any particular group or religion or community, this movie is for you,” O’Brien says.

“This movie is for the LGBTQ community, LGBTQ people who have faced religious rejection in any form, and for their allies, or people who think they might be stereotyping those people,” he continues. “It’s for parents who have had kids come out and they’re working through what that means for them and their future. It’s for transgender kids who are afraid to come out because they think it’s not worth it.”

As for his message to conservative Christians, O’Brien says that he hopes viewers can be curious and aren’t afraid of others’ life experiences. “It’s one of the major themes of the film,” he notes, “to listen to others. To value their life experiences as much as we value our own. I hope it gives people the courage to ask tough questions … to come away from it asking if they have prejudices they didn’t realize.”

Likewise, it’s his hope that LGBTQ youth — particularly those growing up in conservative, Christian homes — see the film and understand there are other voices in the world. “I want them to see that they are loved,” O’Brien says. “They are not broken because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Discovering who they are is a part of them becoming their best selves … and who God, if they believe in God, created them to be.”

“The film has a local connection and we love to see what’s familiar to us,” Mohr says. “Showing it at the Tampa Theater just feels perfect. Kevin’s film is ideal.”

Additional reporting by Jeremy Williams.

For a detailed list of all the films playing at TIGLFF 29, click here. For more information about films, venues, TIGLFF 29 or to purchase tickets, visit TIGLFF.com.

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