After going through the year 2020, you may feel that an antidote is needed. After all, peaches and cream, hugs and kisses, unicorns and hedgehogs are probably not the first things that you think about when considering last year. Or the past several years for that matter. The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic didn’t just create new problems. It further uncovered a lot of major underlying problems in our society, including seemingly massive racial, cultural, and economic divides, that were already stewing in the U.S. well before 2020.
So what’s the antidote to all of this? Well, The Antidote happens to be the name of a new documentary movie that’s about kindness. It can be found on Amazon Prime Video and is not a Marvel superhero movie, well, at least, not a superhero movie that uses CGI.
If you take a look at the trailer for the film, you won’t find too many costumes either:
The film presents compelling stories about “kindness” and suggests that “kindness” can be an important part of the solution to what has seemingly enveloped this country like a massive Hot Pocket shell. But what exactly does “kindness” mean? After all, kindness is not exactly something that comes with a smartphone app or can be ordered on Amazon.
Well, a few years ago six-time Emmy winner and film director John Hoffman embarked on a journey to answer this very question. This was a bit before President Donald Trump famously uttered the phrase, “very fine people, on both sides,” after White supremacists had marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Hoffman had already noticed the growing divisiveness and strife in the U.S. Many people in the U.S. didn’t seem too happy, and the Tweeter-in-Chief didn’t seem to be helping matters.
“In 2016, there were feelings of divided-ness,” said Rain Henderson, MPA, former Chief Executive Officer of the Clinton Health Matters Initiative and founder of Elemental Advisors, who assisted with the dissemination of the film. “It was an evolution from a civil society and neighborly ways. John really wanted to explore this topic. He always believes in working in partnerships and has done a number of films in social justice and public health.”
But answering this question required some resources. So Hoffman reached out to Dignity Health to see if they would be interested in supporting a movie “exploring kindness in this time when hate and division are on the rise,” in the words of Hoffman. This wasn’t your typical, “here’s a movie script, can you support it,” type of situation. Nah, it was more like a, “here’s a general idea, can you support it,” situation. What Hoffman had going for him besides an interesting general concept was that he wasn’t just someone with a YouTube account. Rather, he was already an accomplished filmmaker, having directed movies like the 2017 documentary Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman. Oh, and there was the whole Emmy winner thing.
The pitch worked. Dignity Health liked the general idea and had enough confidence in Hoffman to green light the project. He got something that is very rare these days: creative freedom to pursue a general direction without first laying down specifics. With a financial commitment from Dignity Health in hand, Hoffman then talked to other film makers for advice. And one name came up repeatedly: Kahane Cooperman.
That’s in part because Cooperman was already a very successful documentary filmmaker, television director, and producer who had been nominated for an Academy Award. Her credits had included Joe’s Violin, which was nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject at the 2017 Academy Awards and nearly two decades with The Jon Stewart Show. But her impressive resume wasn’t the only reason why other filmmakers suggested connecting with Cooperman. “I myself felt concerned of a pervasive feeling of civility crumbling,” said Cooperman. “When John said, ‘I’ve raised some money for a documentary, starting with kindness,’ I quickly was on board.”
“We started with giant blank canvas and one word,” Hoffman explained. “We read everything that we could about what is kindness. This included talking to evolutionary scientists and reading poetry. We accumulated all of this research.”
At the same time, Hoffman and Cooperman made one very important decision. They weren’t going to make a movie about random acts of kindness, you know the kind that you often see on social media. This wasn’t going to be a movie of dogs hugging cats, cats acknowledging the existence of dogs, people getting rescued from mosh pits, or a choir singing like James Blunt did, “You’re beautiful, it’s true.” Seeing random acts of kindness can be like eating some crème brûlée. It can be sweet, a little sticky, and potential uplifting for a little while. But it won’t necessarily change your life. Instead, Hoffman and Cooperman wanted to provide something more sustainable.
The first step, in the words of Cooperman and Hoffman, was a “visioning exercise” to determine what questions the film would answer when the movie is all finished and done. These questions had to be much more complex than “is this available on HD?” So, the result of the visioning exercise was the following six questions:
- How do we raise our children?
- How do we teach our children?
- How do we live and work together?
- How do we take care of sick and dying?
- How do we welcome the stranger?
- How do we lead?
The answers to these questions, Hoffman and Cooperman recalled, would then define kindness and being kind. For example, not taking care of the sick and dying and not welcoming strangers could be considered quite unkind.
A major problem, though, was that “kindness” had developed a not-so-great reputation. It was viewed as something too “nice,” kind of like that guy who keeps helping others with their homework but never gets to go to the prom. Kindness seemed to have a gentle connotation and not one of strength. And our society for better or for worse often values the kick butt, take names attitude. After all, nice is not a lyric in the Right Said Fred song, “I’m Too Sexy.” Hoffman explained that “we wanted to portray kindness as a fierce tool, not nice.”
Nice was not the first word that came to mind when neo-Nazis and other White supremacists descended upon Charlottesville in August 2017. “Our work was rocked when Charlottesville happened,” he added. “It didn’t illuminate darker forces, but instead put it out there so blatantly.” Both Hoffman and Cooperman described how many people in the U.S. still face fundamental unkindness. This includes lacking access to have safe place to sleep, to health care, and to earn living wage. Many have continued to face injustices like sexism, racism, and homophobia.
Hoffman and Cooperman continued to listen to and hear what different people had to say about kindness. One word that came up was “intentional,” as in intentionally lifting other people up, intentional acts of kindness. Dictionary.com defines “intentional” as “done with intention or on purpose, intended.” Interestingly enough, the accompanying example is an intentional insult. Nevertheless, intentional can be positive too, such as intentional kindness or intentionally put chocolate on the cake.
Along the way, Cooperman and Hoffman had to come up with a name for the film. Star Wars and Avengers: Age of Ultron were already taken and probably not appropriate. So extensive brainstorming occurred. Hoffman came up with a number of possibilities, but one by one they didn’t pass the Cooperman test. But one day, like a hedgehog rolling down a slide, the name came: The Antidote. Both realized fairly quickly that this was the right name for the film.
Eventually what emerged was a feature length film that chronicles stories of kindness, intentional kindness. Examples include Amarillo College in Texas helping students overcome social and financial barriers such as a single mother struggling to pay the bills and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. Another story shows how a community in Anchorage, Alaska, welcomed those from a Rwandan refugee camp. Then there’s the Southern Baptist church in Decatur, Georgia, that has grown more inclusive, embracing a broader range of people including members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Such stories alone when told well could be powerful. But the filming and editing of The Antidote adds that extra umph. It’s a case where in some ways less is more. The film is noticeable for its lack of banners and words. The film doesn’t really have calling cards, titles, or people’s names listed. After all, unless everyone in your life wears gigantic nametags and tattoos chyrons on their tummies, you experience life without seeing these labels. Thus, the film’s ambience helps you feel the stories as if you were experiencing them directly yourself.
Both Cooperman and Hoffman mentioned how the film brought together experiences that may have never been put together, like hot dogs and ice cream. They worked on the emotional effect of the film and “really wanted to give the impression of wide ranging portrait of the entire country, using just enough drone shots. We stitched them together in the right way as if you were dropping into locations, dropping into towns and cities.”
Not all of the stories made it to the main film. Every film, even Ghost Rider, has its cutting room floor. But the stories that were cut still bore significant value. So the web site includes four other stories.
So far, in different screenings, the film has elicited a number of emotions from viewers, ranging from weeping to straight out crying. A good cry that’s not onion or pepper spray-induced can be quite cathartic. Some have shared their reactions on social media such as this:
Of course, these days reactions to kindness may be even more emotional with the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic keeping many isolated, with the George Floyd and Breanna Taylor tragedies raising major issues about racial justice, and with harsh words on social media floating around every day. As Cooperman emphasized, our country has been suffering a lot of “collective trauma.”
Cooperman mentioned a woman who watched the film and was so moved by the Amarillo College story that she reached into her past to a school where she taught for 10 years in Pennsylvania. She then set up a scholarship in her mom’s name for single mothers trying to earn a college degree.
Both Cooperman and Hoffman hope that the film can generate more dialogue and exchanges of ideas. Perhaps the film can help plant seeds and get more people to ask, “what can I do to help solve these problems?” Henderson talked about how the film project is about “building a movement. The film can remain evergreen and keep asking us questions about who are we and who do we want to be?”
Kindness may not be the antidote to everything that currently ails our society. There is rarely just one magical solution to a major problem, with the possible exception of avocado toast. But kindness can certainly be a start. A strong way to start.