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Q’orianka Kilcher talks about “The Road to Forgiveness”-Film

Interview by Brian Nixon, ASSIST News Service, June 2013

Q’orianka Kilcher sitting in front of notable photographs

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS) – Sitting in my office is actress, activist, and Native rights advocate Q’orianka Kilcher. She just so happens to be sitting beneath three favorite photographs of mine: Albert Schweitzer at the piano of his jungle hospital in Africa, Pablo Casals warming up on the cello in a church, and Christopher Parkening playing the guitar on a stage.

In her own way, Q’orianka embodies certain aspects of the people in the three photographs. On one hand, she is like Albert Schweitzer, the great missionary doctor, philosopher, and musician—working on behalf of the voiceless, a strong conscience for people around the world. On the other hand, she is like Pablo Casals, the master cellist who took on a self-imposed exile from his homeland of Spain due to injustice, dictatorship, and unbridled war.

And like Grammy-nominated classical guitarist Christopher Parkening, Q’orianka is well acquainted with the stage—acting in several acclaimed films from The New World (with Christian Bale and Colin Farrell, directed by Terrence Malick) to her lead role in Princess Kaiulani (with Julian Glover, Will Patton, and Barry Pepper). Q’orianka had Oscar buzz surrounding her performance as Pocahontas in The New World, taking home the Alma award as best actress for the role.

But for many it is her activism that ignites zeal and respect. She is known around the world for her work on human rights and environmental issues. To give you a glimpse into her passion: In June 2010, Q’orianka—with some members of her Action Hero Network youth organization—engaged in a protest. Q’orianka chained herself to the front of the White House gates in objection to a meeting between President Barack Obama and Peruvian President Alan Garcia.

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Archive photo of Q’orianka Kilcher

So, what brings her to New Mexico? Forgiveness. To be a tad more exact: a movie based upon the theme, entitled The Road to Forgiveness. Written by director, producer, and screenwriter, Gil Brenton, The Road to Forgiveness is based on the true story of Verma Harvey and Cindy Griffiths—two women who deal with the death of Cindy’s eleven-year-old child, Robyn, and mother, Janice Nicolich, due to a DWI accident in Nebraska. Verma was the driver of the car that killed Cindy’s family, an event that forever changed the lives of both women.

Oprah Winfrey highlighted the women—and their story—on The Oprah Winfrey Show, using them twice: an original interview and a highlight on the “Best of” broadcast. Oprah marveled that Cindy was able to forgive Verma, even becoming friends. Cindy gave a simple answer: God forgives all of us. Who am I to not forgive? Oprah stated, “I hear a lot of extraordinary stories, but this is top of the list.”

Gil Brenton met Q’orianka when he contacted her in 2011 to discuss the possibility of producing a documentary about her activist work. The two connected immediately. It was then that Gil Brenton shared the script for The Road to Forgiveness. The story touched Q’orianka and she offered to come on board as producer, yearning to do all she could to bring this important story to life. Later, Q’orianka met Verma. It was at this meeting that Q’orianka portraying the lead role was first discussed. Deeply honored by the offer, Q’orianka accepted the role wholeheartedly. Both Gil and Q’orianka have since worked towards the goal of bringing this story to the screen.

Cindy and Verma on the set of “The Road to Forgiveness”

Talking with Q’orianka, I asked her about the script.

“When I first read the script for The Road to Forgiveness, I thought this is one of the most amazing pieces I’ve read. In a sense, it is dream script, something stunning and real; a human journey,” she begins.

“Beyond that there were two specific draws for me. One, it is based on a true-life incident. I had to pause and think: this really happened to people. This is a story of a person who hit rock bottom through the death of others, but rose to new heights. It is also a story of a lady who lost her daughter and mom, but reached out—beyond all odds—to someone she didn’t know with love. It showed me that hope and forgiveness could overcome any obstacle.

And two, The Road to Forgiveness is a representation of beauty. This real-life incident is an example of the human spirit, the ability to reach another human being with one word: forgiveness. It’s a message we need to hear today. In the Navajo culture, beauty is a trait that is exemplified. This movie is beauty.”

Based on her response, I ask, “Why do we need a movie like this? Why a story about forgiveness? Will this help change anything in our society and world?”

“I think forgiveness is truly important. We need to embody the change we yearn to see in the world. We need to ask ourselves, ‘How ought I act in order to see the world as I want it to be?’”

Gil Brenton directing Cindy and Verma
for the movie promo

This movie helps us to tap into something greater, more resolute—the need to forgive ourselves, and the need to forgive others. To me what’s important in life is not how many times you fall down, but how many times you get back up. We need to realize that we are all humans and make mistakes, needing the courage to be imperfect. We need to learn to forgive—not only others—but ourselves. To me The Road to Forgiveness has a very important message: Learn from your past so you don’t repeat the same mistakes again. I believe in order to have a clear view of your future—and where you are going—you need to have a clear understanding of your past—of where you came from. To me The Road to Forgiveness represents these qualities.”

I ask Q’orianka if the movie is just another stereotypical look at Native life: A drunk Native American doing wrong to a white family. Does it help break any stereotypes?

“I don’t see it that way. I don’t think that The Road to Forgiveness breaks stereotypes in any profound way, it’s not meant to. But what it does do is tackle a real-life issue that many Native people deal with: the abuse of alcohol. It is a real movie, relevant and poignant to life on the reservation and in many Native families.

“You can’t always choose the cards you were dealt in life: abusive family life, prevalent drugs and alcohol, poverty, and the like. But you can learn to become a better card player. Verma, whom I play in the movie, is dealt a bad hand in life. But through circumstances, learns to play her cards from her past with the integrity of a human being taping into the deeper rules of life: forgiveness, love, and hope.

“And I think that women from all around the world—not just on reservations—deal with abuse in all its forms on a daily basis. I think Verma is a wonderful role model for women. She shows us that there is a future beyond heartbreak; a life that is clean, sober, educated—and forgiven—can take on new purpose and meaning.

“Verma shows us that experience is a type of equity, earned with blood sweat, and tears. Verma shows us that one can proudly cash in past equity to help others in the future—by sharing experiences and learning from mistakes. People don’t always have control over bad things that happen to them in life, but we do have control over how we allow it to affect us.”

My final question concerns acting. I ask Q’orianka how she prepared for this script. How does one prepare for a movie such as this, a role that takes you from tragedy to triumph?

“Like any actress, I draw from my own experience. I’ve had my fair share of failures. I’ve fallen down. I’ve needed to get back up. I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’ve taken all of this personal experience and yearn to put it into my role as Verma. I also have family that lives on the reservation. I listen to their stories, I learn from their walks.

“Additionally, I’ve spent hours with Verma. I’ve heard her tell what she went through, her feeling, thoughts, and reaction to the events that transpired around her, events she helped create. I opened myself up to the actual person sitting in front of me, taking her journey into my own. In a way, she has been a guide for me as an actress, directing me in my role.

“This will be a challenging role. But I’m excited. I always love a good challenge! I feel so honored to be portraying this amazing person, to be part of something this exquisite, both personally and artistically. The Road to Forgiveness has so many emotions written in the script, so many opportunities as an actress to grow. Again, it is a powerful journey. I’m so thankful and honored that Verma and Gil Brenton gave me the opportunity to bring this movie to life.”

Director, Gil Brenton

Later, I catch up with Gil Brenton to discuss the script and movie that is so meaningful to Q’orianka. Other than the Oprah Winfrey episode, what influenced you to write the script and pursue a film?

“Directors look for stories. But in this case, the story found me. When I met Cindy and Verma, it forever changed my life. Their story was so convincing and complete. It was a real-life human drama, showing varying points of views and cultures. When you’re dealing with a biographical movie—with multiple layers of real people—it takes time to develop and nurture it. And as a screenwriter, I asked, ‘How do I live in the minds of so many people? How do I tell their story with accuracy?’ As a director, I want to honor the people involved. And let me say, patience is necessary through the whole process. The journey has been very gratifying and also very difficult.

How so?

“As an example: the screenplay is told from three different points of view. This can be a difficult facet to pull off in a script and in a movie. But I think we accomplish this very effectively. Also, in good movies conflict ignites change. In The Road to Forgiveness, conflict finds a home in the heart of mercy. It is a story of two people rising above the circumstances surrounding them, reaching towards that which is both humbling and exhilarating: the prospect of forgiving another human. Generally speaking, our movie has all the great—or universal—themes valued by cultures around the world, which is very gratifying in the overall scope of the project.”

I then ask Gil why he’s using the online organization, Kickstarter, to help fund the movie.

“Kickstarter is the new ‘People’s Choice Award.’ It allows us to give towards something we care about. Our hope is that people will support the movie—and concept—by giving to that which they believe. People and cultures may never agree on all the issues of life, but one word it seems everyone can relate to: forgiveness. So, Kickstarter is a means for people join a movement that calls for a concerted effort towards that which they deem worthy of respect and contribution.

“Furthermore, the Hollywood funding model used today pays great emphasis on franchise movies such as Batman, Ironman, and The Avengers. The industry business model has changed over the past five years. Hollywood is not paying as much attention to high-quality movies that go outside of the current formula. But all kinds of movies are needed in society, not only artistically, but also as narratives of life and what it means to be human.

“So we’re excited about Kickstarter. Like I said, with it we’re able to hear the voice of the people. In a small—or generous—way, Kickstarter affords the person to be part the project. Or put in our context, it allows a person to take on a role in the movie, a support cast member, or a production worker.

“All of this reminds me: We’re only as good as the team of people that back the film, contributors included. The support we have among A-level people in our industry for The Road to Forgiveness is amazing. Mitch Ackerman is my business partner. He was the former head of network television production at Walt Disney Studios for 15 years and is a budgeting expert. He was responsible for all network shows, including the Disney Sunday movies. We have Lindsay Fellows as our music supervisor, former senior vice president at Walden Media. Lindsay did The Chronicles of Narnia, Ray, and Amazing Grace, to mention a few. And as many people know, music is important to a movie, helping set the tone and atmosphere.

“And it goes without saying that it’s been a privilege working with Q’orianka. I’m grateful for the bond we share. Know this: I will be pushing her in her role as Verma. I can only imagine how this will translate on the screen. It really is an exciting cast and crew.

“The bottom line is this: You’re only as good as those you’re surrounded by. And I feel I’m surrounded by some of the best—those I know and those that I will come to know through their support of the movie through Kickstarter. The Road to Forgiveness is no longer in my hands; it’s in the hands of people that care about art, humanity, culture, and story. It is up to us to make a difference. It’s up to us to support that which is meaningful and—as our Navajo friends remind us—beautiful. And I think The Road to Forgiveness is just that: a mark of beauty.”

To learn more about Kickstarter, click here: www.kickstarter.com and then search for “The Road to Forgiveness”

The Website, click here: www.theroadtoforgivenessfilm.com

For Facebook, click here: www.facebook.com/TRTFmovie


Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, minister, and family man. You may contact him at www.briannixon.com

** You may republish this story with proper attribution.

Photo credit: visionshare via Photopin, CC

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