By MIKE CHAIKEN
The Cheshire home invasions. Newtown.
Say either and chills go down the spines of most people as they ponder the horror of both events.
And the tragedies also may raise questions in the minds of those who read about those horrible, evil moments in Connecticut’s recent past.
Connecticut-based filmmakers Gwen O’Donnell, of Bristol, and Josh Dunn, asked themselves a question. And that question led to the pursuit of a documentary, “Where There is Darkness.”
O’Donnell, a Bristol resident, explained, “The project, which focuses on two recent Connecticut tragedies — the 2007 Cheshire Home Invasion as well as the Sandy Hook school shooting — poses the question, ‘Where was God?’ during anguished hours that would seem filled solely with evil.”
Additionally, she explained, the documentary “explores the concept of our own participation — mindful or unwitting — and responsibility in this ancient battle between darkness and light.”
Via email O’Donnell and Dunn were asked why this was a project they wanted to undertake?
O’Donnell explained the project began when she “returned to my home-state of Connecticut three years ago from Los Angeles to work on a documentary about the Cheshire home invasion, having been extremely moved by Dr. William Petit’s evolved response to the murders of his family. His kindness in working to promote the idea, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world,’ inspired me. While the quote is attributed to Gandhi, he re-discovered it on his 11-year-old daughter, Michaela’s, Facebook page after she’d died.”
O’Donnell explained Petit is a family friend.
“I initially intended to focus on the legal aspects of the two trials (of the murderers in the Petit case),” said O’Donnell. “But during the course of these trials, I found inspiration instead in the families of both the victims and the perpetrators, as they sought meaning from the tragedy. The question, ‘Where was God?’ during the unimaginable hours the women suffered became central to the project.”
The project took on another dimension, nearing its initial completion, after the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“(It caused) Josh and myself to be suddenly working with the families who had lost children,” explained O’Donnell. “These people—unbelievably— sought light in this darkness from the very beginning and made it clear to us that they needed their voices to be heard. They wanted their loss to mean something. They wanted their pain to render hope. We knew then that the film must evolve and grow larger in its scope.”
“I think as a resident of Connecticut,” said Dunn, “I felt a very strong sense of kinship with the communities in Cheshire and Newtown. There was a strong feeling inside of me of wanting to help both communities heal in a different manner than just donating money. This became a very spiritual journey for me and for the people in the film, and the farther along we got into the project, the more it just felt we were on the right path.”
Documentary filmmakers often take on a particular point of view as they present their story. That is the case with “Where There is Darkness,” explained Dunn and O’Donnell.
In a shared email response, they explained, “The film poses the question, ‘Where was God?’ during anguished hours that would seem filled solely with evil. Further, ‘Where There is Darkness’ explores the concept of our own participation — mindful or unwitting — and responsibility in this ancient battle between darkness and light. If we’re to ask, ‘Where was God?’ in the face of unimaginable acts of violence, we should also be asking, ‘Where were we? Where are we?’”
For the documentary, the filmmakers spoke to Dr. Petit and the Newtown families who lost children in the events at Sandy Hook. They also spoke to community leaders and clergy.
Petit was already known to the pair. The filmmakers met the families in Newtown while volunteering at Cheshire’s “Lights of Hope” charity event.
“Surprisingly, (the Newtown families were) very receptive,” said O’Donnell. “In all cases, we were either introduced by a trusted mutual friend, or a relationship already existed. Additionally, the message that we were trying to get across was different on a spiritual level – the opposite of exploitative. We hope and believe that the process of sharing their stories and faith and hope was healing for the participants, as it certainly was to us.”
The filmmakers both felt the world needed this documentary to be made.
“I think everyone needs to take a step back and examine what our own role was as a society in both tragedies, even if you are not a resident of either town or the State of Connecticut, or even the United States of America,” said Dunn. “How have we let darkness into our lives? How can we do more as a society to be more mindful of each other as human beings? If everyone around the world were to let more ‘light’ into their lives, either through their own spiritual journeys or through community action this planet would be a wonderful place to live in.”
“As a society,” said O’Donnell, “we’re quick to jump on board to help out in the aftermath of a tragedy, because people are, for the most part, good. But then, all too often, we drop the ball. We don’t vote. We hesitate to speak up when others are being bullied. We turn away from the painful realities of our society instead of participating in meaningful change. It’s easy to embrace the ideals of healing, hope and faith, but without also examining the reality of evil and darkness and our personal responsibility in the daily conflict between darkness and light – effective change is unlikely.”
Both filmmakers said the process of making the documentary has made a difference in their own lives and has transformed them.
“I have re-evaluated priorities in my life, and it has made me examine how I live my life on a day-to-day basis,” said Dunn. “I have walked out of many an interview with tears in my eyes, but when some of the amazing people we have interviewed actually thanked me for helping them it showed me that I had a long way to grow spiritually. I am on a spiritual journey of letting more light into my life that will probably be never-ending.”
“On one hand,” said O’Donnell, “I’m so much more aware of the presence of evil than I was before — that it’s something more than the stuff of movies. This is an occupational hazard that presents itself after attending two death-penalty trials. But conversely, I’m in awe of the power of love to heal and I’m more aware of the consequences of my own actions (or lack thereof).”
“This film has made both Josh and I better people. And we hope it will have that effect on many more viewers when it’s completed,” said O’Donnell.
When the film is completed, O’Donnell said, the goal is to show the film on the festival circuit, get it distributed domestically and internationally, and on Netflix, On-Demand or cable.
For completion of the film, O’Donnell and Dunn are reaching out for funding through crowd-sourcing website indiegogo.
“Crowd funding has become an increasingly more popular route for independent film-makers, as it allows individuals who believe in your project to donate as little as a dollar, and for that money, to really become part of the team,” said O’Donnell. “It’s a perfect solution for an independent production company creating an intimate documentary film.”
“Additionally, along with Indiegogo, we were able to team up with a non-profit called Fractured Atlas, allowing all donations received to help our film to be tax-deductible,” said O’Donnell.
To help out, people can visit the film’s Indiegogo page, donate as little as a dollar, and share the link on Facebook, Twitter, or just tell people about it.
“The majority of the filming is done,” said O’Donnell. “Right now, we’re mainly concentrating on post-production – picture editing, sound, music — and outreach.”