Director/Producer Laura Cain and Editor/Producer Thom Stromer
Laura Cain and Thom Stromer produced the new documentary feature Healing Neen, which tells the incredible story of Tonier “Neen” Cain, a nationally-known speaker and educator who became a consumer advocate after a lifetime of abuse and drug addiction. Tonier was recently featured on a episode of WYPR's The Signal. Healing Neen will screen on April 29 at the Creative Alliance at The Patterson.
Laura Cain: My background is as a civil rights attorney, and film is the most effective medium to shine a light on difficult subjects. It has an unparalleled power to move and change people. Documentaries are also the best vehicle for giving a voice to people who are normally silenced. I strive to make choices that are best for the film while still being faithful to those that bravely agreed to talk about their lives. I love learning the craft and tapping into another creative outlet and, as a bonus, I’ve gotten to work with some people who are not only really talented, but also generous and loving spirits.
Thom Stromer: Film hits so immediately to the brain and heart. Good films give me the same feeling I have when listening to extraordinary music.
The thing I love about the Film community in Baltimore is its unity in diversity. I’m friends with so many people who work on Dramas or Horror or Comedy or Experimental etc. and I primarily work in Documentary but we are all friends and really appreciate the process each goes through to create what we do. We openly cheer for each other’s success.
What was your first job/experience in film?
TS: I started part time in the video department at the Baltimore Aquarium. I was hired to run the AV portion of the dolphin shows. In my down time I’d help the full time staff produce videos for exhibits, documentaries, or promotion. From there I was hired full time and began to shoot and edit all the time. It was great. I got to travel a lot and got into underwater filming. From doing so many aspects of production, I learned that I love editing the most. I’m really just a studio rat.
LC: In 2005, I secured grant money to make a short documentary about trauma survivors and their experiences with coercion in the psychiatric system. Thom was my editor and co-producer. That film, Behind Closed Doors, has spread like wild fire in all the systems, criminal justice, mental health, juvenile justice, substance abuse, domestic violence and social services, all across the country and abroad. I couldn’t be happier with the impact it’s having in terms of changing the way systems treat vulnerable people. It was also an official selection at the Maryland and Baltimore Women’s Film Festivals, which was pretty exciting for me, as a first time filmmaker.
Do you have a favorite work experience? Why was it your favorite?
LC: Making Healing Neen. Taking this journey back in time with Tonier-- inside the prison, under the bridge where she lived, on the streets of Annapolis where she was beaten and raped over and over again--affected me deeply.
Ben Baker-Lee, our DP and Director of Animation, is so talented, generous of spirit and a really great guy to hang out with on shoots. Meeting Caleb Stine, who scored the film, was another highlight. When he sent the lyrics that he wrote for the film, I literally wept with joy. And working with Thom was phenomenal. Not only is he immensely talented, he’s honest, caring and very supportive. The level of trust and respect that we developed as partners in this effort is unlike any that I have experienced before.
TS: My favorite work experience has to be Healing Neen. It was so incredible to work with such creative freedom and with a definite intention as to what we wanted to say. Plus, working with Laura, Ben, Caleb, David, Matt and Nick was a dream come true. Everyone was so casual and open. There was no Hollywood attitude. We just flowed. Everyone really put their heart into this.
What's the best advice you ever got?
LC: Ben Baker-Lee told me to trust my instincts and not worry about my lack of formal training, which he said meant only that I wouldn’t get tripped up by the “rules” of how a film is supposed to be made. Ben probably doesn’t know this, but his advice gave me the confidence I needed as Thom and I pushed the boundaries of form and structure in making this film.
TS: “If you’re going Through Hell, keep going.” Winston Churchill told me that.
What was the worst advice you ever got?
TS: The worst has to be someone quoting a filmmaking book they read about how a documentary is “supposed” to be structured and saying we must follow the book’s instructions. I don’t believe that crap. I believe each film (particularly Documentary) is its own entity and you must learn to speak its language. You must recognize what you have and shape it from there. It’s not a pre-fabricated form that you populate with footage.
LC: I got the same bad advice to follow a “how to” book on documentary filmmaking when I started on Healing Neen, and only one chapter into it, I was both scared and really annoyed. I later learned that Frederick Wiseman, whose work is touted in those same books, completely thumbed his nose at the conventional wisdom on documentary filmmaking. Wiseman was a very instinctual filmmaker, not a paint-by-numbers drone. He also started off as a civil rights lawyer, so I feel as though I am following the lead of kindred spirit.
How did you choose/develop Healing Neen?
LC: Tonier and I started doing speaking engagements in connection with Behind Closed Doors. She is a phenomenally gifted speaker-- powerful, engaging and very, very funny, which allows audiences to take in the truly awful parts of her story. In 2008, she took me around Annapolis, where she grew up and lived on the streets. Seeing these places that she talks about brought the story to life in a way that words---no matter how effectively delivered—cannot match. That’s when the idea formed to make a documentary about her life. I went to the State mental health administration, which had funded Behind Closed Doors, and they agreed to fund this project.
TS: Laura kept telling me about Tonier’s achievements after we finished Behind Closed Doors. I was stoked to hear that she was on such an incredible course. I was fascinated by her. Her story really spoke to me because I had struggled with and beaten my own substance abuse issues. I was amazed that she could have dropped to such a low point but then come back even stronger. The fact she had done all the normal rehab programs before and failed but, when she entered TAMAR’s Children, she found a program that worked for her was incredible.
What do you hope audiences take away from Healing Neen?
LC: That we need to get serious about protecting children. Society pays so little attention to the common, everyday brutalization and neglect that they endure. Child maltreatment is not just a problem for these kids as individuals. The shockingly high rates of childhood abuse and neglect among prisoners, psychiatric patients, homeless people, drug addicts, etc., makes it impossible to ignore the enormous costs every one of us bears. I also hope that the film shatters assumptions and stereotypes about people living on the fringes of society. At the very least, I hope that audiences take Tonier into their hearts and reflect upon her shining example of the human spirit and resiliency in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
TS: I want people to think about how we are treating people with substance abuse issues and work towards more holistic methods of addressing their needs. When an addict hits rock bottom they need systems in place that they can access immediately to put them on the road to recovery. Putting them on a waiting list for access to the program is ridiculous. They’ll go back to using if they can’t get help right there.
I’d also like people to see that warehousing people in prisons is not a solution. We have the highest prison population of anywhere in the world. We need to stop this revolving door of recidivism due to minor infractions and police profiling.
How did you decide on the rather unconventional structure for the piece and what was the process during editing?
TS: Our initial discussions involved a very conventional, linear sense of Tonier’s life from birth until now and the experts would pop in to discuss the relevant part of her life as it applied to where we were at in her life timeline. I felt that would be too much like holding the hand of the audience and guiding them along and that it would fall flat. Laura was completely open to working in a non-linear form that allowed emotion and rhythm to guide us rather than chronological time. There was a lot of moving things around, reworking within scenes, and ultimately ditching sequences, even if we had grown attached to them.
LC: Tonier’s story was ingrained in my being by the time we started editing. I also knew the contextual information that I wanted to incorporate so that her story became more universal. I agreed with Thom about not trying to follow a strictly chronological timeline. And then there are all those rules about when to reveal information, that you need conflict building toward resolution, etc. We had to scrap all of that. But we also had to start somewhere, and I put a lot of time and effort into writing the initial script. After that, we went back and forth and continued to shape it, rather than trying to force the elements into any pre-conceived form. We knew that it was risky, because audiences are used to conventional structure, but we trusted their willingness to go along for the ride, wherever it might take them.
How did you end up filming the family Thanksgiving? How did you put that scene together?
LC: We invited ourselves to Thanksgiving because we wanted to try and bring Tonier’s family into the story, particularly her mother, Barbara. I knew that there was a risk that they would just play to the camera and that turned out to be the case. But, with cameras rolling for hours on end, you are bound to catch moments where guards are down and the truth is revealed. As tempting as it was, we decided that it would be wrong to cast Barbara as a one-dimensional villain. I am really happy that the scene allows viewers to decide whether to hate her, pity her, or both.
This was the one scene I didn’t even try to script. After lengthy discussions about what we wanted this scene to achieve, Thom offered to take it on. I bow humbly to his skill in wading through a morass of footage and crafting a tight, coherent and gut-wrenching scene.
TS: The first cut of ONLY that scene was an hour and a half. I had to deal with it as a separate entity. This was the most difficult scene to cut. We had 3 cameras rolling, no time code synch, and no real shooting plan in the chaos that is a family gathering. It came out to be 11 hours of footage. I had to manually synch everything and lay it out chronologically. After that was done we could really see what we had.
Being a fly on the wall of this family gathering was fascinating but the emotional intensity of the event made it very, very difficult to work with. Seeing all the children in the midst of this was so heart wrenching because you know that’s the next generation who may succeed or drown.
The biggest issue was how do we handle Tonier’s mother, Barbara? We could have edited the scene and make her look 20 times worse than she does. I tried to let her speak for herself.
What are your future plans?
TS: Promote this film. . . Promote this film and Promote this film. We want as many people as possible to see this film. We are entering it into Film festivals, we are setting up private screenings, we are open to any and all ideas to get as many eyeballs on this film. We hope it will touch them and push them into helping the homeless, addicted, incarcerated, abused, traumatized people that are in our lives right now… we hope this causes a butterfly effect of caring and compassion.
LC: After we’ve pushed Healing Neen as far as it can go, Thom and I definitely want to work together again. We both have ideas germinating in our brains. Personally, I hope to make a film about men and trauma. Men experience and react to trauma differently and it’s a subject that hasn’t been explored. There was also some talk about possible funding for a film about people that self-injure, most often by cutting themselves. It’s another taboo subject that needs to be brought out into the open.
Where can Examiner readers find out more about you and/or see more of your work?
LC: Readers can email us through a link on the contact page on the Healing Neen website. Getting a website up for In The Hollow Films, is on my to-do-list.