PTP:072. Eric Christiansen Filmmaker “Unmasking Hope”

On Episode 072 of The Pathway to Promise Podcast Dr. Brad Miller interviews filmmaker Eric Christiansen creator of the film “Unmasking Hope.”

Eric Christiansen is an acclaimed documentarian who has built his brand around socially responsible filmmaking
that educates, inspires and heals.
He has the capability to identify an issue within a specific population and have it resonate with a general audience through compelling storytelling.  A trauma survivor himself, having lost his home in the Santa Barbara Painted Cave fire disaster,
he understands trauma, the resilience of the human spirit, and how important HOPE is to the healing journey.  His previous films
(Faces in the Fire, Homecoming: A Vietnam Vets Journey, Searching for Home: Coming Back from War) have been transformative in the recovery process for thousands of people whose lives have been compromised mentally, spiritually and physically by trauma.

Leveraged as educational tools by top mental health institutions, Christiansen’s films migrate from the entertainment arena into environments that help additional audiences navigate the profound collateral damage trauma creates not only on the individual but the family and community as well. The New York Times called his last film, “strikingly photographed” and “…sure to give comfort and support to countless veterans and their families.” By spotlighting these survivors and their journeys, Christiansen has been able to help unify a variety of audiences around the power of HOPE, and educate the general population about the complexities of trauma. Christiansen, a seven-time Southwestern Region Emmy Award recipient, has also produced for major networks including Discovery, TLC, PBS, MTV, and an Imax film.

The Pathway to Promise Podcast is published by Dr. Brad Miller who is devoted to creating compelling content which brings hope and encouragement to people facing debilitating adversity in their life. Dr. Brad brings 40 years of experience in Christian ministry and counseling and a Doctoral degree in Transformational Leadership to the listeners of the Pathway to Promise Podcast offering folk a guide to claim their God-Given Promised Life of Peace, Prosperity and Purpose.

Dr. Brad Miller
July 2019

Read Full Transcript

Brad Miller 0:00
Eric Christiansen is with us today. And he is a filmmaker who specializes in films that have to do with

people who’ve been compromised mentally and spiritually and physically by trauma somehow in their life. And his films are about the resilience of the human spirit and the importance of hope and healing journey. And he said some really specialized in a lot of films that have to do with with veterans, including

faces and the fire and visit and homecoming are some of the films he’s worked on in the past. And his upcoming film is unmasking hope the movie, we welcome you to pathway to promise. Eric Christiansen. Thank you, Brad. It’s an honor to be here. I’m excited to have a conversation with you about all these things. Well, it is awesome and I love to talk to filmmakers. I’ve I just recently talked to a filmmaker who was working with a woman who was an survivor.

Auschwitz and had some great stories to tell about that. And then your stories about survivors of another conflict other, both internally and in some cases through a war and things like that. But tell us a little bit about you, because I got a feeling that you’re telling the stories of people who’ve had trauma in their life and drama, because you’ve had some share of that in your life. So let’s have a little bit of background on you, Eric, about some of the things you’ve had to deal with that have informed your filmmaking. Well, Brad, if we have to kind of rewind back to 29 years ago, on June 27 1990, in Santa Barbara, California.

Eric Christiansen 1:41
I was I was working in industry up there. I was an editor and I was leaving living in the foothills of Santa Barbara, California. And we have an unusual weather condition up there, called the sundowner wins. It was in June, it was really hot. We had three days straight of triple

digit temperatures, zero humidity. And then we had this sundowner phenomenon where the winds blow down through the canyons and out to sea and some of those winds can get pretty ferocious. And so we have three days of this. And

the Chaparral interface there in the foothills had gotten tend to dry. And all it took is one little spark and the paint cave fire disaster of Santa Barbara in 1990 was ignited and it came through the foothills there and down through

headed towards the ocean. And in a matter of less than eight hours it consumed about 450 homes including my home, my goodness, and I was reading up there, no renter’s insurance, but I had kind of all my worldly possessions in that residence. My mom, I was living up there with my mother and she had the top floors of this beautiful, beautiful home.

kind of changed my whole life once that fire came through, and then took my home, and it was but you know, looking back on it, and and I can speak more about this looking back on it was such a pivotal day, but it was also the start of my new life. But looking at my mom’s life, it was actually the start of her kind of entropy after that. So it was it was a very interesting contrast. So unpack a little bit more you say her happy and your new life. What was there was salad. There’s some pivot points there that maybe you went one direction she went another. So tell me a little bit more about that. Well, basically with my mom, you know she was a over at that point she was over, almost a 45 year cancer survivor. She had a radical mastectomy when I was only three months old and she was quite a survivor.

I see that blow of she had all her heirlooms and everything in that house and she was getting older than and I see that blow as really the start of you know, she, she had a lot on her shoulders from surviving all that. And that was the beginning of kind of a downward spiral for spiral for her losing all that stuff that was so important to her. And it was just tough to watch. And then she went through a couple bouts of cancer and passed away probably about about 10 years after the fire. But for me, it was quite different. It took about seven months for me to kind of figure out what God had done with that fire. But it wasn’t a comfortable seven months before the fire, I was probably drinking, not drinking socially, I was a little bit over the top in my partying and everything already. And I knew that. But the fire really brought out a different kind of drinking and drugging. For me. I started drinking up the fire. And I was I was very, pretty angry, I was always a happy person. And it just really changed my whole demeanor. And, you know, it got towards the end that Christmas after that June. I was I couldn’t, I couldn’t drink enough to stay drunk. And that was a lot of all him, okay, I couldn’t I couldn’t get sober. I just there was an option. And the woman that’s my wife now, gave me this card. And it was this guy named Don R. And she said, if you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired of doing this, and you should maybe go see this guy, he might have a solution. So I went down and saw this

Brad Miller 5:44
guy, he’s a therapist, or some sort of counselor. He’s a

Eric Christiansen 5:47
member of a spiritual group of gentlemen that and men and women that found the solution to addiction and alcoholism. And he also ran an outpatient outpatient was very important. But it was more important that I joined this other group of, of alcoholics and addicts. And then that’s, that’s where I got really involved in a spiritual program that really helped help me heal. And I had my last I had my last drink January 13 1991. So it’s a 28 years of sobriety.

Brad Miller 6:24
And you got us an interesting turn of a phrase there a minute ago, you said you were drinking at the fire. And I just thought that was an interesting way of approaching it, you know, when people drink or use something to self medicate or a substitute sometimes your that’s one way of trying to attack What’s he getting you without getting to the core of your, what’s going on your soul and that that’s great. So you took so with your now wife, she took some action and you and you follow through by participating in this spiritual life group. And that would be an ongoing process. I assume it wasn’t just a one off thing, you had to be good invest in yourself and Right.

Eric Christiansen 7:01
Exactly. And I still do today, I was just at a group this morning. And, you know, it’s um, you know, I love your show, because we can talk about God, God made a promise with me. He said, If I do his work, and I mindful of his we’ll well, day by day, that he’s going to take this obsession of alcohol away from me. So as long as I’m mindful every morning, and every day to do His will, his part of the deal is he’s going to take this upset, the obsession away of alcohol. And that has been the truth for 28 years now. That’s awesome.

Brad Miller 7:39
So that part of that process is, you know, we, we believe part of this show is believed every body has a god given promise, life of peace and prosperity and purpose. But you have to work at you have to follow, you have to go through some disciplines and some processes and, and that sounds like that’s part of what you’re doing. And the spiritual formation is definitely a part of that. And so tell me what you said, You met with this group this morning. Other times, it sounds like this ongoing thing, tell me how that works out in kind of your day to day life, how you impart the spiritual power in your life in order to help this transformation to take place.

Eric Christiansen 8:15
You know, it comes down to a real basic thing for me, you know, I get up I have my morning meditations, you know, I read, I read from our morning meditations book, which is, you know, a Christian God oriented book, and, but not only that, one of the my vital parts about my personal well being, and continued well being is to have a spiritual mentor, that is older than me, a male that’s been there before that is also following God. And I check in with him two, three times a week. And, and when things get tough, I sit down with him and I let him speak into me. And, and he guides me through a lot of things. And, and that’s been a big thing. And the other thing is I give it away, I do the same thing for other young men that are coming in, that are trying to get sober, and I work with them. And I serve as their mentor. And so on a personal basis, that’s how it works for me,

Brad Miller 9:12
that’s awesome. Because that, that shows the building of that relationship. And I like to talk about that. loving relationships, those intimate relationships, help fuel transformation, and us and help keep that going. But you got to keep that stoked, and it going you mentioned your wife and, and your mentor and you have mentees I guess to another turn of a phrase. So people use spoken to you, you speaking to them. And those relationships have to be a powerful part of your ongoing transformation.

Eric Christiansen 9:42
Exactly. And with and applying spiritual principles, basically, you know, I go to the book of James. And, you know, if we went on to get real nuts and bolts, and a lot of lot of my message is in the book of James, and, and, and you know, and keeping my side of the street clean, and being mindful of others before me.

Brad Miller 10:04
And so, and be a doer of the word is one of the ways it is phrase in James as well. That’s exactly yeah, that’s good spread part. So part about being a doer of the word. Eric, it seems like you have expressed your this transformation that’s happened in you. And some of these experiences happened to you overcoming alcohol and such a devastating fire and, and some other things in your life that are part of where your expression is through filmmaking. So let’s let’s just talk about that little bit about what, what got you into filmmaking in the first place? And what drives you what motivates you, what keeps you going to make films that you do?

Eric Christiansen 10:45
Well, you know, basically, I’ve been making films, even before a second grade. But second grade, I did my first film with a script that I’ve been working professionally, since I was about 13 years old being on sets. And so that’s always been my vocation. And I’ve always felt even since I was tiny, you know, 1012 years old, that I had some sort of message. But I didn’t know what that message was. So I just kept making my little films and my super eight films which were lost in the fire. But I kept making little films and all these things. And then what happened is the fire came along and after the fire, there was this, I, I edited tons of commercials, IMAX movies, done a lot of other work. But after the fire, I was so moved, when I would go to the Red Cross centers and interact with other survivors, how we could speak. But it was very difficult to try to explain the experience to people outside the circle that hadn’t been through the fire, you had a commonality

Brad Miller 11:46
in your trauma that you Only you really knew.

Eric Christiansen 11:50
Exactly, and that inspired me through my naivete at the time. And this is almost 20, almost 2728 years ago did this film called faces in the fire about surviving disaster fire disaster, and I interviewed over a dozen other fire survivors. And then we I worked with the American Red Cross. And we had a screening of that in Santa Barbara the year after the fire at on the anniversary, which is always powerful. Those anniversaries are powerful for the trauma survivors. Sure. And we had a very successful screening that brought a lot of healing not only for me, but the people in the film, being able to see their life reflected in the film, really validated their experience. And it really a lot of times it motivated them to take the next step towards healing towards other things that might have come up through this trauma, and then be able to take care of that. So it really produced a lot of healing on both sides of the camera, then the film went on to later be shown on all sorts of cable networks and things. And one of my first Emmy Award, which was really kind of exciting. And but the more importantly, it was picked up by the National Institute of Mental Health as a healing tool, where they would use it to train counselors that are coming into disasters that are going to deal with some of the survivors. And they would use that film, to give the counselors an understanding of what the effect is and the debriefing and the whole kind of grief process that the survivors are going through. So that was really the biggest that was an aha moment for me.

Brad Miller 13:34
Well, that dead dead also means that your work is being not just entertaining and useful and helpful, but it is actually being used as a tool for actual therapeutic Reese a resource for for people and that that is awesome. Was it used also you said is used for the for the counselors and so on was it also used for the victims in some way another to

Eric Christiansen 13:56
Yeah, it would be it consistently was shown for the survivor and was made available through the American Red Cross, and through the National Institute of Mental Health, and female to survivors of different fires and things like that. But it was mainly used as a tool and training. And that was a big aha moment because I’ve never done a film since then. Without clinical support without again, it goes back to mentorship is finding clinicians that understand my work that will give me guidance and things. So my work is on point clinically, on top of being emotional, moving, and hopefully aspirational for people to get healing.

Brad Miller 14:38
Yeah, plus gives you credibility. You know, you want you as far as the content of what you have, and, and a big another big part of what the films you’ve made. Eric has to do with with veterans. I understand. I saw this with your friends it with with veterans. Of course, they’ve had their own sets of traumas, but what led you to do films with veterans and the traumas that they deal with?

Eric Christiansen 14:58
You know, that’s such a great questioning because it really goes chronologically as part of my story because I finished faces in the fire. And a lot of producers saw that. And I was hired to do a lot of other films that kind of had the same feeling but it wasn’t, it wasn’t facing the fire or wasn’t that same kind of soul connection. So I was literally a few years later praying for a similar project. Again, I was in my men’s group and a good friend of mine. Bob Trimble was in this group. And he mentioned that his mom had passed away. And he was a Vietnam veteran, Purple Heart, Silver Star. And he said there was a lot of stuff coming up with him. And he couldn’t, he was having he was very rocked the trigger, but his mom passing away and a lot of stuff from Vietnam. And he was very, I guess, triggered and agitated. And so he had heard about this motorcycle run from California to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, DC. And he was thinking of going on this run. So after the meeting, and Bob, I go, this helps it answered my prayer. You know, if you’re thinking of going, can I follow you on this? and make a film about your journey? And he said, Yeah, I think so. And so I met with some other veterans and the veterans are various Vietnam veterans in particular, very skeptical about media. And they’re like, okay, yeah, we’ll see. And we’ll see if you really go the whole way with us. Right. And so, there I was down, it was in May, of 2000. We left Ontario, California with 300, Vietnam veterans on motorcycles, and it headed for the wall. And it really is not a motorcycle run. It’s a motorcycle pilgrimage. It’s very interesting. It’s very, it’s very somber. And it’s, and it’s allows these veterans to understand that America still supports them. And they get the Welcome home, they never got Sure. From from when they came home originally. And Bob in particular, had quite an epiphany at a place called Angel fire, which is a Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New Mexico that was built by Dr. Westfall, he lost his son in Vietnam, he literally started digging the foundation to this beautiful chapel with his own hands. And so the run goes through there. And that was a very emotional time for Bob where the basically the shell crack there. And he got to experience that, that release of Vietnam, but not only he was, he was surrounded by lots of his Vietnam brothers that understood. And then that film, go ahead.

Brad Miller 17:44
No, I’m just saying, I’ve been to the wall myself. And it’s certainly a that’s a powerful, powerful place to see, you know, people there who are still mourning and still do deep grief about what happened in Vietnam, right there at the wall, both in person and course the, the letters and the gifts, people leave things like that. So yeah,

Eric Christiansen 18:06
the wall, the wall, you know, is a very powerful place. And it was an honor to walk the wall with Bob while he looked for one of his best friends that he lost in Vietnam, and you do the etching there. And he found Bobby’s name. And he did that thing. And I got a walk with him on that wall. Sorry, I’m getting emotional course. Because Because if you flash forward, gosh, almost 16 years, I gotta walk the 911 Memorial, with jack Delaney. It was a first responder. And without question, was running towards tower two before it fell with his with his group of men, then he lost quite a number of men. Yes. Responding to 911. And it was funny because it’s not funny. It’s, it’s, it’s a God thing is we’re at the memorial, I’m there with jack filming his and we’re connecting and talking. And he’s trying to find the name on the wall of his survivors. And then after that whole thing, I get into the Uber, and we’re way back and I go, Wow, who gets to walk these Memorial walls, one in Vietnam, you know, one from Vietnam, and one for 911. with men like that, yeah, I gotta do it twice in my life. What a

Brad Miller 19:23
what a, what an awesome privilege. That is when you, when you walk with people through those special times, I’ll share my brief story that has some similarities I’ve been, I was privileged in my church, I’m a pastor at to interview a world war two veteran A few years ago, a few years ago, before he passed away, who was in the battlefield Jima, and he was wounded seven, eight times, and, you know, lost several friends. But he, he would continue to talk about his buddies who he lost there, and who he met with every year, you know, for decades after that. And I remember that also, not too long before that interviewed a, another veteran of the first Gulf War, who’s a tank commander in 1991. And as remember how there was, you know, certain differences, to be sure, but a lot of commonality with the collegiality and the grief and the, and the drama and the trauma that happened there. And then just yesterday, I was talking to a person on the east coast and Delaware, as asking us some of the dramatic things happening in the world around there. And he referred back to 911. Was that was interesting about how that impacted so many people in that area, but all around the world, of course, but particularly where he was at lost people there. And so there’s a commonality there. And, and you’re telling me these stories, which are just amazing and dramatic, and they all have to do with some form or another of, of delivering power of hope, right? The power of hope. Exactly.

Eric Christiansen 20:46
And that’s the amazing thing is, Oh, and by the way, I was making a movie. It’s kind of funny, it’s like, not only am I walking with these men and get this experience, personally, but I’m putting it down prosperity, and I’m recording these men story and and their hope and their healing. And, you know, Bob’s Bob, you know, he that run changed Bob and and visiting the memorial with jack. And being participant in this in unmasking hope, yes, was was a big is a big part of his life now. And it’s just such an

Brad Miller 21:22
honor to be friends with people like let’s go ahead and get into unmasking hope a little deeper than because that’s what your present project is. And so just tell us what what you mean, then, by unmasking hope, what is that? What’s that? representative of?

Eric Christiansen 21:37
You know, it’s interesting, it works on a lot of different levels. I mean, the first level obviously is uncovering hope, uncovering hope, and seemingly, at the time, hopeless situations, you know, and one of our clinical expert experts, Dr. celeb out, the New York University says, You’re never completely depleted of Hope you’re never empty, there’s always a core that’s left. And that’s where he can start to rebuild with the survivors. But then the other level of unmasking hope, is the masks that we all were particularly trauma survivors, that just to get through the day, sometimes we have to put this mask on that everything’s okay. And that mask does help us function in certain cases. But that mask can get out of control. Like for me, that mask became drinking and drugging. And that mask I hid behind that mask, and that became me. And it’s about the melting away of this mask, and unmasking hope, the hope underneath that mask. So when we had such success was searching for homecoming back for more on public television, and on video on demand on iTunes and Google Play. We started say, okay, what’s our next project. And going back to my clinical supervisors, and the clinicians and the doctors involved and Dr. Meet that came out of Stanford University, we were discussing the most effective way to really connect with the bigger audience outside the veteran community, and create a connection that’s even bigger than that than that and make the film more accessible, I guess you would say. And so that’s where unmasking hope came about is that we have 911 survivors. We have police, first responders, we have sexual abuse survivors, we have mass shooting survivors. And then we’re going to grow out from there cancer survivors, people that are close to people that have committed suicide, we’re going to cover kind of the gamut of trauma, but show through the lenses of the truth, what happened to them, the healing when they find somebody else like themselves and get on the healing path. And the hope we’re going to, we’re going to be able to show that we all heal very similarly, no matter if it’s sexual trauma, or if it’s 911. And that’s the fascinating part of doing the film is interviewing the 911 survivor. Then next week, I’m over here with a sexual abuse survivor. And they’re telling a very similar story about their healing.

Unknown Speaker 24:21

Eric Christiansen 24:23
So I think, to me, healing is kind of that that mental healing of trauma is very similar to how God is designed to scab, when we scrape ourselves or something, that there’s a natural way that God has implanted in us that we heal from it. But there’s ways that we stop it and we stymieing the healing and, and we make it difficult to heal just the same way with the we scrape off a scab, but at the core of all of us is similar way that we all heal. And that’s what my work is based on. That’s why I have such a wide aggregate survivors and basking hope

Brad Miller 25:02
that’s good. And there, you’re revealing that thread that goes through all these stories, you know, there’s some, you know, very distinct differences, you know, from war survivor to a sexual abuse survivor to Sony, Pfizer, fire or disaster, or even more common things like someone gets cancer or you know, someone is in a car wreck or something, you know, but there’s these, this process of healing and wholeness and, and that doesn’t happen unless we choose to work through, you know, the journey, the decisions that we make, and, and you’ve given us your films, or given us some tools to do that. Well, just kind of one more one or two more things here, Eric, and that is, give me an example of how you’ve seen either your work, or something you’ve done. Or witnessed how you’ve seen some real science of hope, signs of, of healing and wholeness have taken place where you’ve mentioned your story and some other people’s subjects, so your films, but I’d be nice to see a story where you’ve seen something now this work, has it back to somebody else?

Eric Christiansen 26:01
You know, that’s I glad you asked that. Thank you. Because I was just thinking about and I was thinking about my experience with homecoming and Vietnam vets journey. And after that film was done, that that motorcycle run culminates at a thing called Rolling Thunder in Washington DC on Memorial Day where there’s up to 200,000 bikes, right into Washington, DC and memory of POW is an MI. Of all the wars. And so it’s it’s, it’s a huge procession. And so we were there one year, selling the DVDs. And I remember my kids were tiny, we had shipped all these boxes back, we’re on the mall selling DVDs. And my wife and I, and this big burly biker guy is standing in front of the stand. And my wife comes up and goes, this guy wants to talk to you. And I’m like, wow, okay, you know, I’ve gotten pretty used to the big biker guys and everything. And I look and he turns and he has tears in his eyes. And he goes, I just want to thank you. I’m like, why is that he goes well, my dad lives down in Tennessee. And he saw homecoming of Vietnam veterans journey on TV. And we hadn’t talked since Vietnam. He said, after I saw that film, he called me up after his dad saw that film in Tennessee, he called him up and apologized. And now him and his dad have this relationship. And it was because his dad was able to experience through the film, what his son had went through from Vietnam. And now they have a they have a relationship. And if that isn’t amazing to hear, and that’s just one story. That’s, that’s awesome. about that. That was very powerful.

Brad Miller 27:53
Yes. Well, that that’s great. Oh, I love that, because that’s what I love to hear. Because what what I’m all about here on pathway to promise is that is those type of moments, you know, where you know, it’s a God thing, you know, something has happened here, for changes take place in a relationship or something else that has gone, gone well, but people have chosen then to do the hard work or to take to do the actions they they’ve chosen to draw on a higher power a spiritual forces we talked about, they’ve chosen to to act out in love in relationships, one to another and do the difficult work. And they’ve chosen to have the disciplines that takes you know, to to do whatever it takes. And I appreciate your work and helping people have some tools to do that. And so, so Eric, how can people find out more about you and what you’re about and what’s next and about when we can see your upcoming movie and tell us about how people can be in contact with you or learn more about what you’re about.

Eric Christiansen 28:48
The best way is to go to unmasking hope, the movie calm. And you can go to that website and it pretty much as a clearinghouse on everything you can get to my personal site, ec That keeps you up to date with what I’m doing personally. But a masking hope the is one of the main places you can go to Instagram, unmasking hope and to Facebook and look up unmasking hope on facebook and join us. And we’ll keep you up to date. The really exciting thing with unmasking hope now is it might be way more than a movie star. And there’s a lot of interest in here in Burbank and in the industry and turning it into a series because right now it’s a very prime time for people to talk about mental health issues. And they’re very interested in the message in the message of hope. So we’re very excited. So you know if you do want to find out more unmasking hope, the and we’ll find out and follow us from there.

Brad Miller 29:50
Absolutely get on Eric’s list and be aware of whatever’s next, whether it’s a series or a movie or anything else that could come out of it helpful tools that help people deal with trauma, and to really claim the power of hope for life transformation. So we’re thankful today to have Erica Christiansen, the filmmaker with us here on the pathway to promise podcast. Thank you, Eric.

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