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Author/Speaker David Rabadi Helps The World be More Aware of Mental Health Issues Prompted by Repressed Sexuality


After David Rabadi was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder – previously known as “manic depressive” illness — he followed a long path to coping with his illness. Not easily understood by most, the condition prompts swings from deep depression to an abnormally elevated mood.

Though Rabadi’s childhood was filled with joyful memories — house parties, family outings and dinners — he was a curious kid who loved Arabic music and belly dancing. He picked up the dancing from his cousin, Suhair, who was his babysitter. But when he was four, he accidentally caught a family friend who was secretly masturbating. The man then shoved his erect penis into the young boy’s mouth and threatened to kill him. 
A few years later, at seven, he had another traumatic experience when his aunt Josephine passed away from breast cancer. His dad decided that he had to go to her funeral. There, with her body was in the casket, Rabadi’s father told him to “Go kiss her goodbye!” Given no choice, the boy walked up close to his aunt and kissed her forehead. Then, terrified, he quickly ran outside. Throughout the lad’s entire childhood, he spent much more time with females. He was a boy who liked playing with dolls and wearing his mother’s clothes. Even then, he knew that he was somehow different. 
Once, at a special family party with a professional singer, a cousin grabbed Rabadi’s arm and moved him to the center of the room. “Dance!” she said, and everyone applauded as the boy happily followed the instruction. But another male relative said in a harsh tone, “You dance like a girl. You’re a faggot!” The young boy didn’t even know what a “faggot” was but he knew his cousin was right: he danced in a different way from the other men and boys. From that moment on, he never wanted to dance in front of a crowd. And if he did, he tried his best not to “dance like a girl.”

During this PrideMonth, it’s important to consider the mental health issues prompted by denying one’s own sexuality.

Today, Rabadi is an inspirational speaker — a result of learning how to manage his disease and sexuality. He addresses diverse audiences, ranging from high school and college students to business professionals and mental health experts. In his talks, he stresses the importance for each of us of being honest with ourselves by facing our realities. 
As Rabadi tells his listeners, “Accepting one’s reality is crucial to living a life that’s happier, healthier, more satisfying and productive.” This is further highlighted in his book, “Live Your Truth: Live To Be Yourself or Die As Someone Else” which came out a few years ago. It describes his struggle with a bi-polar condition that emerged as he confronted being gay in a world which condemned his gayness.
rabadi bookRabadi’s path to this enlightenment didn’t come easily. His own self-healing involved accepting his truth that he is gay. Instead of denying this mental and emotional reality, this encouraging speaker now acknowledges and embraces it. To quote from a speech of his, “My message to each of you is, don’t feel shame for who you are. For example, if you discover that you have some mental illness, don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. Or if you’re struggling with sexuality, give yourself permission to discover your own reality. 
“You’ll make wiser decisions if you don’t automatically judge but actually listen to your authentic self. Then, after acknowledging our truths, we can start to discover the approaches — even medicines, if appropriate — that will allow us to live and enjoy our lives to the fullest.” 
When this Arab American’s parents came from Jordan, they brought along two older brothers and a sister. Born in Yonkers, New York, the child became a first generation Arab American along with his younger brother John. His father was an example of a strong work ethic and a willingness to do whatever was needed. He worked two jobs, one in a factory and the other as a cab driver while his mother stayed home to raise the kids.

As Rabadi became a teenager, he realized that he was indeed attracted to other males. Being a teenager is challenging for anyone, but being a closeted Arab-American is even harder. Homosexual acts are forbidden in traditional Islamic cultures, sometimes punishable by death. Jordan and Bahrain are the only Arab countries where homosexuality is legal. 
Even so, most LGBTQ people in Jordan face social discrimination. Until 2013, it was even legal there to kill a homosexual in a so-called “honor killing.” Today, Rabadi accepts his reality as a gay Arab-American. He no longer feels embarrassed for having Bipolar One disorder. Instead, he now functions effectively, and publicly, as a published author and journalist. Having learned the positive value of accepting himself, he now actively spreads this awareness as an inspirational speaker for a wide range of audiences, from students to adults, Arabs and Americans and many more.
Q: How old were you when you first realized you were gay? Describe the moment you realized it and how did you feel?
David Rabadi: I was seven years old when I realized I liked boys. I had a friend that was the same age and one day we were in his room and he asked me if I wanted to see what he saw his older brother do with a girl. I said ok. He told me to lay on the bed and then he got on top of me and started humping me. I felt a sensation in my stomach and I immediately liked the feeling. At the time, I didn’t know that it meant I was gay. As I grew older, I learned that I was gay but kept it to myself because I was told that it was against God’s word and I would go to Hell. 
Q: Once you understood it, how long did it take to develop relationships?
David Rabadi: Once I understood that I was gay, it was very difficult for me to form relationships with boys because I’m Middle Eastern. In our culture it was the deepest point of shame and dishonor. Gay people in the Middle East are put in jail and even killed. I had a lot of fear so I suppressed my sexuality for a long time. I did engage with gay sex but never had a boyfriend. 
Q: Given this revelation, how did it impact on your bipolar condition. I assume it had expressed itself as you went through your teen years. Describe when you realized you needed therapy/medication?
David Rabadi: I believe because I was suppressing my sexuality, it manifested as Bipolar disorder. I firmly believe you can brush anything off your shoulders but all that’s doing is changing its location. It wasn’t until I was 30 years old that I was diagnosed with “Bipolar One.” Before that I experienced shifts in my mood, but I thought it was normal and that everyone experiences it. I was very productive. I graduated college with my BA in theater and communication. I worked full time. I thought I was perfectly fine except for my denial of my sexuality. 
Q: When did you start your book? Was it a result of speaking out or did it come first?
David Rabadi: I started writing my book after I came out as gay and was diagnosed as Bipolar. It took me eight years to write my book. I had to become comfortable in sharing my personal experiences and the trauma endured. 
Q: What did you feel the book needed to include to be inspirational?
David Rabadi: It was important to me to share my story so I could be a person that faced adversity and triumph. I am the first Jordanian to come out as gay in the Arab community in Yonkers. I know I’m not alone. I’ve met other gay Arabs who are still scared to come out and they tell me I am an inspiration. And in regards to sharing I have bipolar, there is a big stigma when it comes to mental illness. I’m on a mission to make mental illness look so good everyone wants it. It’s time to live our truth and not be embarrassed or feel shame for who we are and what we struggle with.
Q: Describe your talks and what’s happening on that front?
David Rabadi: I go around to different universities and organizations and share my story. I ask the audience in every talk I give, “Do you want to live to be yourself or die as someone else?” Life is precious and we only live once. So do what makes you happy. And know that living your truth is the biggest gift you can give yourself.
Q: How do you keep the bipolar condition under control nowadays after your revelations?
David Rabadi: I have learned to keep my bipolar disorder under control. I have to take my medication every day. I have to exercise to build endorphins. I see a therapist every two weeks and it’s a great way to keep things in perspective for me. 
Rabadi is represented by the All American Entertainment (AAE) speakers bureau:

Video sample of Rabadi’s message:




In "Back to Black," Star Marisa Abela Turns in An Uncanny Performance as Amy Winehouse in The Sam Taylor-Johnson Biopic


Film: Back to Black
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Cast: Marisa Abela, Jack O'Connell, Eddie Marsan, Juliet Cowan, Lesley Manville, Sam Buchanan, Pete Lee-Wilson, Thelma Ruby, Renee Matilda Thorpe, Ryan O'Doherty

Evoking classic R&B, the late Amy Winehouse emerged as a celebrated new stars by making old music sound fresh. She possessed a deeply soulful voice which she used to sing songs of love, heartbreak, and struggles with substance abuse, as in her Top-10 hit "Rehab." Winehouse sold 16 million copies of the LP Back to Black" and won big at the 2008 Grammy Awards, taking home Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist. All that success was overshadowed by the Brit’s personal troubles, which, according to MTV News, included an arrest for drug possession — there was a viral video of the singer smoking what was reportedly crack cocaine — and an emphysema diagnosis. 

Winehouse's demons tragically got the best of her. According to The Guardian, authorities were summoned to the singer's north London home in July 2011, where they found her dead at the scene. Winehouse was reportedly a heroin user, but a post mortem inquest pinpointed a different cause of death. According to “The Independent”, a London coroner found no drugs in her system, ruling that the singer died of alcohol poisoning following a period of three weeks of sobriety. Winehouse is believed to have consumed 416 milligrams of alcohol per deciliter of blood, well over a fatal level of 350 milligrams. She was 27 years old.

This complicated history has been fodder for articles, books, a notable documentary and now a feature film, "Back to Black". The movie’s title is taken from the hot album of the same name. Directed by 57-year-old Sam Taylor-Johnson, herfeature film debut was 2009's "Nowhere Boy," based on the Beatles' singer/songwriter John Lennon's childhood experiences.

Taylor-Johnson’s star for "Back to Black,” Marisa Abela, made her TV debut in 2020 with leads in the Sky One political thriller, "COBRA" and the BBC Two/ HBO office drama, "Industry."  Abela appeared in the 2022 films, "She Is Love" and "Rogue Agent." In July 2022, she joined the cast of Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" (2023). Then the actress starred as Winehouse in this biopic. 

This Q&A comes from an appearance made by the duo at the Museum of The Moving Image shortly before the film's May 17th release.

Q: This is a remarkable story and one that, in some ways, is privy to when she was alive. For each of you, what moved the dial from this is a remarkable story to this is a remarkable story that I need to tell? 

Sam Taylor-Johnson: When Alison Owen, our producer, called me and said, "I'm looking to make the story of Amy Winehouse, which would be interesting," I felt like I couldn't say "Yes" quick enough. After I said so, I suddenly processed the enormity of what I was taking on. It felt like it had to be made from [Amy's] perspective because, by living in London around the time when she was alive, I watched how her life was dissected and pulled apart in the tabloids and similarly post-death. I felt like going directly into her perspective. It was almost like allowing her to tell her own story through her words and her lyrics. It felt like a timely thing to do. 

backtoblack2Marisa Abela: Basically, I got a call from my agent who said they're doing it. I was about 13 when "Back to Black" came out, so I was aware of her music. I was singing the songs, but when you're singing “Love Is A Losing Game” and you're 13 years old, it doesn't mean that you really understood it fully. That was my understanding of Amy [at the time]. Then, because of all of the tabloids and the images and stuff, I knew of her in that way. So, I said, "Let me think about it." I was then in front of Sam Taylor-Johnson and Nina Gold, an amazing casting director in London. I knew they were being quite specific about who they were seeing, so I just didn't want to make a fool of myself, essentially. 

ThenI started watching footage, the documentary, interviews about her life – things that really were quite telling [about] who she was as a person. There was just this thing about her and that carried me through the entire process I was watching. And there was this magnetism, this intensity, this deep well of feeling, emotions and intensity, that I was so drawn to. I felt that we'd drawn from Amy, herself. It was all there in her music. And for the people who still listened to her music often, this is for them. In the narrative around her life and death, I felt that what we'd lost really came through, but it seems like there's a double-edged sword here. 

Q: There's so much media and coverage, so many perspectives to sort through. Talk a bit more about your process and how you blocked out the noise and chose to privilege us with her perspective with what was there? 

Sam Taylor-Johnson: It was important from the beginning to just block out the noise. There was a lot, especially when we were filming, and it became louder and louder. The louder it became, the more determined I was to just keep driving forward with it through her eyes and to uphold her. Our press are quite famous for pulling down anything that might seem to be successful in any way. It felt like those voices saying we need to protect her legacy were also the ones who pulled her apart during her lifetime. That emboldened me in a way to shut those voices out. The decision around how and what sort of film was going to be quite quickly came into place. 

When I sat down with Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote the movie, I said, "If we are going through her workstyle perspective, with "Frank" and then "Back to Black," obviously those are the keys to this film. "Back to Black" really is a love story and tells us everything within it. It became our framework. I knew that that was difficult for a lot of people who had a lot of opinions and judgments. I felt like her declaration of love and the power of that love was important to uphold in order to understand the creative journey of "Back to Black. In a way, we went into her perspective saying, she loved her father and she loved Blake: therefore, that's our view. We still see some of the things that are highlighted in the documentary that people feel strongly about. They're still part of our film, but they're not seen through the lens of judgment. It was quite freeing to stay in her shoes on that journey. 

Q: This being a love story, you think immediately of romantic love. But the relationships that I was most struck by were those she had with her family. Talk a bit about choosing actors and having them light up those roles? 

Sam Taylor-Johnson: With her Jewish grandmother, it was clear — during the research and hearing the stories from the family and others — that she was so much a part of the fabric of who Amy was, through Grandma Cynthia’s style and love of jazz and music. So it felt like, "Okay, this is worth going further into and strengthening that relationship."  But when I went to Lesley [Manville] initially, she said, "Oh, I don't know if there's enough on the page for me." I said, "Look at it like this is the fabric of Amy." Once Lesley came on board, we then wrote more scenes because she was just so exceptional. We just honed in on those relationships that we felt were really important to the narrative of this story. Obviously, within -- I don't know how many minutes it was, I've forgotten --- so much had to be dropped by the wayside. For me, as a storyteller, I have to just find my path. The Winehouses -- Cynthia, Mitch, and Janis — plus husband Blake were on a path. 

Q: Talk a bit more about the music. Obviously there's a great blueprint here. Did you have to make difficult decisions about what songs were included? 

backtoblack3Sam Taylor-Johnson: I’ll start, but I want Marisa to take over on this because I'm talking too much. What I had quite early on was one of her playlists. On that playlist were The Specials and Minnie Riperton. It was quite a gift to have that. Amazingly, of all the things that were written that weren't Amy's music, we managed to have access to it. But when I started the movie, I had all the music rights from Sony and Universal. I didn't have to have approval for anybody. I could just make the movie I wanted to make. Matt wrote very specifically for the songs, almost like it's a musical in the sense that it belonged to the narrative structure. You couldn't choose "Love Is a Losing Game" and switch it with "Stronger Than Me." It really was laid out that way.

I'll let Marisa come into this because I just want to say, when I met Marisa for the audition, she said, I remember, "What about singing? I'm not a singer." But Marisa sang that entire movie. Every song you hear. So from the position of declaring she couldn't sing, what you saw is very contrary to that. Okay, you can talk about that...

Marisa Abela: I think what became clear was, as I was reading the script more and more, and watching more and more footage of Amy, was that these albums are so iconic and incredible from a songwriting perspective as well as a musical one. But what was so incredible about the performances I was watching was that they were completely different every single time. If she was in a bad mood – and she was often in a really, really bad mood – you wouldn't get half the song from her. If she was in a great mood, she was singing all over the place, amazing riffs. To certain members of the audience, this is the thing that made Amy a live performer. 

What weirdly felt like the most authentic choice was to be able to use my own voice to make whatever choice came to me in the moment from a purely impulse perspective as an actor. What was inspiring me at this moment? Is it that I'm looking at Blake during "There Is No Greater Love" and I'm so overwhelmed with feeling and emotion that I want to hold on to a specific sound for longer so that he can hear me through all of those decisions? In the same way, the first time you hear her write one of her own songs with "What Is It About Men," I wanted to be able to think about each line. How am I formulating this moment? you get to see the behind-the-scenes of the creation of a song. That's a really beautiful thing. If we were cutting to the studio recording of "What Is It About Men," for example, you couldn't have that scene of Amy sitting on the bed writing it for the first time, getting mixed up with certain words.

I basically felt I needed to get as close as possible to something that sounded as recognizable as possible to one of the most recognizable voices that you would believe in. The truth is, if you listen to them side by side, I'm sure there are huge differences. But it doesn't matter as long as you believe what she's saying and as long as you believe what she's feeling. That, to me, was always the most important thing as an actor, obviously. It's the intention that matters. Process-wise, I trained very hard and also learned to play the guitar. I listened to all the people that I think she would have grown up listening to. As Sam said, we had lots of playlists of hers. 

I was aware that she grew up listening to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Diana Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lauryn Hill, Ray Charles. I just surrounded myself with that music and was singing along to it all the time. Then I was using the techniques I was learning with my singing teacher that were Amy's tecjmoqies. We have a different face. She has a bigger jaw than me. She had a different nose to me. We use different resonances. So, it's different. But the intention is the most important thing. I was training for two hours a day, every day, over the four months with my singing teacher.

Q: There's so much to dive into with its emotionality, but you touched upon something that I wanted me to talk to you about – creating these scenes like Glastonbury, the Grammys and things that we have enormous touchstones for beyond Amy's experiences. These are media events that happen all the time. So practically recreating these scenes, which you do so successfully, can you talk more about them? 

Sam Taylor-Johnson: Oh, I'd love to because I'm so proud of Glastonbury. When you see that big open-air festival, we shot it in a room not much bigger than this theater. We just had brilliantly creative teams working on this. Glastonbury for the rest of the year is just a field. So all of those stages and everything, we had to recreate and film it. I had an incredible sound crew. What we created, it took months to get that sound exactly right. Then the Ronnie Scott scene early on. That was the only time I ever saw Amy play, in a young, up-and-coming Voices of Jazz. How old was she? Probably 19 or 20. It was at Ronnie Scott's. I used my memory of what it felt like being in the room with her to recreate how that would have felt. But yes, a lot of it, like the Grammys, we had YouTube running alongside what we were filming to try and emulate it as much as possible – like the same camera angles. Marisa's performance, as you can see, was absolutely spot-on. Every finger movement was incredible. So it was fun. It was so fun to recreate this. And, it's fun to watch it.

Through Director Matthew Heineman’s Award-nominated doc “American Symphony” Musician Jon Batiste’s Compositional Achievement and His Wife’s Battle to Overcome Cancer are Examined

In 2015, when Stephen Colbert launched his version of the Late Show — taking over from David Letterman — one of his first moves was to invite musician Jon Batiste and his group, Stay Human, to provide the nightly musical accompaniment. In 2020, he co-composed the score for the Pixar-animated film “Soul,” for which The New Orleans native received an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a Grammy and a BAFTA Award (all shared with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). He has garnered five Grammys from 20 nominations, including an “Album of the Year” win for “We Are” in 2021. With that under his belt, he left the Late Show in 2022, to develop his “American Symphony.”

That orchestral creation became the basis of director Matthew Heineman’s documentary, “American Symphony.” — released September 2023. This doc records the process of Jon Batiste composing his first symphony while his partner, writer Suleika Jaouad, is battling the return of her cancer. Netflix and Higher Ground Productions are distributing.

Heineman’s inspiration and fascination with American history led him to early success with the documentary “Cartel Land,” which was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar, a BAFTA Award for Best Documentary, and won three Primetime Emmy Awards.

In 2009, the 40-year-old founded Our Time Projects, Inc., his New York–based production company, which would later release “Our Time,” his first documentary, about what it's like to be young in America. His 2021 film “The First Wave” received the Pare Lorentz Award from the International Documentary Association, was shortlisted for an Oscar, and was nominated for seven Emmy Awards, winning Best Documentary, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. “Retrograde,” his 2022 film, was nominated for the DGA Award for Outstanding Directing and won an Outstanding Editing Emmy.

This piece is based on the duo’s appearance at a screening in The Museum of Modern Art.

Q: Jon, the film is an incredible look at the intricacies of the creative process. What is life like living inside your mind? You hear all this noise, you're singing, improvising, and then, it just needs a little more than that. 

Jon Batiste: Hello. I'm always thinking about things that I don't know that I'm thinking about. My subconscious mind is always going. 

Q: The known and unknowns? 

Jon Batiste: It's happening and I feel something churning when it really gets going and then it diverges. It's so hard to make some visuals more than not. Something I can't explain, but the subconscious is working and there's things that are happening in the present -- and then both are working. They come together in moments and that's typically where the music comes from.

Q: Matt, what's it like to have an artist like Jon as the subject, the protagonist of the story?

Matthew Heineman: I think we all owe so much to them for opening themselves up during such an unbelievably vulnerable and sensitive time of their lives. I've always tried to approach filmmaking in a very improvisational way. Every film I've ever made is something completely different than when I started. And this film is no exception. It was really fun to apply that ethos of filmmaking to one of the greatest improvisers in history. And to dance with him... in both the macro sense of trying to structure this story and in a micro sense, within each day shooting and within each shot.  

Q: There's so many moments of profound insight in the film from you, Jon and the people around you -- through your relationships with them and your creative process. At one point you talk about genuine acceptance and gratitude which requires so much humility and self-awareness. How did this function in your work?

Jon Batiste: The thought of being great is a dangerous idea. When you're creating music in the most pure sense, you become a vessel of something that you don't fully understand and couldn't ever fully grasp. The music is a way to point at it and share it. That's always going to be greater than you. Now, if you get used to functioning in that stream of consciousness, that creative place that all the ideas come from, you can start to think that it's you. That's where self-awareness comes from. Even though I have so many ideas all the time, and I'm always creating. I've always managed to make it happen. I can lose that one day, anybody can, because it's not me. That's an important part of the work. That's how it functions in the work. It's the most crass and direct sensibility of thinking about how it functions is, you ain't great, bad. You’re just a vessel. If I can stay in that space then the world will be great. 

Q: Matthew, can you talk about how different it was in making this film from making some of your others. Being an artist yourself, right, and witnessing, filmmaking is really a profound act of witness. Jon's process and Sulaika’s relationship, talk about what it was like to use your craft to show us their journey.

Matthew Heineman: Obviously, if you look at the films I made, this is definitely different yet in many ways it is the same. I approached it with the same fear, I think, that I approach every film. Am I going to fail? How am I going to do this? We have an amazing team, obviously, making this film. But it was an exorbitant film, and we had to really commit to this process. At first, Sulaika didn't want to be part of the film, apprehensive of being seen as the sick wife in this story. It took a lot of trust building with her and with Jon to make them comfortable with my very immersive style of filming. We were shooting 12, 16, 18 hours a day, seven days a week for seven or eight months. We shot 1500 hours of footage. It was a real commitment.

After about a month or so, we'd all go over to each other and were like, "If we're going to do this, let's really truly do this and commit to this. The thing that probably scared me the most was depicting the artistic process, depicting what Jon just described, this sort of magic that he just channels as a vessel as he said. I think that moment after he dedicates the song to Sulaika, we hold on that shot for 92 seconds or however long it was. In most films, it's a strange choice to hold in silence for so long. It was like Jon literally writes the story for us. With all this weight on his shoulders, his love for Sulaika, how he's changed life into art, and art into life. It's all there on his face, his hands, his left and right hand. I just love telling stories without words, telling stories with emotion — and shooting based on emotion. 

Q: When you talk about shooting and capturing emotion in the film, there's just so many moments. There's things that you can tell about couples that typify a relationship, where you can see the relationship without having to describe it. These two are just in it. Everybody knows how much you love your wife, which is really good. 

Jon Batiste: That's one of the things I noticed. I was like, “Man, that's a good choice. Yes indeed!” I'm always joking around in that situation about the reality of not knowing if she was going to make it. All of the things that were going on outside the hospital and in the hospital room, that element of the relationship is like a force field. I didn't realize what that would look like and how much that's something that insulates us from the harsh realities of life. It's really deep, the certain things in your relationship, value systems, humor, and creativity.

They all become these means of survival. That's really one of the things that we picked up on and one of the things -- from the beginning -- that really brought us together and helped us weather a lot of things. I noticed that really did come across, as Matt and Lauren, as filmmakers and the production team, are finding a way to notice that in the footage and then carry that narrative thread throughout. That was powerful, because it also ties into the way that the themes of the score and the symphony tie in with the many themes within the film. It was very powerful to see that depicted through this truly masterful work by this team. 

Q: Matt, it takes 14 minutes before the first few notes of what we will eventually discover is the beginning of "American Symphony." It's just so great, it's really subtle. It really has wonderful touches about the actual concert at Carnegie Hall and what that must have been like. Jon is just getting started and then the power goes out. Only people on the stage realize exactly what is going on. Then Jon literally plays the power back into existence. Jon is literally at the piano and conjures electricity. How did you deal with that situation? What were you doing? You've got folks with cameras all over recording it all.

jb hwMatthew Heineman: I saw that Steadicam and I was like, "That's not even sending in the camera to get that shot. I definitely was like, "Wow, this is great." To be honest, it was very confusing. There's confusion with Jon and confusion about what is happening. The lights are on, but electronics are not on. Oh, all the recording devices are off. It had been a pretty long battle with the folks at Carnegie and various other entities to get a steadicam on stage. For me, it was really important to see that experience through Jon's eyes, to hear the creak of the bench, to see the sweat on the brow, to see the crowd from his perspective. That's the man who literally -- I can tell you -- walked into Carnegie Hall, and was up there to date. Thankfully, I won that battle. And if it wasn't for that Steadicam, that whole experience wouldn't have been recorded. The shotgun mic on the Steadicam is the sound source for that moment and it's a beautiful moment. It's so indicative of Jon. He takes a second, breathes it in, and he's like, all right. Well, I'm impressed. It ties the film together in a really beautiful way. 

Q: Jon, what was that like for you? Sulaika is out in public, for the first time in almost a year, right? You have gotten really tough news about this. You enter the space in Carnegie Hall, and in a way, the entire hall shifts with you. You're in this resplendent suit. It's reflecting light in all directions. You walk into Carnegie Hall, all eyes are on you. You're doing your thing. Then, power cuts out. There's still this fountain of joy coming from you. You're talking to all these artists about what we want them to bring to the process. How did you make the decision that we're going to go on? 

Jon Batiste: The great Joe Salem, the drummer who I played with since we were in high school, he's from Pennsylvania, and wears a cowboy hat. Joe has noticed this theme, it's almost like a tradition from every show that we've played for almost 20 years. Something always goes wrong [laughter]. Something always breaks or somebody's pants split. The bass drum pedal will bust. Something will happen, the mic will shut. There's a real beauty to that. Furthermore, I think there's an actual purpose to that. There's a divine logic, a cadence that's meant to be a part of my work.

Often, I'll create things in these moments within the composition. Nobody on the stage will know what will happen in specific moments. It's designed for us to show up in a moment together. [So, there are blank bars on the page.] It will be even more abstract than blank. It will be creating a scenario. Sometimes that requires me, with this piece that I did, we had to create a notation that's different to standard notation of music in order to get everybody to know it. Okay, this is the scenario. Now that we're in the scenario, let's see. That was one that I didn't initiate. But the beauty of it is now that piece that has improvised composition. The spontaneous composition of the moment will now be in "American Symphony" from henceforth. When we perform it again, this piece is now so. This is the beauty of these things, that happens. Discovery is always greater than adventure [applause].

Q: Your performance is seamless and comforting and yet so profound. It's really obvious that you as the vessel, like you said, developed from clearly a strong faith.

Jon Batiste: The present is all we have. What we see in the present oftentimes doesn't indicate the full range and majesty of the truth, of being, of who we are. Many times people see a person, but they don't tell the good about his color. They see somebody and there's so much in all of us. I have faith in people because there's such a transformative power that people have within them. Beyond that, the creator of all things, the God of the universe, has created this planet and life force. This moment in the celestial expanse of time, I have this measure that keeps changing and expanding. It's un-understandable. It's unfathomable. That in and of itself gives me faith that we can't grasp what is, and we can't know what will be.

What's left? The transformative power that we have within us, the trust and belief in the thing that created this whole existence as we know it... We can measure it to a limited capacity. What we create and make so infectious, is so inevitable, so true and profound, real and moving. It's drawing us in and speaking to something greater than ourselves. It's showing us a way to something else that we can't even articulate. What a beautiful thing to do, share and be in the world. I could go on and on about faith, but I'm just grateful that God put it in me to share a message that will uplift and help people.

"Society of the Snow" is One of the Most Harrowing films of All Time -- and Chilling As Well

 Bayona (L) & Vogrincic

It’s an understatement to say that I’ve seen lots of films with varying degrees of frightening circumstances informing them. But “Society of The Snow” was one of the most harrowing — well deserving of award nominations including the Oscar for Best International Feature. Though the film is fiction, it’s based on a true story and is done in such a way that you feel yourself actually experiencing the cold, anguish and pain as the story reveals itself.

In 1972, a Uruguayan rugby team chartered a flight to Chile, which catastrophically crashed on a glacier in the heart of the Andes. Of the 45 passengers on board, 29 survived the initial crash, although more would die from injury, disease, and an avalanche over the following weeks. Trapped in one of the most inaccessible and hostile environments on the planet, the survivors were forced to resort to survival cannibalism of those who had already died in order to stay alive. However, rather than turn against each other, the survivors drew upon the cooperative teamwork they learned through rugby, along with their spiritual faith, in order to escape the mountains. Only 16 of the 40 passengers ultimately survived.

Director J.A. Bayona discovered Pablo Vierci's 2009 account of the crash, “La sociedad de la nieve,” while conducting research for his 2012 film “The Impossible.” He bought the rights for the book when he finished filming that movie. The filmmaker recorded more than 100 hours of interviews with all of the living survivors. The cast is composed of Uruguayan and Argentine actors, most of whom are newcomers. The actors had contact with the survivors and the families of the victims.

The film closed the 80th Venice International Film Festival in an Out of Competition slot. It was theatrically released in Uruguay on 13 December, 2023, then Spain in December, 2023. Before streaming on Netflix in January, 2024, it had a limited theatrical run in the US in December 2023. “Society of the Snow” received positive reviews and won 12 awards including Best Picture and Best Director at the 38th Goya Awards and was nominated for Best International Feature Film, representing Spain, along with Best Makeup and Hairstyling at the 96th Academy Awards.
This Q&A took place in front of an audience a few weeks before Oscar Night.
Q: "Society of the Snow" was shot in sequence, which is so rare now. Also shooting on location with all the challenges. How important was it to you to have an Uruguayan voice to this film, this passion in your life for the last decade?

J.A. Bayona: This story is not only well-known in the Spanish-speaking world, but also [throughout] the whole world. There are many documentaries about it. There were two movies already done, so we had to do this one right. We spent the time, and we wanted to shoot in Spanish. There was no way to shoot this film in another language than Spanish with a Uruguayan accent, since it was based on a book by a Uruguayan author with a Uruguayan voice and a Uruguayan actor. It took us 10 years to find the financing, find a place where we were allowed to show up and believe in the film, and believe in the level of ambition we were looking for, again in Spanish. 

Once we knew the film was going to be done -- actually before then -- we did auditions for nine months, looking for the actors. I saw 2,000 self-made tapes, and from those, I started to choose faces and meet actors online, because it was during the pandemic. We finally got our cast. That was at the end of 2020. We did two months of rehearsals -- which is a luxury -- maybe seven weeks. Then, all the cast met the real people they were portraying or the families of the dead. Then we spent a very long shoot, 140 days, which was extraordinary. We created such a beautiful family. Everything that’s in front of the camera was real. The friendship, the love, the sense of camaraderie, and we were there with our cameras. We captured that. 

Q: Who was your continuity director? You've been recognized for makeup and hair. This was another-level continuity.

J.A. Bayona: I gave the actors a lot of space and freedom to improvise, because they were so well prepared. They spent two months in rehearsals, met the survivors, and read the book. They had all the information, and then they worked in similar conditions, with a context that was constantly stimulating the performance. There was a lot of space to improvise. We shot 600 hours of material. The heroes of this film are the editors because they had to deal with that. There were a lot of continuity issues that we had to deal with in the editorial.

Q: Enzo [Vogrincic], when it comes to rehabilitation in the hospital, the showers, the emaciated bodies — and being a 2024 film realist — it wasn’t body doubles. Your body weight went from 159 to 103 during the shooting of this film. That was real. How important was it for you, for the living and the dead, to honor your character?

snow2Enzo Vogrincic: While we were making the film, as actors, we always thought we owed the people that survived and those that died, to tell their story as realistically as possible. Therefore, when we were filming things such as hunger or cold, we were barely able to move. It was a way of replicating what they had gone through, beyond our acting, because we knew that we had a responsibility to the people and to the characters. This was not a typical shoot whatsoever. It was part of the story, so fundamentally, we were willing to do whatever it took to get that realism in. After putting in 12 hours of filming and besides, we were eating very little, we found that we could set up a gym afterwards. At night, those of us who were not filming, we were training and continuing to lose weight.

Q: Enzo, how important was it to you that this project be delivered in an Uruguayan voice?

Enzo Vogrincic: This is something that was fundamental to us, because this story has been told before, but not with our voice. I thought that was the key thing to do because, though some theories say we are human regardless of where we took place. But these were the stories lived and survived by actual Uruguayans. We thought that to be able to tell it in the original language, it was important for us to understand the tales of the survivors so we could tell the story better. There were terms, feelings, and all those things which mattered, because it hadn’t been done that way before.

Q: Juan Antonio, there were scenes that involved faith, the notion of a higher power, permission from God. On the other hand, what kind of God would allow this? Those scenes were directed with great care. Tell us how you approached that?

J.A. Bayona: I always try to be as close as possible to the characters, to the reality, in order to be able to capture them with a sense of authenticity, a sense of place, of being there. And these guys were, most of them, very religious. There was a lot of religious iconography. I like to think the film tries to be more spiritual than religious. I see these people like orphans, abandoned in a place where life is not possible, and they need to reinvent life. 

They need to, somehow, reconsider what is important and what is not, as human beings. By doing so, the movie becomes a mirror of ourselves. They had to start everything from scratch. They were abandoned by the authorities, they were abandoned by their families, so they had to. For them, it was a journey of self-discovery. It was also a way of understanding that God was everywhere, in order to survive. There was not a religious institution in the middle. When we mention cannibalism, when we talk about it, that's a word they don't like to use. I think this film makes a big change, in that it's not about taking. It's about giving, about giving yourself to others and suffering the same pain that they are suffering. And by doing that, feeling empathy …understanding that you and the other person in front of you are really the same. 

It's like when Gustavo Zerbino told Roberto Canessa, "You have the strongest legs, you need to walk for us." [And he did just that, walking out from the crash down the mountain towards civilization until they were found, which saved everyone who remained.] 
There's an immediate realization that you and the other ones are the same. We are all the same. To me, that feels sacred, spiritual and transcendent. To understand that we are all part of the same thing. That resonates in the world we live in right now especially with young people. We are surrounded by so much conflict, and finally having this story that tells you that we are all part of the same thing, that we are all aboard the same plane. We need to come together to find a solution. We had such an important message. That was our fuel. 

Q: With today's GPS, the flight would have landed at its destination safely, one would hope. You had to get the technical details right. The formal report said it was pilot error. That's clear from your work. How challenging was that, starting with your visit to the crash site? 

J.A. Bayona: We had to give the context to make others understand what they went through, and by doing so, what they did. We put so much effort into all the details, like talking about the type of plane. We went to the Uruguayan Army. We had a very honest conversation with them.  They accepted that it was human error. But it was actually a combination of human error with some kind of an early model of GPS that failed that day. They basically had to do this turn there because that kind of plane was not able to fly at 40,000 feet. So they had to go through a lower pass. And they had to do this kind of U-turn. 

It takes 20 minutes to get from one side to the other. But they turned to the right only when they were six minutes into it. That's why it's considered to be a human error because there was no way that the pilot didn't know that. The pilot had done that journey many times. But we really don't know what happened in that cockpit. I decided to leave the camera outside of the cockpit out of respect for the pilots. We knew that there was a machine that failed there. But anyway, we decided out of respect not to get into that space so we stayed with the other characters. 

Q: Enzo, will your life ever be quite the same after the experience of filming this movie? 

snow3Enzo Vogrincic: In life, everything you do changes you. I think you're never the same after an experience this informative. Of course, I’ve changed. I am different, I like to take every opportunity to continue changing myself.  The biggest changes were on a professional level and in terms of how much I learned. I had to go in depth into my character and we spent one to three years with those people talking about life, death, friendship, love, family and making friends. I've made 25 new friends and therefore I like to think that I did change.

Q: Juan Antonio, talk about your immersion in your new extended family. The family of the living and the family of the dead.

J.A. Bayona: I sent an email to the survivors in 2011 and in that first email, I already sent a line about Roberto Canessa that said, “Talking to the dead, he says, accepting peace, gives us the chance to live other lives we didn't have the chance to live.” 

I was very struck by that conversation between the living and the dead and that sense of depth towards the dead. The more I was in contact with the survivors and the more we talked, the more I realized that they needed the film to be completed and released even more than I did.

My big question was what was left to say after so many documentaries, books, and movies. Now I realize, after seeing the film with them, that it was not about telling something that wasn't being told yet. It was more about giving them the chance to say thank you to people who’d been so important. I see how it was like a poetic thing, the fact that people who didn't make it, they gave everything they had for these people to be alive. And now they are using their testimony to bring these people back, to keep them alive again on the screen. By doing so, I realized that they were comfortable with the story. So it was more about giving these folks a chance to say “thank you” to those who had helped while capturing the mood, feelings and context of what they had gone through so that people seeing the movie would understand what had happened. 

Q: In the hands of another director, the debate over sheer survival might not have been handled as beautifully as it was with you. There's a line in the script where Enzo’s character says, “What was once unthinkable became routine." As the black & white photos are being taken, there's a shot showing a human rib cage in the background, almost cavalierly, but it mostly was kept out of the photos. The pictures, of course, are still with us today. They're on the web for people to see. You've managed to take on such a life-and-death topic and deal with it matter-of-factly but with great respect and discretion. 

J.A. Bayona: I'm so glad that you asked about that “unthinkable” line because that's life. That's life. First, you do what you think is impossible, then you get used to it, and then there's a moment that you don't pay attention to it. Our ordinary lives are about that. These people remind us how important every single detail is in our lives. It doesn't matter if your skin is black or white or if we’re American or Spanish. We each have our chance to live life. But when you meet these guys, you meet people who’ve been given an extra chance. That makes a big difference. Their story helps us realize that sometimes we complain and don’t appreciate what we have, the fact that we do have lives to live.

Q: Enzo, how cold did it get? At what altitude did most of the filming take place? 

Enzo Vogrincic: Well, I have to admit, it was hard to tell this story. You feel you have to go through the pain, yourself, in order to tell it well. The shooting was hard. Obviously. Because you have to connect the pain with your own body. We had to lose weight and experience the cold. You have to do it until your body becomes part of that character’s story.  

There were experiences that allowed us to feel the pain. We were able to work less on certain things and still retain the emotional tone of the story. The emotions didn’t take over necessarily when your body had to suffer. There were other important components, too, in addition to the pain and the suffering. You were able to see that you had a duty to carry out which took you beyond the pain, because you had a story to tell in a competent way. 

J.A. Bayona: Let me add one story. Enzo did such an extraordinary job. He was so committed to the performance of Numa that when we finished the shoot we had to go back to the Andes because the first time we went, there had been very little snow because of global climate change. We went for one year. Once we finished the shoot, we went back to shoot again in the background. Secretly he was in Uruguay and I called Enzo and said, “What are you doing next Wednesday?” He said, “Nothing.” I said, “I want to take you to the actual place where the plane crashed. I don't have permission from the other producers but I think I can manage to bring you there. How much is the ticket?” He said, "$400.” I said, “Well, we can pay $400. I can talk with the insurance company and the professional drivers.”

I secretly took Enzo finally with the blessings from the other producers just because he did so much. We had this shoot then we had the person in Germany that was to do this film. I really wanted Enzo to be there and be able to shoot some shots that were very helpful for the film. You can treat the audience by putting in a couple of shots of Enzo there and there. At the same time, Enzo had a closure to that journey. He was able to do these shots, but was also able to stand in front of the great theater. I don't know what you said there, what you did there, but you had your moment there. To me that was very important. When you do a film, the whole atmosphere affects the final result. I pay attention to these kinds of details. Also, I wanted him to be there and have that closure.

Q: Having just shared this in a theater, I know that’s what movies are designed for, communal viewing experience. But when someone watches your movie on a streaming device. How does it affect you? And to be honest, can you interpret it for any language that it needs to be interpreted for?  

J.A. Bayona: Can we take the Netflix people out of the room for a second? No, listen, we spent 10 years trying to take the financing for this film. We tried to do this film by conventional windows to the cinemas. Apparently, there is no market for Spanish films that are over $10 or $15 million in budget. We couldn't do this film with that budget. We spent 10 years and when we were about to give up, Netflix showed up and put in the money and gave us the freedom. They made the film possible. 

At the same time, I come from Spain. To me, it's more difficult to handle the market in the US than in Spain. I'm quite popular there. We released the film on December 22nd. It was a limited release, 100 cinemas. Normally one of my films would be in 500 cinemas. We released the film in 100 cinemas. I decided to go with the film. Every week, I went to a different city and showed the film. The film is still in the cinemas, in the same number of cinemas. We've done 100 million admissions. The film actually is doing better since it's on Netflix. I'm very happy that Netflix made the film possible and made it accessible to the whole planet. We had 100 million people watching the film in the first 10 days. So it’s not true. There is a market for Spanish films. But, I'm glad that the movie is still in theaters for people who want to see it there.

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